As we entered the fifth week in our program, Robertito not only permitted more physical contact but initiated play with blocks and puzzles as well as indicated, in a primitive fashion, a desire for tumbling with his father. He still viewed the world from the corners of his eyes. He still hand-flapped, finger-twirled, babbled and paced the room. While I plotted his growth, I knew he felt no rush to learn, no temporal deadline to meet. This child moved through a time zone few of us ever experienced. Even his face displayed an ageless quality. He had all the time in the world, but we didn’t.
“Here, Robertito,” Francisca said, putting the block in his hand, during a late afternoon session with her son. “Put it on top of this one here,” she said, pointing. He watched her hand, then turned away. He rubbed his fingers against the side of his face, bent his head downward and smiled to himself.
“You can do it. Here, Robertito. Put it here.” Slowly, he moved his hand and placed the block on top of the other. Francisca burst into applause and shouts, then lavished him with stroking. She trusted herself more now, giving him another block. Robertito looked at the wood cube and flapped it only for a few seconds. Since the intensive daily massages, his hand “isms” had decreased noticeably. Moving at a snail’s pace, the little boy put the third block on top of the small pile. Francisca dared the procedure again. They continued working together until the tower had grown to the height of eighteen blocks.
After this massive concentration, Robertito jumped in place, flapped his hand and laughed. Francisca mimicked him and also laughed. Later, he ambled over to the radiator, grabbed a drumstick, hit one of the keys on the xylophone. Laura and Suzi had worked weeks with him without results. Now, somewhere in the privacy of his own mind, he plugged a circuit together and made a connection in an act self-motivated and self-directed.
When she finished feeding him dinner, Francisca placed the remaining food behind her. Robertito darted for it. She grabbed for the glass but missed it as her son squeezed a handful of lettuce and tomatoes between his fingers. She removed the food from his tight grip. He threw himself toward the glass again. This time, anticipating his action, she swooped it off the floor and put it outside the room. Robertito Soto began to cry. His face cringed, his larynx wailed a noisy protest … yet his eyes remained oddly passive.
Francisca bit her lip and ground her teeth. Although she had realized that her actions often supported and encouraged his crying, she found it difficult to be loving and neutral at the same time. “If you want to cry, that’s okay,” she said. “When you’re finished, we can play again. I’ll be here.”
She contemplated imitating his cry, but short-circuited the impulse. She repeated a scenario in her head. “He’s trying to get what he wants. If he decides to cry, that’s his choice.” When she touched him, he pulled away, “If you want food, say ‘co.’ Or point your finger like this.” She demonstrated, but her son seemed oblivious to her commentary. “Okay, my love. I’ll be here.”
The screeching bellowed in her ears. She wished for some of her son’s skills, envying his ability to shut off his sensory intake at will. She tapped her fingers together and tried to concentrate on the movement. Then Francisca looked up at her son and gasped. A single tear dripped down Robertito’s cheek, then a second one and a third one until a small river ran along the bridge of his nose and down the sides of his chin. In all the tantrums in Mexico, he always cried a dry cry. She watched her son cry real tears for the very first time. A battle ensued within her. He had to be unhappy. The other times didn’t count. How could she just sit by? He was unhappy, genuinely unhappy and she wanted to comfort him. When she embraced her son, he pulled away and screamed angrily. Disoriented, Francisca propped herself against the wall. “Okay, Mama will wait.” Robertito continued crying real tears for the next forty-five minutes. Finally Francisca scrambled out the door and returned with the food. Robertito stopped immediately upon seeing the glass in his mother’s hand. His smooth, wet face seemed curiously devoid of any expression of sadness.
Before putting him to bed, Francisca decided to give her son a bath. Once completely nude, Robertito pulled away from his mother and ran through the halls. He laughed, giggled and cooed. He touched himself freely, exploring with his fingers. Francisca watched her son, awed and slightly embarrassed by his apparent pleasure. For his entire life, major portions of his body had been unavailable to him, wrapped in the seclusion of diapers and pins. As he became more willing to pause from his “isms” and explore, he found himself in a way that he had never done before. Even as she lowered him into the warm bath, he still smiled enthusiastically, kicking his feet in the water and exploring his hidden parts.
He climbed out of the tub very relaxed. Francisca wiped him as he collapsed into a heap on the floor. She dried his arms and legs carefully, having made an art of the few motherly duties he permitted her to perform. Then, quite suddenly, Robertito sat up, looked at his mother and, in a gesture so natural yet unfamiliar, he rested his head on her lap. Although Francisca was filled with emotion, she didn’t let herself cry as she gently stroked her son’s back.
She had had more concrete opportunities to love her child during the past five weeks than during the previous five years of his life.
Each moment brought a special pleasure to Suzi, nurturing Robertito as she had once nurtured her own son. After she guided him to his chair, he waited impatiently, alert to her movements. He had seen the cereal. A moment before, even as his stomach gurgled, the idea of eating never occurred to him. Most of his pursuits resulted only after something concrete stimulated his eyes or ears.
Food no longer came to Robertito as a disconnected item amid a jungle of noise and activity surrounding him. Food no longer suddenly appeared in a cup or bowl sitting solo on a table. People gave him food. Suzi gave him food. She circled her student like a matador. He turned in his chair, not wanting to lose visual contact with the item she carried. Suzi positioned herself on the floor in front of him so their eyes met on the same level. She dug deep into the cup, filled the spoon, brought it up to a point right between her eyes and said “co” three times. Then, she lowered the spoon into his opened mouth. “The best,” she said each time those big brown eyes met hers. “Yes. It’s me, Suzi. Here you go again. Co. Co. This is co.” He did not flap once. Although he made infant sounds as he chewed, Robertito appeared almost normal to her. She noted sixteen different incidents of eye contact.
For the remainder of the session, his interest waned. He began to rock. She joined him, but he did not appear attentive to her parallel motion. He slid within himself. She had lost him in a matter of minutes. As she followed Robertito across the room, flapping and babbling with him, she couldn’t help but wonder what she had done. Did she miss a cue? Was she pushing too much? Had she been insensitive to his fatigue?
The session lingered with her. She kept thinking about Robertito all through the rest of the day. In the evening, we talked about her questions. But even as she settled back into bed, our little Mexican friend haunted her.
Exhaustion enveloped her quickly as she fell asleep. Within seconds, she experienced herself airborne. The buoyancy allowed her to float to the ceiling. A warm sensation enshrouded her body. When she looked down, she was no longer in our bedroom. She watched Francisca work with Robertito in his room. The little boy followed directions quite well, surprisingly more efficient than her memory of him that afternoon. She loved to watch Francisca teach him, tickle him, caress him. Though she loved to work with Robertito, she knew, from her own past, the special exhilaration for a mother helping her own child. In the midst of completing an unusually complex puzzle, Robertito tapped Francisca’s shoulder and asked for food. He didn’t say “co.” He didn’t say comida. He spoke clearly, using a very simple, short sentence. Suzi gasped. Francisca gave her son a spoonful of shrimp and rice without any particular expression of surprise. Robertito then asked her to massage big hand. “He’s talking,” Suzi screamed, “He’s talking, Francisca. Don’t you know how fantastic this is? Robertito is talking.” She heard her own voice as she jumped up in the bed. Her face felt flushed. “It was real,” she whispered in the darkness as she grabbed my arm and related the dream. She exhaled deeply, then fell back against the pillow.
Suzi remembered Nancy’s dreams about Raun… all of which, ultimately, came true. If it could only be, she murmured to herself as her eyelids closed. If it could only be. Sleep grabbed her and another door opened.
Robertito stood in the kitchen by the sink. Suzi greeted him with surprise.
“Why aren’t you in your room?” she said, then chuckled to herself. Very gently, she took his hand and led him back to the staircase. At the first step, he bolted and ran back into the kitchen. Suzi called to Francisca and Roby. No one answered. She called to Charlotte, then Laura. Still no reply. How could it be possible? Who’s working with him? Then she realized it had been her turn.
“Let’s go, Robertito,” she said in Spanish.
The little boy looked directly at her and said: “I want some food, please.”
Suzi gasped. “Did you talk, Robertito?”
He smiled at her and repeated his sentence. She swung the door open and let him take whatever he wanted. Rather than charge for the food, he removed some bread and butter. Using a knife expertly, he spread the soft creamy substance. “Can I please have some juice?” he said casually. She started to cheer and woke herself up. Suzi stared at the ceiling, confused by the bombardment of dreams. “Wow,” she said to herself as she performed a circular breathing exercise. The darkness enveloped her again.
The noise in the room created a strange cacophony of sound. A group of well-dressed men and women conversed in Spanish. Two guitarists played subdued flamenco music. Five animated teenagers talked together near the couch. One voice sounded familiar. As Suzi side-stepped closer to the cluster of children, she recognized the back of Robertito’s head. She pushed a small table aside in order to improve her view. She gasped when she positively identified him. Words tumbled from his mouth. Although she listened carefully, the sophistication of his language exceeded her knowledge. “He talks better than me,” she mumbled. “Robertito,” she called. He turned toward her, but did not seem to recognize her. “Wait, don’t look away. It’s me. Suzi. You remember. You must remember.” Her eyes burst open. The voices had disappeared. Her pulse thumped in her throat. She rolled out of bed and reviewed each dream. She loved them, but she wanted to stop them. Again, the thought of Nancy. But Raun was different, she argued to herself. Raun had been one and a half. Robertito was almost six. She placed an image of Robertito pacing and flapping before her mind’s eye and then smiled. Suzi did not want to create fantasies which might never be fulfilled. “One day at a time,” she whispered to the night.
Robertito sat by himself against the wall. Though he flapped, he watched Raun out of the corner of his eye. His immediate awareness of Raun’s presence had been enhanced by Raun’s performance. Suzi observed from the side of the room. Under her direction, our son jumped on the mattress, did somersaults and played flamboyantly with the blocks and pegboard.
“Okay, sweet boy, I want you to be with him,” she said. “Do what he does like we showed you.”
Raun grinned from ear to ear. He squatted in front of Robertito enthusiastically and flapped his hands. After several seconds, he laughed. Each time he tried to stop himself, he giggled more. “This is funny,” he whispered, not wanting to insult his companion. The two children moved as one for several minutes. Then Robertito paced the room. Raun followed. Robertito grunted sounds. Raun imitated him.
“Mommy, can I squeeze his cheeks? You think he’d like that?”
“I don’t know, Raunchy,” she answered. “Why don’t we wait till later. Right now, concentrate on being with him.”
As they walked beside one another, Robertito watched Raun’s feet carefully, though he did not look directly at him. From time to time, Raun giggled, excited to participate a second time and thoroughly amused by his friend’s antics.
When the boys sat together in the center of the room, Suzi supplied them with cardboard blocks decorated with cartoons. Raun began building a bridge. Robertito babbled. With a natural ease, Raun repeated the exact sound and cadence. He turned to Suzi. “I’m talking to him in autistic talk.” He thought a moment. “It’s different than Spanish.”
Suzi was amazed at the frequency of Robertito’s smiles during Raun’s sessions with him.
Robertito put his hand over his mouth. Each time Raun mimicked him, he pulled it off. Then he peered at Raun’s hands assembling the blocks. Robertito picked up one cube and turned it around in front of his eyes. Although he had been presented with them many times, for the first time, he noticed the cartoons.
“You see them, don’t you?” Suzi bubbled in Spanish. “That’s Daffy Duck. And Pluto.” She squished her nose, chuckling several oink-oink sounds. “Of course, that’s my friend Porky Pig.” She laughed at the facial contortions on Robertito’s face. “You’re a wonderful boy.”
Then Suzi turned and smiled at our son. She spoke in English. “You’re a wonderful boy, too.” She stared at Raun and remembered vividly when he, too, lived in a world dominated by self-stimulating behaviors … when he, too, was mute and unresponsive. The eyes of both children had a strikingly similar intensity. Although Robertito was large and slightly plump while Raun was petite and delicate, the two shared a certain brotherhood.
As they faced each other, Raun touched Robertito’s cheeks. Suzi guided Robertito’s limp hands along Raun’s face. He allowed the contact, giving Raun several quick glances. Then, on his own initiative, the little boy stroked our son’s face. Raun’s eyes enlarged. “Look. He’s doing it by himself. Isn’t that great?” He also pushed his fingers into Raun’s mouth and played with his tongue.
Later, Suzi invited Francisca to participate. She put the tape recorder on and had Francisca dance with Raun. Robertito watched intently, still relying on his peripheral vision. He began to rock to the rhythm on his own. Suzi took his hands and followed his lead. When the music stopped, Robertito continued his surveillance of Raun and his mother. Suzi asked Francisca to solo. She moved across the room using the loose two-step she had taught her son. He watched her for five minutes and then broke away from the wall in order to approach her. Suzi felt her pulse rate jump. Very slowly, Robertito began the two-step and extended his hands until they touched his mother’s waist. I cheered from the sidelines. Francisca poked her chin out, her every movement oozing with pride. She straightened her hair.
After Francisca left, Suzi continued following the cues of her student as well as trying to stimulate his interest in stringing beads. When Robertito began scratching his pants near his genitals, Suzi whisked him toward the bathroom. We had noticed that he touched himself either just after or when he was about to urinate. After Suzi removed his diapers, she stood him at the toilet bowl.
“Raun. Show Robertito how you go to the bathroom,” she suggested.
Our son giggled, “Hey, look at me, Robertito.”
“Mira, Robertito, mira,” Suzi said, pointing to the stream of liquid. Robertito focused on the point where the stream hit the water rather than at the point of origin. Suzi modeled him in the same position as her son. Robertito looked, down at the water, then made a repetitious sucking sound with his mouth. Suzi waited several minutes before seating him on the toilet. He jumped up several times, but then returned to the seat. Ten more minutes passed. Robertito never utilized the bowl for its intended function. She diapered him again. Before she left the room, she placed his right hand on the faucet. He turned the knob slowly, demonstrating growing strength in his limbs, especially on his right side. The week before, he could not turn it.
Back in the room, Raun leaned over and kissed his young friend. Suzi felt the unstated communion. The energy between them devastated her.
As they left the Soto house, she questioned Raun. “Did you have fun?”
“It was great,” Raun declared, rubbing his stomach as if that had been where he felt it. “He was so good that I thought he was about to talk … you know, in English.” He smiled to himself. “I like rocking with him and dancing. I like everything else, but I like that part the best.”
“Raunchy, were you happy when you were autistic?” Suzi asked.
He thought for a moment. “Yes,” he answered, “but I like it better now.”