Robin Hood House: A Story of Vern

Written by Curtis M. Carlson

I want to tell you a story about Vern. Vern was a good friend of mine, and a client in one of the group homes that I worked in, you know group homes, assisted living for people with disabilities. Vern was in his early twenties. Medium height, about 180 lbs. of solid muscle and with no developmental disability; he was of average to advanced intelligence.

Vern was Autistic though, trapped by a really screwed up system that landed him in a group home with two other room mates. One was a big baby huey of a guy with an IQ of 45 or 50 who wet himself constantly and thought he was a famous Hollywood director. Then there was an old codger that was called the Hobe (or hobo). The Hobe refused baths, was only allowed one pack of cigarettes an hour and drooled constantly. Vern did not belong there he deserved better roommates.

Vern was autistic. I know that we have all seen that "Rain Man" movie, so we all have an idea of the autistic. Perhaps not a fully accurate idea, but it's a place to start. We also know about the little handicapped kids who can't tie their shoes but can play Beethoven or Brahms by ear on the piano. This is a lot like how Vern was.

The Autistic tends to be severally retarded, or at least that is what I was told while I was getting my degree in Psychology. Autistic tend to be severally retarded, though some autistic are regular intelligence, a very tiny portion of them. Vern landed in that category, perhaps he was even one of those genius types, the idiot savant, but a not-so-idiotic savant.

The Autistic person seems to prefer that everything has its place. The toothbrush, towels, clothes, the cans of soup in the cupboard...everything. They also like things to be timed, everything has to happen at the same time, breakfast, dinner, meds, work, everything, they are very methodical. I apologize if I do not explain this in the most accurate of details, I am no PhD (yet, I am waiting for that honorary doctorate).

Vern could not start anything unless he finished the task. He could not use toothpaste with out using the whole tube, so you had to dole it out for him. He could not vacuum the house without vacuuming every square inch of the carpet; which included under everything; all furniture, and even under the Hobe. We always tried to time Vern's vacuuming chore when the Hobe was out of the house. Many a day staff would panic as the time approached when Vern would start vacuuming and we still hadn't convinced the Hobe to go for a ride or walk or something. Vern couldn't wipe his butt unless he used the whole role of toilet paper. Staff often would take the empty toilet paper rolls and roll an appropriate amount of paper for one sitting and give it to him at bathroom time. When he shaved he could not be 'done with the task' until he was completely shaved from head to toe. We only let him shave once a week, other people needed to use the restroom too.

Vern started smoking. This was a tragedy, not that he started smoking; it was his body, his choice, it was a tragedy because I had spent 5 1/2 years getting my 4 year degree just to have to figure out a behavioral training plan to teach an adult how to properly smoke a cigarette.

Vern could not start something and not finish it. Handy when he was cleaning, not handy when he was playing lottery tickets. He would win hundreds and then compulsively spend that on tickets and play them until there was no money left. It was easy entertainment for a few dollars, though what a waste. Staff was always amused when the cashier would call the home and tells us the tally of Vern's winnings. Vern was probably the luckiest scratch-off lottery player that I ever met. He would win hundreds of dollars, sometimes, daily. He would play until 9pm and stop and go back the next day and play until 9pm and so on. He never spent his winning on anything other than tickets. That is until he started smoking.

When Vern started smoking we just turned him loose with cigarettes. A good half of the staff smoked, and everyone assumed that he would pick up smoking like we all did. We all learned to smoke by picking up a cigarette, lighting it and smoking it. Nobody thought that it would have to be explained to anyone. We figured Hollywood and the Tobacco companies had done their obligation in the adequate education in how to properly ingest nicotine.

I guess this is why I went to college. To recognize a person's inability to learn as the average person learns and create, implement and document a program that would sufficiently educate a person in a task, the task being smoking, was not an easy thing.

Vern decided he was going to start smoking. He informed the staff. We provided him with the appropriate literature that explained the hazards of smoking. Vern was a strong reader; he read the literature and then announced to staff that on a certain date at a certain time he was going to become a smoker.

We had several weeks to try to convince him that he should not smoke, a near impossible task, the decision was made, he was an adult, and he had made his choice. The date and time rolled around and Vern had bought a carton of cigarettes and grabbed a handful of match books at the convenient store, he was ready to go. He invited all the smoking staff as well as all the smokers among management, case management and administration to join him for his first cigarette. The staff that smoked, and Robin Hood house management and his case manager were all there to join him for his first cigarette. He offered us all a cigarette and lit all our cigarettes and we smoked. He coughed and coughed and coughed, and then he would take another drag and cough again. This happened until his cigarette when out. He thanked us all for joining him and went back to work out on his trampoline. That was it. Vern's first cigarette.

The trampoline; a brief explanation. It seems that the trampoline was designed by an autistic person. I have worked with and met many an autistic people who loved their trampolines. For some reason that autistic compulsion to finish whatever is started is a perfect condition for trampoline use. No fancy tricks, no flips or looptyloos, just jumping up and down. They are never finished with what they started it is a fluid up and down and up and down with no end. Someone had taught Vern how to stop and we would set times for him to stop, and having a watch with a timer really helped Vern regulate himself. I have heard stories of Autistic people with lower IQs or lower functioning levels, not being able to stop when jumping on a trampoline. Just not having the cognitive functioning to stop. I have heard stories of staff having to climb up on the trampoline and physically restrain the client who could not or would not get off the trampoline. A kitchen timer is a good thing to have around as a tool to use to limit trampoline time.

Back to Vern's smoking. There were problems developing that we who were there for Vern's first cigarette, did not anticipate. It seemed like a couple of weeks before Vern was ready for cigarette number two. He was bound and determined to learn to smoke and smoke properly. He stood at the front door with his cigarettes and matches and prepared to smoke. It was a fine Oregon day, only a slight drizzle and not too cool temperature wise. Vern lit his first cigarette and choked and coughed. The third cigarette through the end of the pack was the same; drag, choke, cough...light another.

There he stood out the front door right in front of the plane glass window. This will go on my list of things that are better than television. It was sad, yet incredibly fascinating. The next day Vern joined me for a cigarette. He watched me light my cigarette and watched as I smoked. I took a moment to explain that he did not have to suck with all his might. He just had to pull a small amount into his mouth and then blow it out. I figured that this would keep him from choking each time. It worked. This was the unofficial beginning of Vern's cigarette training program. That is the training of the staff how to properly facilitate Vern's decision to become a smoker.

We encountered many problems. One came back to the problem of 'finishing', and this came in many forms. Vern had to finish his cigarette. He would smoke the cigarette all the way down until it put itself out on the filter. It had to be explained to Vern, that the cigarette manufacturers put printing (words or that little gold stripe) around the cigarette so that a person would know not to smoke past that point on the cigarette. It took a few times and he would smoke every cigarette right down to the gold stripe. He also tended to smoke until all the cigarettes were gone. We learned about that the first time that Vern took a whole carton (200 cigarettes) with him outside. He said "These are my cigarettes; I can smoke them if I want to." We couldn't argue with that, I mean, legally we were not allowed to argue with him. Though after all 200 were smoked and he had turned green, we asked if he enjoyed his cigarettes; to which her replied, "I don't feel well."

Some persuasion and explanation worked, especially when he got up the next day and realized that he had no more cigarettes. We took an empty cigarette pack and he would come to us and ask for one or two or five cigarettes at a time, and we would put them in a pack and turn him loose. Every once in a while he would ask for the whole pack but never again did he want the whole carton.

We discovered one day a couple of weeks after he had started smoking that Vern had odd blisters on his fore finger and thumb. The blisters turned out to be an indicator of another problem; at some point Vern decided that that each match should burn, or finish, all the way to the bottom. Well this is almost impossible because, well, you have to hold on to the end of the match. So we put Vern's ashtray right in front of the big window and hunkered down for the show.

Sure enough. Vern would light a match, and hold it and watch as it burned down to the very end. He would make pinching movements, moving the match to the very tips of his fingers as it burned and then he would frantically shake his hands as the flame met his fingers. We searched but could not find matches that had a gold stripe. We tried a disposable lighter and he would 'flick his Bic' until the flint ran out or hold the button down until the butane ran out. This was a continuing problem; all the explanations would not convince Vern that this was a task that need not be completed. We tried lighting cigarettes for him, but this was just impractical, we could not just stop wrestling The Hobe into the shower, just because Vern wanted a smoke. We settled on the use of a candle. We would light the candle when Vern was home and he would light his cigarette on the candle. He did not have to worry about burning off his bangs or eyebrows, he had none, he had shaved them off. The candle solution seemed to be the right solution.

Vern switched between cigarettes, pipes, and cigars, with similar challenges. I did not intend to tell you about Vern's smoking I intended to let you know about the 'savant' nature of Vern.

Well, Vern was not a piano or math genius, he was not a card counter like the Rain Man. Vern's gift was that of destruction. He was a master of destroying things. The first night I worked with him he took the opportunity to get a pipe that was about 12 feet long, and destroy a car. It belonged to the neighbor's friend or cousin or something. It apparently had been parked there for many months. The first night I worked with Vern, he escaped, I heard the alarm on his window go off. I will tell you of the incident that mandated an alarm on Vern's window here shortly.

I heard the alarm go off and I was up on my feet and out the door looking for Vern. I ran around back and around front and there was Vern standing by the car with the pipe, waiting for me to appear. Vern stood by the car with the pipe, posed. "Vern, what are you doing?" "I am going to smash this car" "Vern you are not allowed to do that put that pipe down" "I know, but you can't stop me" Vern was right, I couldn't and as time would tell, wouldn't stop him. He quickly and methodically with the grace of a martial artist, broke every piece of glass on that vehicle. It was amazing! Vern, how swift your pole!

He finished and I asked Vern to put the pole back where he found it. He took the pole around the side of the building and starting smashing the electrical box. I lost my cool and tackled him. I may get fired for tackling a client but I was not getting fired for having a client get electrocuted on my first night! He was up and angry and we wrestled. I having done this type of work for a while had quickly and smoothly restrained him until he was calm, well, calmer.

Shaken, a bit and thinking of the other job opportunities available to me; I explained to Vern that I did not need these sorts of problems in my life. I explained that I could be a good friend and advocate, but not if I had to fight him. I gave him the choice. When I showed up to work next, or any time he was tired of me hanging out in his home, all he had to do was have a violent behavior that mandated that I restrain him and I would quit that day. If he decided that he liked me, he could stay non-violent and I would continue to work. It seemed to work. He never again got violent with me on shift, he only had these violent outburst when I was not working. I won many an overtime shift because the other staff quickly learned of my pact with Vern, and would keep me there until he was calm. I spent 36 hours straight over a Christmas holiday one time because every time I tried to clock out and leave work Vern would start to have a behavior and staff would come running down the street after me. After the holiday was over with, and things calmed down I asked Vern why he had done this. He said "I wanted to spend Christmas with you and beside you got 24 hours pay at double time. His logic and generosity was impeccable.

It was amazing the things he destroyed when I wasn't at work. Our microwave oven had gone over the fence at least a dozen times as well as most small appliances and furniture pieces. One time I bought him a alloy bike frame for him to upgrade his mountain bike. I took a couple days off and he took his three inch hack saw blade and went to work. He was only allowed to have a three inch hacksaw blade in his tool box; and sawed that frame into 3 inch sections. Again I was amazed.

The week before I started working at Robin Hood home, Vern had snuck out of his room undetected (thus the window alarm). He made his way to the local car lot and got up on the hoods of all the cars and kicked in their windshields. Every vehicle on the lot! Over eighty vehicles, over eighty windshields. It must have taken him hours, yet security, who drove by every twenty minutes or so, never saw anyone. Amazing!

Vern worked for Goodwill. Some of you are old enough to remember when our poor parents drug us off to what my mom called the 'dirty store.' It was that grubby thrift store that moms went to in the attempt to find decent clothes cheap, because even poor kids needed new school clothes in the fall.

Now the Goodwill that I know of now are big fancy clean places where you buy used clothes for new clothes prices and the floors are clean and the neighboring business' are doctor's office. I am not a big fan of Goodwill. Sure I guess there is nothing evil about them but I have seen the operations that they run. They get funding and grants from Charities and the Government to provide employment to those who cannot work in the traditional market. Busy work, mostly; separating clothes by color and size and other packaging and recycling programs. I am no expert on Goodwill and their operations. I have no real idea if they are doing good or harm. I do know that the majority of people that lived in the homes that I have worked in dreaded every minute that they had to be at Goodwill Industries and despised the way they were treated and hated the disrespect that was shown to them by the Goodwill staff and management.

I, being a behavioral management and skills training expert, and not an employment implementation specialist, could not tell you the social science behind what was happening there. I do remember seeing these people being harangued, threatened and degraded by over ambitious supervisors in an attempt to increase production. PRODUCTION? The government pays the wages of the 'target population' and the supervisors. What does production have to do with it. I thought it was a program to help integrate people into the work force. Well I guess abuse and torment will help prepare you to be a wage earner.

Vern had the job of feeding plastic bottles into a machine that crushed and shredded them and packaged them in preparation for recycling. This was a very expensive, high tech and elaborate machine. Vern in a preplanned, I am sure, fit, destroyed that machine. In the seconds between when his 'rage (?)' began and the time he stopped his tirade he had done over $60,000 in damage. Amazing!

He was never allowed to go back to work for Goodwill Industries, they banned him from the shop, the warehouse and the stores. They would even send someone out to the car, when I would go to pick up the other clients and tell me that he was not even allowed to be in the car on the property. I do not know if the last statement was true, but it never stopped me from taking him on the property. When we would drive over to pick up his roommates at work at Goodwill Industries, we would laugh and say things like "I showed them, didn't I?" I was forced to agree. He did show them that sometimes it is better to treat the downtrodden with a little respect.

Vern and I remained friends for quite a while until, new management and new administration; all with really short hair, decided that Vern should be reigned in and got under control. I was no longer allowed back to Robin Hood home, I am not sure why, maybe it was because I was finding him work as an independent contract laborer or maybe it was because I also taught him how to go to a bar and ask girls out on dates. Maybe it was because I encouraged his lack of belief in God and his lack of trust in authority. Maybe it was just time to get a new job. I did hear rumors of the destruction that Vern rained down on everything that got in is way; staff cars, company cars, police cars, I heard that he even got out to the local car lot again. I hope he is doing well in life, and I hope people have remembered to replace the springs on the trampoline.

I did learn something very valuable from Vern, that is, do what you can get away with, finish what you start and learn when to quit.