A letter a week helps keep Aaron Lind from ‘getting stuck’

Photo by John Gessner

Aaron Lind, a client at Chrestomathy Inc. in Burnsville, writes letters to companies with help from Program Director Chris Pritchard.

Man with autism writes to companies 

In the age of text messages and emails, Aaron Lind is proof of the power of letters.

He wrote a California coal mine asking for a bag of coal, and it came FedEx. A letter to the makers of Life Savers elicited a big box of candy. He wrote a school bus company and got back a bus-shaped piggy bank.

And last year’s request of Santa Claus?

“Some stogies!” exclaimed Lind, who received Swisher Sweets Wood Tips from the mailman.

Lind begins his letters, which he dictates, by explaining he attends a day program called Chrestomathy Inc. in Burnsville, Minnesota. The nonprofit for adults with intellectual disabilities has had a Burnsville location since 1995.

Lind, who has autism, began attending after graduating from Chaska High School in 2001.

“He and I have been together for 18 years,” said Chris Pritchard, Chrestomathy’s Burnsville program director, who oversees 44 clients needing intensive services.

In the beginning, “Mr. Lind here” could be hazardous to staff and other clients. “Mostly biting — very significant injuries,” said Pritchard, who exudes patience. “It was bad. Very severe.”

Lind had a penchant for property damage.

“It was breaking pipes and cars and things like that. Some of them were thousands of dollars,” Pritchard said.

“Property destruction — breaking stuff!” interjected Lind, whose streaming patter — often delivered with a wide, toothy grin — includes repetition of others’ words.

“I actually got echolalia,” Lind said, naming the condition. “It’s part of the autism disability.”

In addition to aggression and property damage, which have diminished over the years, Lind had a problem with “getting stuck” — being unable to make a decision, Pritchard said.

There have been many trying hours outside Lind’s group home in Lakeville, with the Chrestomathy van waiting outside.

“He would sometimes just say, ‘I’m not going to work,’ ” Pritchard said. “The van’s in the driveway. He might come out of the house, go back in the house, might get in the van. This could last all day. There were times I would sit at his house all day until he made his decision.”

Mr. Lind needed a course correction.

Early on Pritchard noticed his inquisitiveness, sometimes about the oddest things. A duck-crossing sign or a semi’s mud flap would catch Lind’s attention. He wanted to know more. He wanted to write the companies that made these things.

A deal was cut. If Lind would get on the van in a reasonable amount of time five days a week, he could write a letter a week.

“It worked great,” Pritchard said.

In his letters Lind asks 15 to 20 questions. Pritchard helps with the Googling to determine whom and where to write.

“Every Friday morning I give him an address and a stamp and he takes it from there,” Pritchard said.

Some 500 response letters later, he marvels at what letter writing has done for Lind’s behavior and social and emotional well-being.

“It’s been 16, 17 years that he’s been doing the letter writing. And almost immediately, the stubbornness of getting on and off the van stopped,” Pritchard said.

“The other issues were still there, and some of the van rides were difficult with some pretty intensive moments, but he was getting on the van. He was showing up to work. To have a program that works for 16, 17 years, and it’s as powerful today as it was the first year, it doesn’t happen very often. We had to take something that interested him, and it just unfolded itself.”

The responses keep coming. Bags of potato chips in every flavor followed Lind’s letter to Old Dutch Foods. Pearson’s Candy sent a company history book. A letter to John Deere earned Lind a tour of the company’s Rochester distributorship, and a letter to Delta Airlines got him into the cockpit of an airplane.

A letter to Ziegler Caterpillar in Bloomington led to a job cleaning shelves one hour a week. A special occasion awaits Nov. 21, when Lind will be a guest on the “Disability and Progress” show on radio station KFAI in the Twin Cities.

His social and behavioral challenges remain a work in progress, and Lind still gets stuck sometimes, Pritchard said. But he’s learned how to get unstuck.

“What’s my nickname for you?” Pritchard asked Lind. “Mr.?”

“Mr. Flexibility!” Lind answered. “Mr. Flexibility!”

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