Tribute to Kurt Triebwasser
Written, March 1993
Published in the Edmonton Autism Society Spring Newsletter, 1993
When I first met Kurt, he was quite a sight. With tangled blond curls, torn dirty clothes, bright eyes peering out from under his protruding forehead and a tooth gapped grin, he roamed the acres of the ranch like a wild animal, content and in control of his surroundings. It was only when the staff tried to bring him into the house for meals a different Kurt emerged. The fight was on. It took two grown men to hold him down and another to shovel the food into his mouth.
Kurt was on the autism spectrum and lived at a time when there was little understanding of the actual experience of autism. The criteria for autism hasn't changed much since his diagnosis: a qualitative impairment in communication, a qualitative impairment in social interaction and the use of stereotypic, repetitive and restrictive behaviors and interests. However, there was only one autobiography available during Kurt's life and his caregivers certainly did not make the effort or take the time to read it.
Kurt was one of the men who led me on the quest for understanding autism from within. Those who are able to explain their personal experience link their behavior to over stimulation from the environment. The tactile invasion of the touch of another human being is often to much for them to bear. The normal level of our voices is too loud for them them to distinguish individual words. Odours, tastes and visual input overwhelm them. Emotions are so strong that they are not able to deal with them. In response they retreat, finding safety in any way they can.
Kurt was a head banger. Taking him for a walk involved his own peculiar pattern of motion. Two steps forward and then, on the third, his knee would come up to hit his forehead. Over the years his forehead had permanently swelled and scarred from the constant trauma he gave it.
The outdoors was safe, but the confinement in the noisy bustle of the house was too much for his system and he reacted accordingly: swinging his fists out at his caregivers, throwing himself at the walls and on the floors, destroying whatever furniture was in his path and head banging furiously on whatever he could access. Frustrated staff members, who were expected to CONTROL these outbursts grew to expect a daily quota of black and blue bruises and often reacted with their own acts of violence, throwing him up against the walls, punching him, kicking him, twisting his arms, pulling his hair and even more horrifying, twisting the bump on his forehead until he was writhing on the floor in pain.
As a worker on the ranch, it didn't take me long to discover that there was also a very gentle side to Kurt. If you were quiet and didn't grab on to him, a very gentle caress to the protruding forehead was enough to calm him when agitated. He was willing to offer a cautious hug if you asked for one. And he really didn't want to be dirty and unkept. Every time I shampooed my hair while we were out camping he would come and indicate that he wanted to have his washed too. I was happy to comply.
The male staff members at the ranch weren't complimentary to us women whenever we were gentle with the clients. To them, working with autism meant that you had to be tough enough to bring them down and hold them on the ground whenever they were agitated. Tough enough to forcefully bring them in to the house, no matter what happened to you. Tough enough to always have full control. In defense of the way I worked, I demonstrated a totally different way of working with Kurt the last time I was with him. Without touching any part of his body, I brought him into the house, all alone, without anyone else's help. I took him upstairs and gave him a bath and shampooed his hair. I dressed him in clean clothes and together we left the house still not touching each other. The men said that it couldn't be done, but I did it.
Today I am very glad that I was able to reach him with tenderness, not violence. You see, today Kurt is dead. He drowned yesterday in the dugout on the ranch. He will no longer have to put up with the pain, the agitation, and the violence. He will no longer have to live in fear and abuse his own body to block out the anxiety. He has gone home to his maker.
As I pause to remember Kurt I will never forget that beneath the tough exterior was an intelligent, caring man. When the cold days of fall arrived he chose to move into a bunk house rather than put up with the indignities of living in the main ranch house. One day, he pulled me towards a water pail in the yard. With pleading eyes he motioned to four or five bugs floating of the surface of the water. With a soft voice he begged "Gail, please take them out. Please help them. I don't want them to die".
Good bye Kurt. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to know you. You'll always have a very special place in my memories