Strategic Behavioral Center–Garner, NC: A Visit

It’s Friday, May 29, 7:00 PM and I’m sitting in a small conference room with a table that seats roughly 12 people.  I’m meeting with my son Ethan, my first visit in 3 days.  At the beginning of my visit, there was another father and son at the table.  As my visit was ending abruptly, a third patient entered with parent.  That’s six people at a conference table of 12.  This is less than ideal for meeting with my son in a mental hospital, but that’s just the way it is.

Our meeting started with the normal hugs and “how are yous.”  His mood, as mine, was a bit sedated by the lack of intimacy provided by the hospital.  I shared a card that his sister had made.  He expressed an appropriate amount of happiness, but it was clear that he had other motives for our visit.  Here’s the thing.  Ethan has to have.  I mean he has to have everything.  He has to have it now.  The one thing that we have learned is that we cannot give him anything for any reason other than necessary (clothing, food) or gift giving holidays (Christmas, birthday).   Even writing this, it sounds cruel.  But trust me, you just don’t know.

“You’ll be proud of me, Dad,” he began.  “I thought it over and I decided I wouldn’t talk about Dave and Buster’s.”

Ethan is addicted to spending money.  Arcades are crack for Ethan.  He can spend money and he can get things.  The kid nearly explodes from excitement, a quick rock, a lean forward, a wiggle of his fingers by his nose excited.  You see, Ethan is autistic.  He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when such a thing existed.  Since then various doctors have labeled him different things within what is now the Autism Spectrum.  So whether it’s PDD or Asperger’s, Ethan is Autistic.  So, his statement that he didn’t want to talk about Dave and Buster’s, the Chuck-E-Cheese for the older crowd, was a positive one.  However, there was no reason for me to believe it.  Friday is “store” day for the Strategic Behavioral Center* patients.  Throughout the days/week, the patients earn points.  The points are awarded based on what seems like some random decisions, but one which the hospital claims is a reward for positive behavior.  To an outsider and a skeptic like me, it seems like the almighty Dumbledore standing is the dining hall of Hogwarts awarding points to Gryffindor for stopping dragons from destroying dessert.  On this day, Ethan proudly and with an out of place excitement showed me a small container of styling wax, his store purchase for the day.

“Mohawk, gel!”  He described in detail the container and the packaging and how to use it.  I have no doubt that by tomorrow it will be gone, not used, just gone.

As I said before, Ethan has to have, and the hospital has given.  It is a reward system.  Everywhere there is a reward system.  Rewards are good if they are earned.  For Ethan, non-tangible rewards work.  Tangible items simply throw fuel on the fire.  And Ethan’s fires burn.  They burn hot and they burn fast and they simply suck the oxygen from the room.  Ethan needs more fuel.  “What about pick-a-brick?” he says, referring to purchasing Lego bricks from the Lego store.

“No, Ethan.”

I can see the frustration building.

“What about Dave and Buster’s…”

Visit over.


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