SHAPING BEHAVIOR
by Isabelle Runge

I pressed my foot firmly into the gas pedal, maneuvering in and out of lanes at an anxious pace. With one hand on the wheel, I reached my other into the backpack on the floor and pulled from inside of it a folder marked “Client Information”.

“Alright, who do we have today…” I opened the folder, darting my eyes between the road and the papers in my lap. “Aamna Seyed, age eight. Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Anxiety Disorder.”

I scanned hastily over her medical history and list of given behaviors as I approached the final stretch of the drive, turning into a distinguished neighborhood and stopping at the gate.

“Who are you visiting today?” a man peaked out of the security booth.

“I’m here to see the Seyed family? I’m their therapist for the week.”

We quickly exchanged identification. The bar lifted and I smiled at the gentleman, pulling forward to find just where I was meant to be. I glided through the streets around curves and turns, scanning mailboxes and doorways for the given address number. The houses stood tall and white, checkered with red brick and rock, grassy green yards lining the sidewalks.

I pulled into the driveway of the beautiful home, assessing my appearance in the rear view mirror and grabbing my things. I hurried to the doorway with my materials, placing a quick knock on the tall wooden door. There was a faint sound of a child calling out from behind it, and little hands moved blinds to peer out at me. The door opened and a woman stepped out, dressed in colorful flowing clothes with hair pulled back tightly, tucked into a hijab.

“Hello,” she greeted me, “I am Rina. Aamna’s mother. It is very nice to meet you.”

“Hi Rina, my name is Isabelle.” I smiled, reaching for her hand and shaking it. “I’m here to work with her today.”

“Wonderful, come in. Aamna was just here…” she glanced behind her as we entered the home, the sound of bare feet hurrying against tile floor echoing down a hallway. “But I believe she has decided to hide. Let me go get her for you. And if you wouldn’t mind taking off your shoes?”

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. Not a problem. I will come find you two in a moment.” I removed my shoes and placed them alongside other pairs by the front door.

As Rina disappeared to find where little feet had run, I made my way to an open bathroom, shutting the door promptly behind me. I stared in the mirror, now made incredibly aware of my form fitting choice of uniform. There had been no note or word from the office of tradition or modesty. I pulled at my black leggings frustratedly, removing my jacket and tying it around my waist. I drew my curled hair back into a braid, lacing the three strands together out of my face.

“Helloooo…” I heard a child’s voice sing.

I stepped out to find a small, lanky girl standing at the door. Her eyes were wide and curious and she swayed back and forth on the tips of her toes.

“Hello miss, you must be Aamn-” I began as she darted away laughing, running to find another hiding place behind a man who stood in the kitchen.

“Ohh, Aamna.” Rina shook her head at the giggling girl.

The man wore all white, dressed also in custom and adorning a long, black beard.

“And Isabelle, this is Aabid. My husband.”

I approached the kitchen eagerly, “Oh hello, it is nice to meet you…” I extended my hand again to shake his, which he only peered at. Rina instead took my hand, cupping it in hers with a smile. I caught my breath.

He nodded seriously, “Good to see you.”

“And this is Auntie,” Rina gestured to an older woman, dressed in gold with a covered head who shuffled in to join the rest, taking my stolen hand and placing it into hers, “She helps take care of our girl when we are working.”

“Oh hi,” I grasped Auntie’s hand in mine, “I am so excited to be here and to serve your family.”

“She doesn’t speak English.” Rina stopped me, “Only Urdu. She moved here just recently from Pakistan to be with us.”

“Ah! Oh. Of course.” I laughed tensely and they watched me. I felt as if I knew

absolutely nothing about anything at all. I clenched my materials close to my chest. “Well, I guess we should get to it then. What shall we do today, miss?” I asked rhetorically, bending down and smiling at the little girl now stood hugging her mother’s arm.

“It is not an easy task to get Aamna to part with Auntie or I,” Rina began, “so we will not be far. Feel free to use anything we have here for your work. I know you are just getting to know one another. She loves to color, to read, to play dress up…”     

“Dress up.” Aamna affirmed briefly, beginning again to sway from side to side.  

“Ohh, dress up. Would you like to show me what you have?”

Aamna tightened the hold on her mother’s arm, lifting one hand to her eye to block me from her sight.

“Oh, don’t be shy. Let’s make it a race. I bet you can’t beat her to your room?” they shared a glance.

Aamna then took once more to her feet, running down the same hallway and dashing into a bedroom. I nodded at Rina with gratitude, following after the girl. The first day of therapy with any child on the spectrum is marked by pairing, discovering their likes and dislikes and earning their trust through play. As I rounded the threshold of the room, I came to find a toy chest overturned and a colorful pile of princess dresses sprawled across the floor. She paid no attention to me, rummaging through the items before her.

“Pretty, pretty dress…” she sang to herself, lifting a yellow sparkling gown from the mess.

“Are you a princess, Aamna?” I bent down to join her.

She turned away from me, still dancing on her toes. I watched patiently.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty…” she slipped her skinny arms into the costume, pulling it on over her already clothed form.

“Oh,” I laughed at her now crooked appearance, “your dress is on backwards, silly!”

But as I reached out to adjust the fabric, she pulled back away from my hand with a blank stare. She quickly turned and ran from the room. I rose to chase after her, we would make it a game. It was written in her profile that Aamna liked to play tag. I searched the hallway for her and watched her dart into another room.

“Aamna…” I entered to find her dancing around Auntie, who sat with folded knees in prayer on the floor. My eyes widened with the unease of our intrusion. “Hey, let’s go dress up…” I whispered, reaching out for the little girl who paid no attention to me.

Auntie rested upon a blue mat, bowing with outstretched arms towards her window. What was once silence was now filled with the hums of a little girl, who circled around her devotion. Auntie sat up, looking back at me.

“Hello. I’m so sorry. Let me get her out of your way.” I attempted to corral the little one, but she slipped out of my grip, now skipping around the room.

“Pretty dress, dress, dress.” she repeated.

Auntie lowered her eyes and turned back to her prayer. I attempted to hug Aamna up into my arms, but again she escaped out the door and into the home. I followed, watching as she climbed across couch cushions and under tables to the find the front room where her father was sitting. The smell of curry spices cracking in oil followed us in the chase, Rina now stood preparing food in the kitchen.

“What are you doing, Aamna?” I heard the deep voice of her father echo across the floor as I approached.

She smirked up at him, sat below at his feet. Words sung from a speaker over the room, Aamna running her fingers across the metal holes protecting the boom. Aabid looked up in my direction.

“I’m sorry to interrupt. I don’t think our little friend wants much to do with me today.” I explained, stepping into the space.

She ignored my presence, taking the small speaker into her arms and curling up against her father’s leg.

“What, um…what are you listening to?” I asked, noting the indistinguishable tune.

“These are today’s passages,” he gently took the speaker from his daughter’s hands and placed it back on a nearby shelf, “from the Quran. I am doing my daily studies.”

The voice on the speaker fluctuated, rising and falling in a language foreign to my own. My cheeks were hot with continued embarrassment.

“That is lovely. Well we won’t interrupt you any further. I really do apologize.” I reached out for Aamna once more, “Dress up? Do you still want to?”

Without hesitation, she rose once more to scamper away. I followed through the kitchen and Rina stopped me, a smile across her lips.

“This is what our girl does.” she began, stirring together vibrant ingredients in a pan. “You have to earn your place with her. I’m sure you know.”

“Oh, yes. Most of our clients are this way.” I knew this to be true. Shaping takes time.

“You just have to meet her where she is at. Eventually, she will let you in.”

I had read that Aamna’s favorite place to play in her home was the bathroom. Mirrors and cabinets made a perfect playground for a mind like hers. So I followed down the same hallway to that place, bringing with me a small plastic crown from the emptied toy chest, and behind the door I heard the girl singing her song.

“Pretty dress, pretty Aamna…”

I opened the door to find her sat with legs crossed on the bathroom counter, studying the reflection in the mirror. Her eyes shifted towards me and she grew silent.

“Don’t worry. We don’t have to do anything today.” I started, made truly aware of my outsidedness. “I know it can be hard, meeting new people.”

She brushed me off, shaking her bobbed hair in the mirror and watching the dark strands move and fall. I made my way to the other side of the counter, climbing up onto it myself and sitting the same. This caught her attention and she stared at my reflection inquisitively. I copied her movements, observing myself as she had. 

“I see two eyes…” I started, “and one nose. I see long hair and,” I placed the plastic crown on the top of my head “look! I can dress up too.”

She broke her silence with laughter, “Two eyes. One nose.” she repeated, touching her own. She turned, locking eyes with mine for the very first time. She touched my hair “Long hair.”

“Big teeth,” I grinned, showing my teeth. “Two cheeks.”

She held my face in her little hands. “Two cheeks.”

“And what is your name, pretty girl in your pretty dress?”“Aamna.”      

About the Author:

Isabelle Runge

Isabelle Runge is a freelance writer and student of Psychology living in West Palm Beach, Florida. With a love for both the written word and the advocation of mental health, she hopes to bring together the two to bring to life the untold stories of the lives around her.

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