The six of us became more than a core group. Suzi, Laura, Francisca, Roby, Charlotte and myself, with the support of Bryn, Thea and Raun, gathered not as teachers, therapists or scientists, but as members of an instant extended family. Though we had not shared long and entwined histories like brothers or sisters, we knew each other.
Our marathon observations, the tests, a video session and several individual Option dialogue sessions had been completed. Suzi and I waited a week for this night. Laura had waited for over a year. Francisca and Roby had waited almost two years. Robertito had waited all his life.
We reviewed the premises of our approach, “to trust ourselves as well as Robertito.” We reaffirmed the enveloping attitude of “to love is to be happy with,” which would become the walls of our teaching womb. Since Robertito could not make sense of our world, we would go to him in his world. We would imitate his activities not only to make us easy to digest, but also as a concrete way to express our acceptance of him. Show him we care. Make our love more than a verbal commitment, but a working reality with this dysfunctioning child. We would not judge him, call his behaviors good or bad. There would be no conditions and no expectations. He did not have to perform or achieve any goals in order to maintain our caring and involvement.
First, we would try to make contact. Then, if he opened a door and allowed us access, we would try to help him find his own motivation to be with us. Finally, all activities would be broken into small, simple components to make them more digestible.
Each person received a special check list we devised in order to chart Robertito’s behaviors and responses each week. How frequent were his repetitious behaviors or “isms”? And for what duration? Did he give spontaneous and requested eye contact? What have been his facial and emotional expressions? What were his reactions to familiar and new people? To familiar and new objects? Has he indicated any wants by pushing, pulling, pointing, crying or making sounds? Did his food intake influence his interaction? Did he initiate any contact? What language (words, phrases, motions, signs) did he understand? What about physical contact and physical skills? Any movement toward self-help capabilities like dressing and toilet training? The list swelled to three pages. Each notation helped us see our special friend more clearly.
I wanted everyone to know, including Raun, that each of us had something special to contribute. Though Suzi and I would train everyone, we did not seek to create replicas of ourselves. In fact, that would diminish each person’s value. We would create general thrusts, but each person would teach on his or her own terms. Francisca had already displayed a special ease with movement and dance. Roby presented a more athletic, tumbling form. Laura brought with her the gift of music, articulated through voice and instruments. We wanted each person to be himself; to utilize his talents and interests as functional elements of the teaching situation.
We talked about being enthusiastic and physically affectionate when Robertito permitted. Establish any kind of human contact, whether it be facilitated by a ball, a musical instrument, a puzzle, a crayon or a dance routine, We noted the importance of attending to every cue the child made … for in the course of an entire day, we might only have one or two opportunities to make connections.
A medium-sized bedroom provided the setting for our work. Its location on the second floor sheltered us from any activity or noise emanating from other parts of the house. We left the walls bare for the least amount of distractions. A single table and two chairs had been placed in one corner. Pillows and a backrest were stacked by the door.
Language presented no barriers for Suzi. Even Bryn experienced a certain ease. For our other children, for Laura and for me, we had to rely on our studies and the sheets of paper tacked on the walls which contained the most common Spanish idioms and words. Yet, ironically, our simplistic verbal statements became more ideal than the fluency of the Sotos or Charlotte. In a continued effort to simplify the input into Robertito’s world, we wanted to limit the intricacy of language, using simple one- and two-word sentences … even using a single syllable for the most important words. But if the Sotos, Charlotte, or any of us wanted to express our excitement and love in long Spanish, or even English sentences, that could be done … for the sentiment communicated beneath the words might touch Robertito more directly than the meaning of our specific vocabulary. The limit on language would apply to a teaching premise. Rather than ask: “Robertito, would you like some milk this morning” a simple substitute would be, “Robertito, want milk?” or just simply, “Milk?”
The Sotos had brought a carton of toys with them from Mexico. We integrated our own collection of tools with theirs. Laura donated some items, including several musical instruments and art materials. Other friends, who knew of our involvement with Robertito, gave us boxes of used playthings. But our needs, in fact, were quite simple. We brought only the most elemental, infantile toys into the room; blocks, insertion boxes, stacking cups and circles, oversized beads and a string, several simple puzzles, a pegboard and some musical instruments.
The primary focus would be to establish eye contact. Robertito would no longer be left to eat alone. We would feed him at eye level, creating additional opportunities for him to see us. Perhaps, he might glance past a spoonful of food and catch a smile or a playful wink.
“There’s so much to remember,” Francisca blurted from her squatted position on the floor. She tapped Charlotte, who translated her words immediately. Laura nodded her head sympathetically. She, too, shared the same concern.
“There’s nothing to remember,” I explained. “You really can’t rehearse or memorize techniques if we’re going to follow a child, go with him and trust that at any given time, he’s doing the best he can. That’s why we talk about working on ourselves first, to stay open. We’re dealing with a human being and a situation which is not static.”
“Francisca, Rha,” Suzi interjected, “what I always do is review my notes before a work session with any child … kind of a reminder. Then, I put my notes away and let myself be free, as loving, accepting and clear as I can possibly be.”
“Far-out,” Laura whispered. “Now if I could only do that.”
“Do you want to?” I asked.
“You know I do,” she responded. To camouflage her self-consciousness, she flashed a ghoulish, distorted Halloween face. Francisca and Roby gaped at her. Charlotte giggled sardonically,
“Rha, just be you,” I said.
She leaned over and tapped my hand. “Thanks, Papa Bear,” she replied.
The schedule of sessions for Robertito spanned a period of at least twelve hours each day, seven days a week. We would utilize his every waking hour. We had three months …hopefully. We wanted to use every day, every hour, every second. But the intensity of contact and our responses to his sporadic cues did not override the significance of our attitude. Time was not the teacher. A wise old man doesn’t become wise simply by becoming old.
Like the sad face of an old clown, the Victorian porch sagged by the front entrance of the house. Peels of yellow paint, faded by a decade of sun and rain, hung from window sills and gothic arches. Nevertheless, this aged structure retained a charm that time could not erode.
The building attracted Suzi as she admired the gabled roof. “Perfect,” she mused, “perfect for Laura.” She ducked under the hammock which had been strung across the front steps. Her head hit the plastic bowl of a spider plant hanging precariously in front of the door. Suzi laughed. Two broken chairs, their backs temporarily supported by clothesline rope, had been set neatly around a small table which contained two crystal wineglasses and a bottle of Beaujolais.
“Rha,” Suzi called. “Hi, Rha.” She entered the apartment with the same ease with which she would enter her own home. The obstacle course combined with the decrepit exterior always created the illusion of arriving at “the promised land.” Inside, antique furniture had been offset by a blue oriental rug. Laura’s own paintings hung beside ancient musical instruments displayed on the walls. Suzi heard soft flute music emanating from the kitchen. The grace with which Laura moved from saxophone to clarinet to piano to flute to guitar dazzled her.
She recognized the combination of notes instantly. “‘Claire de lune,”‘ she marveled. The memories bombarded her like old movies. Before children, before Option, before marriage, before acting, she had had a seven-year love affair with the piano. She had perfected this piece more than any other. “Claire de lune” promised romance and deliverance during a time in her life when the fabric of her family stretched and ripped. Oftentimes, Suzi, ten years old, arrived home from school only to find the doors locked and no one home. One afternoon, she waited three hours in the freezing rain, huddled in the archway by the front entrance, her dress soaked by the rainwater. She played “Claire de lune” over and over again in her head, clutching her sides to stop herself from shivering. She held onto the inspiration of the music even as she began to cry, no longer able to fight the pressure of her bladder; embarrassed by the warm flood oozing between her legs. The image dimmed.
Laura’s flute music filled her once again. She listened attentively until the last lyrical note faded.
“Wonderful,” Suzi shouted, clapping enthusiastically.
Laura stuck her head through the doorway and smiled. “You sneak,” She bounced into the room and embraced Suzi tightly.
“I noticed your special table setting on the porch. Are we celebrating?” Suzi asked.
“Sort of … I mean, I’m celebrating. You know what this means to me – you and Bears wanting me to be part of the Robertito program. I always remember you training me to work with Raun. Wow, what a crazy lady, I kept thinking. She’s going to trust ‘me’ with her son.” Laura smiled in a motherly way. “Now Raun’s partly mine, too.” She cleared her throat, stalling, searching for words. “Anyway, I wrote a song for you … kind of for you and Robertito. So that’s the mystery behind my invitation.”
Suzi hugged her friend. “You really did that?”
“Uh-huh,” Laura mumbled. “Now don’t go humble on me.”
“Listen, knuckle-head,” Suzi held her friend’s hands and squeezed tightly, “I feel very, very … honored. And I know Robertito, in his way, will be too. Really!”
Laura lit a candle to set the stage. She whipped out her soprano saxophone from its case and tuned it against the piano. Though she had performed in clubs and recitals, she felt the heat rising in her face. She would use any association to tap the softness which often eluded her. She tensed her jaw, manipulating her lips on the reed so that each note had the rounded quality of vintage wine, full-bodied and pure. Laura wanted her love for Suzi and for her horn to move her closer to Robertito, and ultimately, to herself.
Later, as they sipped wine on the porch, Laura became very quiet when Suzi talked about the program for Robertito.
“Rha, anything going on?”
Laura shrugged her shoulders and sighed. “How come I’m such an easy read for you?”
“‘Cause you look like uncle Charlie!” They both laughed. “Do you want to talk about it?” Suzi asked.
“I’m getting nervous. I know you guys think of me as trained, but … Robertito’s a whole different thing.”
“What do you mean?” Suzi asked.
“He’s so big and so old. Jesus, then there’s the whole language mess. I’m a cripple when it comes to learning a foreign language. I got a ‘D’ in German … and that was a favor. Look, I’ll talk to Bears about it in my session. I don’t want to bother you with my sh*t.”
Suzi turned Laura’s face with her hand. “Hey, if you want to talk about it now, I’m here.”
She looked at Suzi expectantly. “Just tell me. Do you think I’ll still be a good teacher?” She held back on the more central question which disturbed her.
“Rha, I could think you would make the greatest teacher, but so what. That doesn’t help you. What do you think?”
“I know I’m good with my music students. I felt so clear when I worked with Raun. But that’s two years ago.” She sighed. “Every once in a while I lose it; then I feel okay, even real confident. I go back and forth.”
“Even if you’re nervous, tongue-tied; even if your mind goes blank and you forget all your Spanish, all you have to do is follow him and you’ll give him a gift.”
Laura nodded and smiled. “One more silly thing.” She put her hands up. “Okay, okay, don’t say it. If it’s on my mind, then it’s not silly. You see, I’m learning.” She tilted her head.
“Roby and Francisca are beautiful people, but they’re so, so, ah, straight… you know, like formal stiff, always so serious. I don’t feel I can really be myself around them.” She began to giggle. “I mean take something dumb. Remember how long our last meeting was? Well, I held in a fart all night.” Suzi laughed. “You know what this is for me? On my diet of rice and beans. Could you imagine?” Laura and Suzi became hysterical. “Suppose right in the middle of some detailed discussion of right and left brain function, I just leaned to the side, teacup in hand, and blasted a big one into the living room.”
“That’s a real problem,” Suzi said with mock seriousness. “I’d say either change your diet or get a muffler.”
Eee-ooo, eee-ooo, eee-ooo,” Robertito bellowed as he scooted across the room, his right hand flapping energetically beside his head. He side-glanced at his shaking limb. At a first-superficial glance, his expression appeared smug and aloof. But, then, after a more careful scrutiny, the incredible softness, the hypnotic peacefulness, the unearthly internal calm of this child infected my every fiber leaving no doubts about the power and the enigmatic beauty of his self-absorption. Watching him drew me out of myself, beyond all familiar points of reference,
Francisca chased merrily after her son, finally duplicating his pace and maintaining a parallel movement, “Eee-ooo, eeeooo, eee-ooo,” she sang, submerging her echo into a musical context. He increased his speed. Francisca escalated her own steps. Against the harmony of cooing and strange babble, they passed before my eyes like dancers inaugurating a new ballet.
After twenty more minutes of fast-paced circling of the room, Robertito dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. He giggled, then curled his double-jointed, tension-free body into an embryonic ball. Francisca looked to me for direction. I smiled affectionately at her and maintained my silence, wanting to give her the space to search within herself for guidance. A feed-back discussion had been scheduled for later in the day. We had all agreed, except in emergencies of special situations, conversation between myself and Robertito’s mentors during the work time would break the flow. A self-conscious smile gripped Francisca’s face. She turned away from my glance and peered thoughtfully at her son. She wanted to be perfect. The best! This was her child, her only child! Then, leaning over his body, she sang him a Spanish lullaby, caressing him with each word and soothing him with ancient lyrics. He remained absolutely still during the entire song.
He moved me, even in his inertia. I had this intense impulse to hug him, to cradle him in my arms, to “mother” him across the abyss with affection and a tight embrace. More than a random thought, I felt a definite jolt, almost electrical, vibrate through my arms and legs, connecting me in some elemental, yet unknowable, way to the biological presence of this little boy. A burst of sentences from Francisca, which followed her musical interlude, fractured the mood, severing the almost “out-of-body” bond I experienced with her son.
Robertito crawled several feet, tumbled over onto his side and rocked energetically. Francisca laughed as she swung her body like his, but her position slightly behind him made it difficult for eye contact. In addition, we had discussed, at great length, the necessity to talk continuously to him in order to share our caring and stimulate audio receptivity to speech; yet Francisca remained silent for the next fifteen minutes.
Each time I made an entry into my book, I felt her awareness of my movement. Just as her son side-glanced, ingesting the external environment through his peripheral vision, she, too, utilized that perceptivity to maintain her surveillance of me. Her nervousness became apparent. In less than three months, she would return to Mexico. This time, she told herself, she had to learn everything about her son, about herself, about Option before she left. The enormous pressure diverted her attention from the session, at times sabotaging her ability to relax. Nevertheless, her sustained input and enormous enthusiasm with Robertito would excite even the most casual observer.
When Robertito let his tongue hang out of his mouth, she mimicked him. He began jumping in place. “Brinca. Brinca. Si, Robertito, brinca! ” she shouted, joining him. As he jumped with his mother, I noticed he watched her mid-section, more aware of her harmony with his motion. Before we began, he appeared completely oblivious to our presence. Now, after only three days into the program, I knew Robertito, somewhere deep inside, found us more digestible. Though incapable of participating, he had, at least, increased his attentiveness to our existence.
Roby entered with some food, gave it to his wife and settled into a corner of the room. He noticed an increase in his wife’s expertise, resulting, he assumed, from the nightly Option sessions and demonstrations. She seemed smoother, more patient, more relaxed. The growing mellowness of his son mesmerized him. The extended periods of crying and frequent tantrums, so common in Mexico, had almost disappeared.
Suddenly aware of the food, Robertito became more alert. His mother faced him with a cup of cereal. He glanced directly at her for a second, then looked away, his mouth slightly ajar. She used that second of contact to smile at him and say: “Hola!, Robertito.”
While Francisca mixed the grains and fruits together, the little boy remained in a state of readiness. “Do you want to eat? I know you do. Shake your head so Mama can know what you want.” He neither answered her nor acknowledged her statement. “Well, your mouth is open, so that must be your answer. You’re such a smart boy.” She filled the spoon and held it directly between her eyes as I had demonstrated during one of the group meetings. “Comida,” she said, pronouncing each syllable slowly. “Comida, Robertito. Co-mi-da.” When she brought the food toward him, he stopped flapping his hand. Robertito did not look in her direction, yet his mouth opened as if on cue, anticipating the exact moment when the spoon would reach his lips. He gurgled and murmured as he ate. His hands continued their flapping activity. He even twirled his fingers simultaneously. During the meal, little Robertito Soto glanced past the spoon two times and looked at his mother’s face. Each time this occurred, Francisca exploded with enthusiasm in response to those one-second gifts. I found myself clapping and cheering. In some visceral way, Robertito was my son too.
After the meal, the little boy rolled on the floor. His mother rolled with him, touching him several times. Only once did he pull away. Francisca placed two cups between their faces as they laid side by side on the floor. Robertito watched her fingers manipulate the yellow and red cups, then he grabbed the yellow one briskly and flapped it in his right hand. His right foot mimicked the motion of his hand. The intensity of the “ism” increased rapidly. He pushed himself faster and faster and faster until a thin lather of perspiration veiled his forehead. Finally, he jerked himself almost harshly, his body pulsating with the self-induced rhythm. Francisca watched him compulsively, trying to block her awareness that her son had galloped into a state akin to orgasm.
Seconds later, he bounced to his feet, ran to the table and climbed on top of it. His tongue hung out of his mouth again. Setting herself in a position directly in front of him, Francisca mimicked his clown-like expression. Again, she remained silent even though her son did not make any sounds to imitate. I continued to log the session and make elaborate notes for our feed-back conferences.
Francisca noticed a wet spot on his pants. She grabbed a diaper from the shelf. Quickly, she unbuckled his belt and pulled down his pants. The urine had seeped through the diaper and plastic pants. As I watched her change him, the realization that Robertito was almost six years old rather than six months old became vividly apparent. Francisca did not notice the incongruity for she had been changing his pants since the day he was born.
When Robertito tried to get up before she had zipped and snapped his jeans, Francisca grabbed his arm. They struggled for several moments before she completed her chore forcefully. His big dark eyes clouded, obviously disoriented or disturbed by the use of physical exertion against him. I starred my entry. Unless questions of safety were involved, there would be no physical manipulation of Robertito. Although our motives might be clear and sensible to us, his lack of ability to interpret our acts might leave him with the unproductive impression that, somehow, we moved hostilely against him, invading his body, the only kingdom in which he could seek secure sanctuary.
With her thumb, Francisca flipped on the tape recorder. He swayed back and forth in perfect time to the beat. “Ah, you love music, don’t you? Here I come,” she said in Spanish, crawling on her hands and knees until she faced him. Very precisely, she said, “Musica. Esta es musica. Mu-si-ca.” Francisca tried to take his hands several times. Finally, he permitted her to hold his left one as he “ismed” his right.
A mother and child together. For another woman, this might be just a passing moment among many others. For most, touching a child and talking to a child were simple, uncomplicated, everyday acts. For Francisca Soto, these were minor miracles seldom experienced with her son. She stamped these seconds indelibly into her mind. They would become beacons to help light her path.
While he relaxed to the music and let his mother touch him, he kept jerking his hand… his right hand. He rubbed his right foot against the floor with considerable pressure. Something about his movements seemed incredibly familiar. I felt a sense of deja vu all day while watching him. Comparisons to Raun and the other children we had worked with yielded no insights.
“My God,” I heard myself exclaim. I remembered! I jumped to my feet abruptly, startling both Francisca and Roby. I delayed my exit for seconds in order to reassure them.
My legs lunged forward down the hallway. I had increased my gait to a near run by the time I flew over the top step. “Charlotte! Charlotte!”
“I’m busy now,” a sluggish voice answered.
My charge into the kitchen was aborted by the comical impact of her inert form. She sat with her feet up on the table, a phone tucked between her shoulder and her head, one hand busily applying nail polish to the other. Charlotte gaped at me. “What a lunatic!” she mused silently, her eyes riveted to my heaving chest,
Knowing her thought, I began to laugh. “I guess I do look like a lunatic.” She gasped and overturned her bottle. “Really,” I said, “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but do you or Francisca have a sewing kit?”
“Now?” she questioned.
Pointing to her obvious involvement in her phone conversation, I said: “It’s too long to explain, but I really need it.”
She mumbled something into the receiver, then strolled out of the room. When she returned, she deposited a portable sewing kit into my hands.
I thanked her as I rummaged through the spools and pin compartments. Once I secured the largest needle, I placed the box on the table and raced back up the stairs three at a time. I entered Robertito’s room on tiptoes, then quietly said several words in Spanish and interrupted the session. All the while, I could feel my pulse in my chest and my hands.
Slowly, I guided that sweet-faced little person into the center of the room and coaxed him to lay on his back. I stripped his shoes and socks off, then rolled up his shirt sleeves. Oddly, he did not resist me in any way. His co-operation startled me. It was almost as if he knew.
I stroked his soft, yielding hands. I watched those large apple eyes move in their sockets until they fixed on a light bulb. A very peaceful expression enveloped his face. Robertito lay there like a baby, open and trusting.
“Bears?” Francisca blurted when she saw me produce the needle from my breast pocket. I reassured her with isolated Spanish words, sign language and the softest expression I could plaster on my face.
“Hey, little boy, I’m not going to hurt you,” I said to my young friend in English. I held his left hand in mine. “Tito, it might sting, but no one will hurt you. Okay? Get ready. I’m going to do it now. Right now.” I picked the soft part of his hand with the metal point. He pulled away immediately and stared directly into my eyes. I smiled at him and stroked his shoulder. He returned his concentration to the light bulb. Trying to telegraph my every move, hoping something, anything would penetrate, I did the same thing to his left foot. Again, he jumped. He bent his knee, tucking his limb underneath him. “It’s okay, sweet boy. It’s okay.”
I felt a momentary sense of relief which dissipated when I scanned the right side of his body. “We all love you. Yo te quiero, Robertito. Bien. Bien, mi amigo.” This time I held my breath as I lifted his right hand. I slid my fingers across his smooth skin, then pricked him with the needle. No response. Absolutely no response. “Maybe I didn’t hit it right,” I muttered aloud. “It’s okay, little fellow. I’m going to do it again. Somewhere, Robertito, hear me.” I pushed the tip into his skin. This time there could be no doubt. He did not respond. Neither his face nor his eyes nor his body conveyed any reaction to the pin prick. I tested his fingers and the back of his hand. Only when I pushed heavily did he seem to have some feeling. Francisca sighed nervously, confused by my discovery. Roby knelt beside me and watched in disbelief.
When I had observed Robertito earlier in the session, I noticed he self-stimulated his right hand more often and quite differently from his left. Rather than merely doing a repetitive motion, he shook his hand insistently, with a definite fury and intensity which mirrored what I recalled doing when my own hand “fell asleep.” Sometimes, if I slept hunched over myself, I would have to shake or bang my arm trying to revive it in a crude effort to stimulate the nerves and increase the circulation. Perhaps Robertito was attempting to do the very same thing.
Each time we had gently touched this little boy’s hand, he pulled away. Yet, sometimes, when we gripped him more forcefully he permitted the contact. Though I might pound my hand on a table if I had slept on it, I, too, could not tolerate light stroking.
Placing Robertito’s right hand in mine, I massaged it as deeply and thoroughly as I could. He did not pull away. I stretched his arm out on the floor and hit it gently with my open hand palm. Robertito smiled. He actually smiled. His head whipped from side to side as he giggled, responding like a child being tickled.
Hearty little-boy chuckles filled the room. Francisca covered her wet eyes and laughed. Roby grabbed his son’s right leg and followed my procedure. We had found a channel, primitive and crude, but, nevertheless, a channel through which we could share and communicate on a physical level.
The striking image of a ghost town in the left side of his brain reoccurred to me. Perhaps the inactivity not only affected his communication and cognitive center, but had secondary ramifications with motoric activities on the right side of his body, which correlated body function with the opposite side of the brain.
More significant, the neurological pathways carried impulses both ways along the same tracks. In the typical circumstance, the hand feels hot, communicates the heat pain to the brain and, in a seemingly instantaneous response, the brain instructs the hand to move. We had chosen to try to activate Robertito’s mind with loving, stimulating parallel play combined with volumes of verbal input. But now, if we helped him “wake up” his right hand, we would, at the same time, massage the brain through his sense of touch. By pounding and rubbing his hand, we would send impulses back along the tracks to the inscrutable throne in his head. The answer? No. But we had definitely discovered a new roadway, a bridge from our world back to his.
As I left the house that evening, I couldn’t help but review the mound of reports and tests issued by neurologists, neuropsychologists and other highly trained professionals. Not one had noticed this serious sensory deprivation. Not one had administered this simple test during their entire evaluations.
On the sixth day, after completing her own four-hour session with Robertito, Suzi taught in tandem with Laura, who moved stiffly in the room. As she interacted and imitated the child, an old tape played in her head. “Do I love him? Can I feel anything? He’s beautiful! He’s weird! He’s definitely not Raun! What do I feel? Nothing. Oh, God, nothing. It can’t be. I want to love him.” Although diverted by the desperation of her questions and doubts, a natural warmth began to surface, one which Laura herself would probably have denied.
My notes for her feed-back session had exceeded five pages. Laura had fed him when he cried, reinforcing his old tendency toward tantrums. Games had not been attempted at eye level. Her imitation was not enthusiastic; oftentimes, she appeared confused. When Robertito picked up a block by himself, she persisted in trying to introduce a ball instead of following his cue even if he just wanted to flap the wood form. Yet amid all the stops and starts of the session, Laura had been gentle, particularly radiant when she lost herself in her enthusiasm for Robertito’s obvious connection with music. She played the marimba, recorder and Japanese wood flute for him. His “isms” decreased. In this quiet, soothing and non-distracting environment, he focused on sounds outside of himself. We had opened another avenue through which we could talk … music!
I remembered the comments of the directors at two separate psychiatric facilities. Both agreed that music should be eliminated from the autistic child’s world because it promoted the child’s “spacing out” and performing inappropriate behaviors such as rocking, spinning and flapping. Rather than using the child’s own preferences as a natural way to communicate and express caring, they opted for their own set of inflexible procedures, often restraining and punishing a child for such actions. The very behaviors which provided us with some hope of making contact, no matter how slim, were the behaviors these people condemned.
Suddenly, I envisioned thousands of Lauras and Robertitos, at a concert. They would not be distinguishable from anyone else in the audience. No one would prevent them from rocking or swaying to the music. And what about the people who tap their fingers, or whistle to themselves or sway gently in their grandmothers’ rocking chairs? Since they, too, participate in their own self-stimulating rituals, would we want to tie their fingers, tape their mouths and nail their chairs to the floor?
Having completed the musical episode, Laura’s participation diminished. She wanted more input from Suzi, who again took a more prominent role. Her soft, playful voice hummed its own private melody as she flapped with Robertito. The rapid improvement in Robertito’s eye contact was astounding. Though he still didn’t glance at anyone for more than one or two seconds at a time, within twenty minutes, he looked at Suzi three times. Memories of Raun.
Precise, yet unpredictable, in her movements, Suzi experimented with her actions and her words. She further simplified language as we had discussed. She said “co” instead of “comida” when feeding him. When she gave him freshly made vegetable juice, she did not say “jugo.” She said “ju.” At times, she also used the food to trade.
Robertito sat on the floor babbling and rocking. Suzi mimicked him, laughing at the peculiar changes in his facial expressions. His internal calm relaxed his face to such an extent that his features seemed rubbery. “Silly, wonderful boy,” she said, poking her fingers softly into his armpits in an endeavor to tickle him. Robertito leaned against the wall without moving. Suzi scooted in front of him, began to whistle the Jiminy Cricket song from Pinocchio and deftly folded his legs Indian-style. “Now that’s better. You look more balanced.” She then assumed the same position herself. Without changing her focus, Suzi pulled out a puzzle from behind her and showed it to Robertito at face level. “Okay, my sweet boy, we’re going to remove one piece … that’s all, remove one piece.” She demonstrated several times with her own hand, then took his and pantomimed the action. Her impeccable Spanish accent compensated for her occasional misuse of words. “Will you let me guide your hand? Wonderful.” She kissed him. He backed away and crinkled his face, “I don’t blame you,” she laughed. “Okay, now let’s, try again. You can do it, big boy. C’mon, I know you can.” Very gently, she demonstrated by modeling his hand movements. He looked at her lethargically, his eyes suddenly at half-mast. “Okay, time for something else.”
Putting the puzzle aside, she lifted the insertion box and placed it between their faces. She peered at me with great excitement, awed at his sitting in one position for such a sustained period of time. “Here we go, Charlie Brown. Circle. See. Circle! This is a circle. It goes here.” When she gave him the form, he flapped it for several seconds, then dropped it. His hand “isms” had decreased since our intensive massages. Suzi grabbed the circular form off the floor, demonstrated the task and placed the piece back in his hand. His eyes stared blankly at it. Then, quite casually, he pushed it against the side of the box at least two inches away from the appropriate pile. She manipulated the box slyly and matched the space with the circle. The piece fell into the hole.
“Wow,” she bantered, clapping and laughing at her own antics as well as his. “Yeah, Robertito Soto! You did it! Yeah! With a little help from your friend, of course.” She removed the circle again and pantomimed the entire procedure, overacting each step in wild, amusing gestures. “Here you go,” she said, giving him the piece. The boy held the plastic form, surveyed it out of the corner of his eye and then pushed it against the box again. I watched him ease the piece upward, coming closer and closer to the hole, Then, suddenly, he pushed it inside. Suzi, Laura and I shouted simultaneously. We all patted him, stroked him and cheered. Our vocal outburst brought Francisca and Roby into the room. They, too, delighted in their son’s achievement. During the next hour, Suzi got him to repeat his accomplishment three times.
My hand ached from writing as I rose, completing my observations for the day. I walked into the center of the room and kissed both Suzi and Laura. “Look, look,” Suzi shouted as Robertito slid his hands under my shoes. “Go ahead. He wants the pressure. Oh, my God, I don’t believe it. We’re getting through, Bears. Look. We must be.” His hands! He had actually moved toward us with extended hands. If we can make ourselves loving and useful, then he’ll seek more of us, despite the short-circuits and the mountains he has to climb.
Charlotte arrived for her session late that evening. We faced each other in my hilltop house.
“I don’t want to sound ignorant, you know,” she began, adjusting her blouse as she sat on the couch, “but with all the cheering you’d think Robertito learned to read this week. He’s still the same. Maybe he looked at you more often. I’d give him a half point on a scale of ten. I, personally, haven’t seen him put any forms into the insertion box. I mean, he certainly doesn’t do that for me.” Charlotte scratched her nose, then stopped herself self-consciously. “Why do you have that sh*t-eating grin on your face?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I enjoy listening to what people say.”
“Good. Always aim to please, you know,” she quipped. Charlotte removed a cigarette from her case, hung it out of the side of her mouth, then eyed me combatively, “Any objection?” I shook my head. She allowed herself one quick grin and lit a cigarette.
“Anything you want to work on?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. Haven’t been very co-operative in my last two sessions, have I? You have to understand, I’m not used to this. In fact, I didn’t know this was part of the program until you told me. Roby and Francisca never mentioned it. Figures!”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I guess it doesn’t matter.” She paused, looking suddenly vulnerable. Then she talked about her desire to date despite her marriage, but her awareness of Francisca’s possible disapproval bothered her.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, I’m sure you heard about her dainty, premarital courtship. Never with Roby alone, always chaperoned , a virgin right up till the end.” Charlotte paused. “I know. I’m being catty. But I can’t live only for her son. I need a break; but what upsets me is that she’ll think I’m cheap if I see other guys.”
“And if Francisca thinks you’re cheap, just like you imagine, why would that disturb you?”
She avoided my eyes. “Do we have to talk about this?”
“It’s your session. You introduced the subject. There’s nothing we ‘have to’ talk about.”
“Good,” Charlotte asserted. “Then I’m going to change the subject. I want to talk about not feeling comfortable when I’m with Robertito. You see, actually, I do feel comfortable except when he doesn’t listen.” She began to laugh. “Which is just about all the time.”
“Why do you feel uncomfortable when he doesn’t listen?”
“I mean, Jesus,” she said, pausing to suck noisily on her cigarette, “I race around the room with him like a fool. The least he could do is sit still when I change him or feed him.”
“And if he doesn’t, Charlotte, why does that make you uncomfortable?”
“How could I be doing good at teaching if I don’t see any results?”
“Why do you have to see results in order to know what you’re doing is good?”
Charlotte smiled. “I know. The poor kid can’t even understand which side is up. I see that. Sometimes when I’m just nice to him, playing in his crazy little universe, I feel on target. You know what I mean … it does feel good without any results. It’s just sometimes I get frustrated … maybe a little more than just sometimes.”
“What do you find frustrating about working with Robertito?”
“We do the same thing every day and, to a great extent, so does he. What’s frustrating is that he doesn’t seem interested. Wait … before you ask another question. What’s frustrating is that I want him to do something big, something concrete, something measurable.”
“Wanting him to do something, Charlotte, is very different from being frustrated if he doesn’t,” I said. “Why exactly do you feel frustrated if he doesn’t do what you want?”
“I guess I’m back to me. It kind of like means I’m no good.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well, when I hear myself say it, I don’t. But before, when I was in the room with him, that’s what went through my head.”
She threw her head back and sighed. “You know, when I watch Suzi or Francisca work with him, I think they’re super. I can’t believe their patience. Funny thing is lots of times Robertito doesn’t respond much to them either. Yet, I know they’re really good. I don’t put them down when he doesn’t respond. How come I put myself down?”
“Why do you think you do that?”
“It doesn’t make any sense, I guess. I can’t judge myself against his abilities. I do what I do and he does what he can do. You know, I’ve heard you say that many times already … somehow it never clicked until now.”
“Maybe that’s because our lessons don’t really come from others. It depends on what we come to know from ourselves. Today, you heard Charlotte speaking to Charlotte.”
She began to laugh. “You know, I could get to like this.”
As we talked further, she spoke about her marriage briefly, but, again, aborted the dialogue. Though she expressed her amazement at her openness with me, I still sensed her withholding; perhaps frightened to reveal her inner thoughts fully, even to herself.