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Like many autistic people, Daryl was hypersensitive to sights and sounds. To be around more than a few people at a time was, for him, like being placed in the middle of a war zone. When he entered a crowded room, his first instinct was to find the nearest corner and plug his ears with his fingers. If the room got especially busy (or the noise especially loud), he'd simply flee. He managed to get out of the building somewhat regularly when he was younger (he'd attended the day center since he was nine). By the time I met him, though, the center had long kept padlocks on all their doors to the outside world, and so he seldom tried anymore. Now when he got overwhelmed, he usually fled to an empty room within the center or out to the gated backyard.
As an adult, Daryl measured about six-foot-four and 250 pounds, making him significantly bigger than most of the day center's employees. It could be hard not to laugh when you saw one of us direct-care providers chasing someone almost twice his size. The humor certainly wasn't lost on Daryl. Sometimes he'd start running just to initiate the comic spectacle, looking backward every several paces to make sure one of us was behind him, the sight of which made him laugh his head off. On these occasions, we knew that if we stopped chasing him he'd stop running and come back to wherever it was he was supposed to be, as there'd be no one for him to laugh at.
If you actually had to detain Daryl—on those occasions, say, when he was headed to the kitchen pantry with the goal of stealing desserts (he had the biggest appetite for sweets of anyone I've met)—you found he was rather difficult to catch. He always possessed a great store of energy—the result, most likely, of spending most of his time sitting still, bottling his anxiety. His sprint was impressive. I could only imagine how stressful it had been for those employees who had to bring him back to the day center in the days when he got out of the building. I'd heard one horror story about him getting lost in Chicago for hours, and which ended with him getting picked up by the police.
Most people thought that Daryl was antisocial because of incidents like that (also because he hated groups and rarely initiated contact with other people). But once you got him one-on-one, as I've noted before, he could be playful and affectionate. He could be industrious too, agreeing to help with all sorts of chores that needed to be done around the center. A favorite phrase of his limited vocabulary—he knew about as many words as an average four-year-old, though he rarely spoke unless spoken to—was "work hard, play hard." Every day after performing a chore or taking part in a socialization activity, I would treat Daryl with an hour of music. He loved to listen to the radio—indeed it was one of the few things that made him calm when he was stressed. If his fingers were in his ears, he'd take them out at the sound of jazz or classic R&B. Sometimes he even moved his body to the music. I encouraged him to do this, as it constituted a form of physical activity that didn't involve running out of the room.
I didn't mind chasing Daryl on those occasions when he ran away from me in jest, since this was often his way of showing he enjoyed my company. Completing a jigsaw puzzle or hearing a song he especially liked was reason enough to flee. Running just seemed to be his way of capping a good experience, and the better the experience, the more elaborate the chase became. The most elaborate I witnessed occurred on the afternoon of a coworker's going-away party. My boss had bought a large chocolate cake for the event, so that every client and employee could have a slice before going home for the day. After everyone got his share, a coworker asked me to help some other clients use the bathroom, figuring that Daryl would be preoccupied with his piece of cake and wouldn't require my supervision for a few minutes.
How wrong my coworker turned out to be. The second he was out of my sight, Daryl lunged over to the remains of the cake, grabbed as much of it as would fit in his hands, and shoved every last bite in his mouth. Emboldened by having been liberated of the dessert, he then sprinted through every room in the day center, laughing as hard as he could with his mouth full. On his way back to the room where we were holding the going-away party, Daryl passed the front office—just as the center's secretary was unlocking the main door for one of the bus drivers, who'd come to take home some of the clients. Here was an opportunity Daryl just couldn't pass up. It must have been years since he'd left the building unescorted, and he was having too good a day not to try. It was at this point that I'd finished up with the other clients in the bathroom and was apprised of the situation.
I bolted after Daryl, who was already out the door and on his way up the street. I thank my lucky stars that he didn't continue down the sidewalk—operating on a sugar high like that, he might have evaded me for blocks. Instead he darted into the small branch library a few doors down from the day center. I found him a few minutes later in the children's section, kneeling behind a bookshelf in the vain hope of blending in. He was laughing audibly now. I got him to stand up, then apologized to the librarians as I took his hand and led him out. "What's gotten into you?" I asked him, trying my best to sound authoritative, despite finding the situation about as funny as he did.
I thought I was asking a rhetorical question, but Daryl had a prompt reply. "Chocolate cake!" he shouted.