Despite the imperfections of this turn-of-the-century brownstone on the fashionable upper East side of Manhattan, the walls of this ancient relic remained reasonably upright. And, yet, the interior hung over me like the inside sloping bulkhead of a racing sloop. The high ceilings and huge archways fell victim to the dark maroon paint which appeared black during this last hour of daylight. As I waited, quiet and alone, my eyes rested on the rather bizarre, provocative painting of an attractive young man displaying his lean crop of chest hairs through an opened, black leather jacket. Two art-deco rams, sculpted in the early thirties, guarded the fireplace. Lavish floral prints covered the peculiar low-back chairs and odd-shaped divan, all art deco, all salvaged from the early part of the century; old enough to qualify as valued antiques, yet too spiffy, too born-again to suggest another time.
Every aspect of Jane’s brownstone as well as her business, a literary agency, reflected her careful preplanning and her preoccupation with detail. An incisive young woman. Clear. A workaholic. Only recently had she departed from her single focus, allowing Carol, a young actor, and Herman, an ever-present basset hound, to share portions of her life.
When I met Jane, she occupied a seedy, cluttered version of her present surroundings. Her former apartment could have been rented as a grade B movie set in an old Boris Karloff film. At that time, she draped her body in basic black. Her decisive hand movements, direct eye contact and commanding voice completely overwhelmed any awareness of her femininity.
The drone of Jane’s voice filtered into the room. I listened with obvious enjoyment as she soothed one of her other authors skillfully. More than my agent, she had become my friend.
“Hi, Baa,” Jane sang as she entered the room theatrically. She wore a light tan dress without a bra. The curve of her hips was apparent, in contrast to her former attire.
“You always startle me when you dress like that,” I said. “Somehow, I think of you more like a lean bulldozer than a person with particular sexual attributes.”
She stopped short in the middle of the room and grinned cautiously. “From you, I’m sure it’s a compliment.” Jane extended her chin and pushed her cheek into my face. I kissed her lightly.
“Only two other people I know express their affection like that,” I commented.
“The Queen of England and my aunt Gloria… and my aunt Gloria is dead.”
“How nice,” Jane chimed. She tossed a package into my lap. “These are the galleys from Giant Steps.”
As I opened the package, Herman romped into the room, barking as he jumped on my legs. “Herman, get down,” Jane counseled. “C’mon, Herm, down, boy, down.” She laughed. “Hey, Baa, you see what happened. The first Option dog. I tell him one thing and he decided to trust himself instead. I always ask him why he’s unhappy. We have to let him work it out … of course.” She glanced at her barking, jumping dog. “Okay! Down, Herm, down.” Inevitably, the hound became part of the meeting.
“I’ll work through the galleys during the next couple of weeks. We’re pretty jammed.”
“You know,” Jane said, getting right to the point, “I still don’t quite think you made the best move. Now is the perfect time to write another book. An interruption in your career is not good, not good at all. Besides, if you keep doing things like Robertito, you’ll end up on welfare. I don’t think that suits your style.”
“We’re afloat,” I said, smiling.
“Hey, Suzi told me about the grant, I’m sorry it didn’t come through. I hope it doesn’t bring this project to a premature end.”
I sighed, then smiled. “One day at a time.”
“Uh-huh,” she grimaced, avoiding direct expression of sentiment. “Okay, tell me what’s happening with him.”
“Who’s him?” I asked.
“The interruption, of course. The little boy who pulled you away from the typewriter and everything else you were doing.”
After my lengthy description of the incidents and movements involving Robertito and those who worked with him, Jane pointed her finger at me. “Could you send me a page or two on it? I want to have it. Okay?” I nodded. Jane dipped her head, anticipating my response to her next comment. “If you could only guarantee me the kid will make it, we might have something big here.”
“Hey, Jane, the point is not the outcome, but the evolution … for all of us,” I paused. “I know it sounds soupy, but it’s not.”
She stood up and paced the room. “I know you know what you’re doing with this boy, but do you think you’re taking care of yourself and your family?”
“I think so,” I said, aware of the tentative, quality of my answer.
“Do I detect a note of doubt in there?” she probed.
“You sound like my kids.”
“That’s your fault. You have everyone asking questions now,” Jane replied.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Did you ever consider doing what felt good to do and trust that everything else will take care of itself?”
“Not on your terms,” she replied. “A great aunt of mine, twice removed, used to say, ‘Where God guides, God provides.’ Well… it’s either that or bankruptcy.”
“That sounds rather extreme,” I countered.
“Perhaps … but did you ever consider that what you’re doing is rather extreme?” she replied.
“It’s not,” I insisted. Even if it was, we’d already made the choice.
“Listen, I have an investment in you to protect,” Jane said straight-faced, then softened her expression. “I guess I’d like it to work out.”
“So would I,” I said.
Roby played patty-cake with his son. Since Raun’s extended visual encounter with Robertito, our little friend increased his sustained eye contact. He looked at his father directly for ten seconds at a time. On three occasions, he stared into his face for almost half a minute. His co-operation had noticeably improved, Robertito even grabbed the ball spontaneously and threw it on the floor.
“Oh, you want to have a catch with Papa,” Roby said, scrambling for the sponge sphere. “Okay, my son, you sit here. Sit here.” He guided the little boy gently to a spot near the center of the room. Robertito squatted on the floor, then watched his father from the corner of his eye. Roby raised his arm. In response to the gesture, the little boy faced his father directly. The ball became airborne. Robertito’s feeble attempt to catch the ball met with surprising success as it fell, literally, into his hands. Roby cheered and hugged his son. The child returned the ball awkwardly. Between each throw, Robertito grabbed for food, but his father held it above his reach.
“If you want food, say ‘co,'” Roby told his son repeatedly.
Carol entered the room to observe. She had been at the Soto house from morning until night since that first day. She wanted to use every minute of her long weekend before classes reconvened on Monday. Her session observing Laura had infused her with impatience to begin herself, yet, somehow, she did not feel ready. As she watched Roby work with his son, she felt awed by his tenderness. Carol viewed him as strong, incredibly strong, but not in the predictable ways. Robertito suddenly noticed her. He walked in front of her and stood absolutely motionless as he side-glanced at her. Carol raised her hand very slowly and touched him. He remained inert. Carol caressed the side of his arm. Robertito crumbled to the floor immediately and slid his hands under her shoes. Roby nodded to Carol. Flattered by the little boy’s approach, she rose and rocked back and forth on his hands. He stared at her shoes. Two minutes later, he pulled away and ran in a circle around the room. His father followed.
“I’m going to get you,” Roby shouted. The little boy side-glanced, a smile enveloping his face. “I’m going to get you,” his father shouted again. Robertito tried to move even faster. Finally, like a lover rather than a football player, Roby tackled his son and tickled him gently. Little boy laughter filled the room. Carol shook her head. In the short four days she had been watching, she catalogued changes in the child. Each step this little boy made weakened the foreboding words of her neurologist about autism and, equally as important, weakened his words about her. But he’s the expert, she thought, suddenly distrusting her own thoughts, her own dreams.
When Roby introduced a puzzle, Robertito quickly withdrew all nine separate pieces. “Good, papito,” Roby whispered, his grin overwhelming his face as he replaced the first piece. The boy watched. “You do it. Go ahead. Put the puzzle piece here. Here.” He handed him the cow form. Robertito fumbled with it, flapped it, then put it on the puzzle board. “Find the place. Go ahead, find the place.” Giving his son a hint with his finger, he coaxed the little boy into action. Within seconds, Robertito had replaced the form. To celebrate, Roby gave his son food. When he went back to the puzzle, Robertito remained focused on the cup. He stretched his lips in several peculiar directions. Then, a very strange unintelligible sound thumped from Robertito’s throat as he stared at the food.
“Do you want food?” Roby asked. “Just say ‘co.”‘ No response. They worked with the other puzzle forms. Then, Robertito made the same peculiar circle shape with his lips. Another crude sound bellowed from his larynx . He repeated the grunt a third time. Finally, in a loud voice, Robertito Soto said “co”.
“Oh my God,” Carol gasped as Roby whipped out a spoonful of tuna and delivered it to his son. He kept feeding the little boy as he wiped the tears from his face. Carol thought of her father and his comment about the beauty of a man crying.
Robertito made the “co” sound again. His face seemed as placid and inscrutable as ever, even while he crossed over; from him to us, from the right side of his brain to his left, from being mute to the very first step in verbal communication.
Carol ran from the room to fetch Francisca. When the two women returned, Roby and his son had begun the long process of stringing beads. In an effort to have him murmur “co,” Roby showed his son the tuna many times. The little boy babbled, whined and hummed, but he didn’t repeat his accomplishment. After an additional two hours passed, Francisca squeezed Carol’s arm and rose to her feet. At the moment the door touched its frame, a noise filled the room, Robertito said the word “co” again more clearly than ever before. Francisca screamed. She grabbed her bewildered son and hugged him ferociously. She screeched upon embracing her husband and Carol. Francisca knew her son had just moved through what she feared had been an impenetrable barrier.
The wind blew her hair to the side as she walked beside me. We strolled along the path next to the duck pond. Carol smiled, locked her face sternly, then smiled again. “After what happened yesterday, all my stuff seems unimportant.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Yesterday, we talked about my problem at home, living with my mother. Seems so trivial compared to an almost six-year-old boy saying his first word.”
“But it’s not. You mentioned this morning how everyone is so loving and so attentive to his every cue. I guess that’s because they’re reasonably clear when they’re with him … and that’s because they first work on becoming clear with themselves.”
She held her hand up like a traffic cop, then touched her chest. “I guess it begins here. You said that the first day we talked about the Sotos.” She paused and rubbed the bump on her nose. “Laura told me she was a wreck for the first couple of weeks. It’s hard to believe when I watch her now.” Her eyes shifted to the leaves above us. “They’re so pretty.” She laughed. “I’m looking for my subject. There’s so many things to talk about.”
“Just pick one,” I suggested. A group of sea gulls hovered above us in their quest for food. One dove in front of me, hawked a strange cry and flew away.
After a short monologue revealing her intense feelings about Robertito, Carol talked more about wanting her mother to accept her as Suzi and I had. But as she explored, she realized her own intolerance.
“Remember when we talked about a nurturing environment for Robertito … well, this might sound silly, but maybe I could do that for my mother. I guess I’ve been pushy and who wants to open up to someone like that,” Carol said. “I’ve always wanted her to take the first step, but maybe I could, maybe.”
We sat down on a grassy slope together. Carol lay back and searched the tops of the trees with her blue eyes. She wanted to tell me about the connection she made between Robertito’s autism and her epilepsy; but she censored herself. She winced, then flexed her jaw to divert her attention.
“How do you feel right now?” I asked, responding to the discomfort surfacing on her face.
“Not too good,” she answered. “Remember I told you I have epilepsy.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, I am anything but comfortable about it,” she said.
“What about it disturbs you?” I asked.
“I’ve had the seizures since I was fourteen, but I wasn’t diagnosed until later. I went through the whole scene with the neurologist, the EEG and all the other tests. They put me on Dilantin, which is supposed to control it … but it doesn’t. When I told the doctor I didn’t feel well with the drug, he told me to keep taking it. I ended up in the hospital because the amount the doctor had prescribed for me was an overdose. Even now with a lower dosage, I still get blurred vision sometimes or my balance goes off from the side effects. My speech gets slurred once in a while. I know I’m going on and on, but it’s not simple to answer what specifically disturbs me. The seizures scare me and so does the medication.”
“Why do the seizures scare you?”
“I feel out of control. I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt. I get this aura and then it starts.”
“The seizure. I feel these weird sensations: heat, a deja vu-type feeling, a tingling all over my body. It begins in my stomach, right here, down low, and then it spreads out. When I passed out in school, I banged my head against one of the desks.” She paused uncomfortably. “It’s kind of like being a freak.”
“What do you mean?”
“Once it begins, I can’t do anything about it. I get so scared.”
“Scared about what, Carol?”
“That I won’t come through it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyelids fluttered nervously. Despite the cool breeze in the park, a line of perspiration dotted her hairline. “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t think I’m going to die. It’s that terrible feeling that I can’t do anything about them … out of control.”
“Why is having a seizure being out of control?”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“That’s the wildest question. I’ve never thought about it before.” She paused and exhales forcefully. “I remember in a health ed. course, there was a whole discussion on the common cold, how the body and the nose runs as a way of expelling mucus and germs. Like somehow, a runny nose was a good sign, not a bad sign. The body was healing itself. You think that could be with my seizures?” She glanced at me and nodded. “I know. I’ll answer it.” She sat up and watched the sea gulls. The cadence of her speech slowed. “Maybe. That’s the best I can do … a maybe. You know that’s what always bothered me about taking anti-convulsant drugs. Why not find out the cause of the seizures and deal with that instead of just trying to sedate it? It makes more sense, but it’s still scary.”
“How?” I questioned.
“The doctors say I’ll have to take the drug the rest of my life. Even with it, I still have seizures … just not as many. I guess what scares me is the feeling I get when I have one.”
“What are the feelings you get which frighten you?”
“This warm feeling in my stomach, then all over my body,”
“Okay,” I acknowledged. “What is scary about a warm feeling?”
Carol stared at me dumbfounded, “I don’t know. As I think of it, the feeling doesn’t scare me – if I was in a warm bath, that would feel good – it’s what it means!”
“And what’s that?”
“I’m back to my earlier answer again. It means I’m out of control.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“Till today, yes, definitely, absolutely. Now … I’m not sure. I’ve never tried to control a seizure. I get so scared it never occurs to me there might be something I could do. One thing which is funny – the doctor asked me if I had a job with pressure. I said no, but when I worked in the bank, I was miserable.” She smiled. “And I had more seizures during that time than ever before. Do you think there could be a connection?”
“What do you think? Carol, I’m not avoiding answering you, but your response to your question could be more productive for you than my response. What do you think? Do you see a connection? You’d know better than anybody else.”
“Maybe. I’m pretty ‘maybe’ today. I never took it apart before. It was the black area that I wanted to avoid. It’s hard to let go of the fear. I’ve lived with it over ten years.”
“Well, what are you afraid would happen if you weren’t afraid of the seizure?”
“It would get worse.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Yes, yes … until I just said it.” Her forehead furrowed. “The opposite is actually true. The more frightened I am, the more paralyzed I get. If I had relaxed that time in school, I would have sat down instead of waiting until I fell down. I never picked it apart before, Bears.”
She placed her hands over her mouth and shook her head. “I can’t believe what I’m saying.” A sigh whistled through her throat. “I feel… less, less locked up about it.”
“Do you still feel frightened about your seizures?”
“Not right now, but, well, what happens when I get one?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Maybe I’ll forget this entire dialogue and be scared all over again.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to; really, I wouldn’t!” she asserted.
“Then if you don’t want to forget what you’ve come to understand, why do you believe you would?”
She patted the top of the grass with her palms. “I don’t believe I would. I guess I just scared myself again.”
She grinned sheepishly. “So I’d remember.”
“Do you believe you have to scare yourself in order to remember?”
“No, no…” She threw her head back and gazed at the sky. “That’s what I usually do. And it never works anyway. I’ll remember and if, by chance, I don’t…” She aborted her sentence.
“And if you don’t, how will you feel?”
“Like a human being.” Carol held her hands together in front of her chin and tipped her head. “A human being, not perfect, but trying.”
Laura hung her leg over the arm of the couch as she leaned against Suzi’s arm.
Her patched dungarees formed to the shape of her athletic legs. The embroidered shirt hung lazily over her upper torso. Carol squatted on the floor opposite my chair. Her eyes squinted repeatedly, then stopped abruptly. Roby’s relaxed posture suggested a certain dignity as he waited for the meeting to begin. Francisca, seated on the floor beside her husband’s chair, busied herself with her pad and pencil, Amalia, already a regular at our Wednesday night sessions, crossed her legs as she angled her alert body forward. A touch of nervousness fluttered at the corners of her lips.
Bending over her knees, Suzi removed her sandals and placed her feet discreetly on the coffee table. Her red, white and purple argyle socks attracted everyone’s attention.
“I lov’em,” Laura gushed, pinching Suzi’s big toe.
Suzi withdrew her feet, curled them underneath her legs and did an “I-am-embarrassed-little-girl routine.” A deep baritone cackle erupted from her throat when she put her feet back on the table and modeled the socks by twisting her ankles and toes.
“I like them. I like them,” Francisca insisted supportively in Spanish. Amalia laughed as she translated her comments.
Suzi waved at me, obviously enjoying the attention from her sock fetish.
“Are we ready?” I asked. Amalia translated my question.
“Si, Bears,” Francisca snapped immediately, her intense eyes and waiting pencil poised for a fast beginning.
“I’m ready,” Amalia volunteered, shifting her weight further forward to balance on the edge of the chair.
“Wait, wait … before we begin,” Francisca chimed. By the time Amalia translated the short burst of words from Spanish to English, Francisca had already bolted out of the room. Moments later, she returned with a freshly heated organic banana cake and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
“Hurray for Francisca,” Laura shouted. Carol and Suzi applauded. Roby smiled broadly.
“What’s the matter, Bears?” Francisca asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. “You turn every session into a minor eating orgy.” She smiled mischievously. “Hey, just look at this,” I said, pointing to my stomach.
“I love it, Bears,” Suzi assured me.
“Me too,” Laura said.
“Hey, Bears,” Roby said softly, “Maybe if you eat enough, you will one day look like Buddha.” Everyone laughed at Roby’s rare display of humor.
Francisca suddenly looked dejected. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No apologies necessary. You have not done me a disservice,” I explained. “Only I can do that. When you notice me eating this wonderful food in two minutes, just remember I decided to eat it; you merely presented it to me.”
Carol applauded quietly as she scrutinized her own figure.
“While we do our little ice cream orgy, let’s begin with some general observations,” I said, switching on the tape recorder. “I noticed Robertito was distant today. Everyone seemed surprised and a little off-centered with his increased ‘isms’ and diminished eye contact. I think we’re spoiled. Perhaps, since he’s moved so rapidly, we kind of expect to see it continue day after day. And if so, then we have implicit goals and a timetable irrelevant to our little friend.”
“He turned the key and used the phone dial on the activity board on Monday,” Laura said. “Yesterday … zero. But I know he can do it.”
“We don’t know that,” I replied. “A doorway that was opened yesterday might be closed today. Sheer psychic exhaustion could sedate his whole system. For example, he said ‘co’ many times for three straight days. Then … nothing. Maybe some of us were disappointed.” I paused. “Rather than continuing to celebrate what he did and can do, we mourned, just a little, what he couldn’t do.” Francisca nodded her head in recognition of her own sentiments.
“Can we still keep trying even if he seems not to understand?” Carol asked.
“Sure,” I answered. “But first we go with him, then we can introduce whatever we want in the moments between his ‘isms’ or activities. We can never know when he’ll make a connection, be able to do something today that was impossible last week. It’s not only what we do, but what we have in mind when we do it.”
“When I worked with Robertito using the cloth book with pockets,” Suzi interjected. “I watched him open the snap, the self-stick pocket and the zipper. The next day he acted like he’d never seen the book before. At first I kept saying, not out loud, but in my mind ‘C’mon, Robertito. Do it! You did it yesterday. Do it again!’ Then I heard myself. When I backed off, I saw a difference. He still couldn’t do the pockets, but he made several attempts. Somehow, we have to always remember to let it come from him.”
“Yeah,” Laura echoed. Amalia tipped her head in agreement as she translated Suzi’s words into Spanish.
“It’s his motivation that we want to stimulate,” Suzi added.
I scooped some ice cream into my mouth. Suzi stared right into my eyes and smirked. Laura, noting her glance, pushed her over on the couch and sat on her legs. Carol tickled Laura’s foot, dethroning her from Suzi’s body.
“C’mon,” Francisca said, wanting to hear every word as soon as possible. During our first meetings, she interpreted laughter and jostling as an affront to the seriousness of the program and her son’s situation. She had held back her own joy as a statement of caring. Only after working through her beliefs about the reverence of grief and loving could she allow her own smiles. She no longer thought she must withhold happiness until Robertito progressed, understanding she could, indeed, be happy now while on the journey. Nevertheless, her efficient, thirsty mind often clutched for rapid answers.
“Ready?” I asked. Suzi shook her head in defiance. “Excuse me,” I said, catapulting myself over the coffee table. Amalia gasped as I grabbed Suzi, threw her over my shoulder and carried her into the empty dining room.
“Bears, I’ll be quiet. Bears. Don’t.” Like a slowly starting machine, I began to twirl in a circle. I could hear Roby laughing. “Bears,” Suzi called, “you always tell Raun not to touch other people’s bodies against their will, that it’s not his property. Well, this body isn’t your property, so please put it down.”
Although the momentum of my turning had increased appreciably, I stopped abruptly. “Good point,” I said matter-of-factly, and returned her to the couch. Suzi kissed me before I returned to my seat.
“To continue,” I said, looking around at this wonderful family. Suddenly, I felt heat in my face. “I’m glad to be here.” Laura touched my hand and Suzi’s hand. Carol’s face flushed. Roby hid his eyes with his hands. Francisca snuggled against her husband’s leg and smiled warmly at Amalia. For several minutes, we sat together in silence.
“I want to thank all of you for letting me be a part of your big family,” Carol said. Easy smiles greeted her comment.
During the next four hours of our meeting, all of Robertito’s other behaviors were itemized and digested carefully. In addition to speaking one word, his greatest advancement appeared to be within the area of receptive language. He could point at different people in the room on request with about 40 percent accuracy. He could pick a circle, square and triangle out of a pile of blocks, although he could not identify objects by color. Twice, responding to our suggestions, he withdrew the horse form and the cow form from the puzzle board. He appeared to know that musica referred to the tape recorder.
“A very special thing happened only two hours ago,” Suzi began. “While I danced with Robertito, I noticed his little fingers scratching at his groin. I hurried him into the bathroom like everyone has a hundred times before. I sat him on the toilet … again, like we’ve done before. But guess what that cute guy did this time – he urinated in the toilet.”
“Far out,” Laura shouted, banging the table, as everyone else applauded.
Suzi and I didn’t enjoy having to say “no” to people who called for help, but there were no hours left in the day. Because of their month-long campaign, we agreed to see the Gardners. They arrived with their daughter, Joanna, at seven-thirty on a Saturday evening.
Joanna, at four years old, displayed all the autistic patterns. No eye contact. Refusal of physical interaction. Appeared deaf and blind at times. Mute. Twirled herself in circles and rolled her head endlessly like an accomplished yogi. Jack and Meryl Gardner watched their daughter sadly. This pretty, blue-eyed, blond-haired little girl, their first child, their only child, lived in a world they found confusing and frightening. They had attempted several programs, including recent sessions with a pediatric psychiatrist … all to no avail.
Within the first four hours of moving with her, accepting her and loving her, Suzi and I established fleeting eye contact. She even straightened her crossed eyes when she glanced directly at us. Her parents watched, amazed and aghast, at the first genuine, spontaneous responses they saw emanating from their daughter. Jack folded his arms in front of his chest, breaking his pose only to tuck his shirt more neatly into his pants. Meryl leaned against the kitchen cabinet stiffly. She lit one cigarette after another, brushing her ashes into the sink. When I suggested she join us on the floor with her daughter, she refused.
“Uh, you know, I’m, uh, not trained,” Meryl said.
“Training doesn’t matter,” I said, trying to reassure her. “Look how she’s starting to respond.” I faced the little girl. “Joanna, we’re talking about you because we care about you.” Whether she could understand my words or not, I wanted to communicate, on whatever level possible, that we didn’t hold her at a distance. I touched her arm, then smiled up at her mother. “Meryl, nobody can be as effective a teacher as you can for your own daughter.”
“Go ahead,” Jack said, displaying some discomfort.
“Do you think so?” she asked. Her husband signaled his affirmation with an emphatic frown. Mrs. Gardner took my place and rolled her head, imitating her daughter, as she sat on the floor beside her. Joanna flashed glances alternately at Suzi and her. “Oh, God, Jack, she’s lookin’ at me. Jack, did you see?”
Jack acknowledged his wife’s comments, obviously pleased and confused by what we did with his daughter. Each time she uncrossed her eyes, he pointed at her, but remained silent.
Bryn and Thea took charge of Joanna for the remainder of the evening as Suzi and I spoke to the Gardners.
“Ya see, you people know what you’re doing, I guess,” Jack Gardner asserted. “But ya see, I’m not very educated. I never finished high school. All this stuff about autism is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to me. The kid’s sick, I mean … you can see that. But we don’t know how to get help for her, you know. Mr. Kaufman…”
“Bears … and Suzi,” I interrupted.
“Okay, Bears and Mrs. Kaufman, Suzi … um, we come to you ’cause we don’t know what to do any more.”
“We’ve been everywhere,” Meryl said, her voice quivering. “Absolutely everywhere. My Joanna’s not stupid, you know. She’s very bright. They all treat her like she’s retarded and all that, but nobody knows my Joanna. She knows where everything is in the house, absolutely everything. She walked before she was one. You can’t be a dummy and walk before you’re one, right?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “autistic children learn to do many things, even talk, before they begin to behave differently.”
“Yeah,” Meryl responded, “that’s what one of the doctors told us. But she’s bright, isn’t she? Do you think she can learn?”
“Meryl,” Suzi said softly, “with anyone, whether it’s a child or an adult, there’s always a possibility, always a real chance.”
“But what I mean, ya think she’ll be normal?” Meryl asked directly.
“Jesus,” Jack sighed, “they’re just folks, Meryl, not fortunetellers.”
“Maybe I can answer you like this,” I replied. “When we worked with our son and with others, we took one day at a time. The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened, so our only concern is the now. That helps us focus on what we can really do from this second to the next and to the next.”
Jack smiled. “That’s kind of how I get through my day at the grinding plant. One rod at a time and before the egg hatches, the day’s over.” He rubbed his hands together, wiping away the imaginary grime.
“How do you feel about your daughter?” Suzi asked.
They looked at each other for a second. “Me, I’m kinda okay with it,” Meryl answered. “She’s not like we expected and all, but I love her. Ya know, I’m a very nervous person, but, with me, my kid’s okay, if you know what I mean. She’s my baby. Jack, well, he’s got problems about it.” He massaged the area where the abdomen meets the rib cage,
“It kinda began when she was nine months old,” Jack said in a thin voice, “about the time she was, uh, called, you know, sick. I got this knot in my stomach, right about here. The doctors gave me all those chalk things to drink and they took a bunch of pictures… uh, X-rays. Said it was nerves. Well, I’ll tell you I got angry. I’ve never had a case of nerves in my life.”
“Do you still have that knot now?” I asked.
He acknowledged the pain in his gut, a pain which had plagued him for the past three years. For the next four hours, we concentrated on Jack in a dialogue session. One of the stories he told us in connection with his pain was about the psychiatrist who, just last week, had counseled them about Joanna’s bath. The little girl loved the water but she splashed it all over the walls and floor. Meryl viewed the behavior as uncontrollable. The physician labeling the child’s antics as inappropriate, explained to them that they must demand that Joanna act in accordance with her age. The fact that this child dysfunctioned to the extent that the world made little or no sense to her seemed irrelevant. He instructed Jack to stand behind his daughter and wrap his arms around her thereby stopping her from playing and splashing in the tub.
Since he believed the doctor knew infinitely more than himself, citing the man’s education and degrees, he never questioned the directions.
The following evening, Jack held his daughters arms when she splashed. Joanna began to scream louder and louder and louder. The knot in his stomach tightened. His daughter continued to resist, crying and choking at the same time. Jack felt like he couldn’t breathe as a wave of nausea overcame him. He released the child and fled from the room. Why did he feel so uncomfortable? Because what he did felt wrong to him. He knew his daughter did not understand. Restraining her when she merely wanted to play seemed nonsensical and cruel.
After we had worked through some of his fears and discomforts, Jack gave us his first smile of the evening. He touched his stomach, astonished. “It’s gone,” he exclaimed. “For the first time in years, it’s gone.” He turned to his wife. “Hey, Mer, it’s gone!” She smiled in a motherly fashion at her husband.
“Now that you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, I want you to consider something,” I said. “If you were to design a program now, what would you do with your daughter?”
“But how can I, uh, what do I know?” he answered.
“Why don’t you try asking yourself and see?” Suzi suggested.
He glanced at his wife, stuck his chest out and began. “First off, I wouldn’t hold her in the tub any more. That’s for sure. Ya know what I’d do,” he said with a sudden burst of conviction. “I’d jump in with her and splash the walls and floors myself.” He smiled and slugged his wife in the shoulder. “Ya hear, Mer, right in the tub with her.”
For the next forty minutes, Jack Gardner, high school dropout, described in detail a program which in vision and specific techniques mirrored the one we had originally designed for our son. In those moments of comfort and self-confidence, he knew and understood more than any theory or text could teach him.