It had become almost ritual for Roberto (Roby) Soto. After lunch with his family, he returned to his shoe store only to watch the second hand of the large wall clock advance spastically, recording the passage of time in apparent slow motion. At precisely four o’clock, he smiled nervously as he turned his store over to his cousin. The waiting Thunderbird, polished once a week at a local garage, used to be a source of great pride, a symbol of his social and economic arrival after climbing out of the gutter in a small village in central Mexico and attending school with pesos scrimped and saved from menial jobs. After several more years of employment, sometimes maintaining several jobs simultaneously, he moved north with his young wife and used his savings to open a small business.
His mind drifted as he drove down the crowded streets of Encinada, a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico. Quaint Spanish-style buildings mixed awkwardly with glass-faced discount stores and supermarkets. Music blared from busy twenty-four-hour bars. Old school buses, belching black clouds, carried residents through the town filled with tourists from the United States. Negotiating through the traffic, Roby’s soft eyes registered a fatigue which did not come from hard work. The joy of living had been compromised. Though he tried to maintain his traditional focus on family and business, he found himself increasingly consumed by what he had once anticipated would be a beautiful, natural and easy experience.
Maneuvering the final stretch of heavy traffic, Roby envisioned the last daily mail delivery from the “States.” For nine consecutive working days, he had come to the post office in search of a package. He parked his car in front of a donkey painted like a zebra with black and white stripes. The car behind the animal contained a family of smiling tourists who posed for a color Polaroid portrait. A uniformed postal employee waved and called to Roberto Soto when he entered the building. The package had finally arrived.
He waited until he sat alone in his car before stripping off the wrapping paper. His eyes filled with tears. There had been so many unfulfilled promises, so many painful deadends. From a psychiatric research center in Houston where they had last taken their son for help, a young graduate student, remembering the Sotos, forwarded an article to Roby which had appeared in People magazine. It detailed the story of a young family that had successfully developed a unique program for their special child, who had similarly been discarded by the professional community as incurably ill. Hope or another false start? Having the article translated into Spanish, Roby and his wife, Francisca, read and reread the piece. A notation about a book written by the father led him to further research. Another month passed until a friend had acquired the book for him in the United States.
Roby opened the package with great care. A little boy’s porcelain-like face filled the cover of the book. His dark penetrating eyes mirrored these of Roby’s own son. Large, bold type and various quotations filled the front and back cover. He cursed his inability to read English as he threw his car into gear. His heart pounded. Tiny beads of sweat gathered at his hairline. He drove slightly South of the city to reach the house of Maestro Jaime Ankrom, a teacher and translator.
Senora Ankrom invited him into the entrance hall and offered him a cool drink. Roby shook his head. Within minutes, Jaime Ankrom appeared, greeting Roby with great formality and respect. He had grown to care for the Sotos and their strange little boy. On many occasions, he had translated papers and articles for them. The magnitude of this project considerably escalated his involvement. Jaime nodded his head, reaffirming his commitment to translate the book within six weeks as agreed. Six weeks, Roby thought to himself, six weeks is another lifetime. Propriety squelched his inclination to request faster delivery. But Jaime understood Roby’s sense of urgency and canceled some of his own students in order to translate the book within three weeks.
The neatly typed pages contained a story and message radically different from everything else they had read and been told. Instead of pushing and pulling the child to conform to appropriate behaviors designated by some doctor or text, the couple from New York entered their son’s world; joined him in his so-called bizarre behaviors with a loving and accepting attitude which defied any previous notions about dealing with such a situation.
As Roby and Francisca read the translated manuscript, they took a roller-coaster ride through someone else’s life. They felt inspired and enriched for the first time in three years. Their own plight had taken them first to Mexico City, then to hospitals and universities in several American cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Their son, Robertito, had participated in three programs which ultimately yielded no results.
Though labeled alternately as brain-damaged and retarded, the diagnosis most frequently suggested was infantile autism. Many of these children, the Sotos discovered, spend their lifetimes drugged on Thorazine as they rock back and forth in their own feces, alone and forgotten on the cold floor of some nameless institution. The prognosis for Robertito conformed to that dismal picture.
Yet the Sotos kept looking, kept trying. Though confused by the regimen and disapproval techniques of behavior modification, they entered Robertito in such a program after numerous professional recommendations. The year of involvement yielded no visible or lasting results. They tried “patterning,” a method of sensory conditioning which attempts to have a child relive all the developmental stages in the hope he might regain some lost step. They watched with discomfort as doctors wrapped their young son, then three years old, in a rug, pulling it back and forth across a room. They viewed Robertito being forced to crawl like an infant, his screams ignored by a staff dedicated to executing a textbook treatment for autistic and brain-damaged children. Again, no differences could be detected with the exception of a noticeable increase of anger and unhappiness. The Sotos also tried orthomolecular medicine (mega-vitamins) without success.
Francisca and Roby decided to try to contact the people in New York, determined to fully understand and, perhaps, institute what appeared to them as a very special and unusual alternative.
Jaime sent a telegram on their behalf. Weeks passed with no answer. Another telegram also yielded no response. They followed up the wires with two letters. Finally, they resorted to the telephone, uncomfortable about so directly invading someone else’s privacy. A house-sitter answered. She acknowledged receipt of the telegrams and letters, but explained that the family had never received them since they were out of the country. She assured the Sotos an eventual response when they returned at the end of the month, though she cautioned them about expecting a fast answer in view of the rapid accumulation of mail from around the world which also awaited a reading and a response. At the beginning of the following month, they received a response from New York offering assistance.
Huddled around the phone, these two eager parents sputtered in Spanish while Jaime translated everything into English for their long-distance recipient. “He says,” Jaime told Roby and Francisca, “the attitude is the most important consideration. He wants you to know they will do what they can to share with you and teach you whatever you want to learn, but … and the emphasis is strong on this point … there can be no promise of miracles, no assurance there will he any changes whatsoever. The child is the unknown which we all must respect.”
Francisca held her hand over her mouth, wanting to shout her response. She had always felt so isolated in her love and affection for the little boy most others regarded with disdain.
“Yes, yes, they understand you exactly,” Jaime declared, as he continued to talk loudly into the receiver.
Elaborate preparations were made for the New York journey. Roby hired Jaime to accompany them as their translator. The maestro shifted his teaching schedules, making himself readily available. Roby then arranged for his cousin to handle the store in his absence. Francisca bought little Robertito new clothes, anxious to do everything possible to ensure her son would be liked and accepted.
They drove to San Diego for a direct flight to the East Coast. Staring eyes, pointing fingers and hissing whispers marred their short delay in the airport terminal building.
Robertito’s dazzlingly large dark brown eyes rolled from side to side like marbles in their almond-shaped sockets, finally resting to stare absentmindedly at his own hands flapping like a bird beside his head. High cheekbones accented the width of his face. All his features seemed sculptured to perfection; the strong chiseled nose, the delicately arching lips, the copper-colored skin; even the straight black hair neatly trimmed in bangs formed an expertly styled bowl shape around his face. Robertito could have been an exquisite picture postcard for his native Mexico, a beautiful four-year old boy with a startlingly handsome and haunting presence.
Yet all this beauty, all this physical perfection cast a very different shadow after only a few minutes of contact. Sitting in the chair beside his parents in the San Diego airport, Robertito Soto never once looked at anyone in the room. Robertito Soto never once moved his lips to speak; never once stopped flapping his hands beside his head. When his mother tried to adjust his four-button vest, he shrank away from her touch, seemingly lost behind vacant eyes. From time to time, he made loud, peculiar, infantile sounds like a ventriloquist, hardly moving his lips or altering his fixed facial expression.
The fire licked the bricks behind the mesh screen. The easy, muted horn of Miles Davis filled the room with its special melody; an old jazz aroma from an early nineteen sixties’ album. Our daughters played backgammon. Intense and competitive Bryn, just eleven years old, dangled her head and arms over the side of the couch as she energetically threw the dice, converting an otherwise mellow game into the mini-Olympics. She threw her arms into the air and shouted in response to the high score of double sixes. Then she turned to me, smiled her sultry victory smile and returned to the game. Thea, poised gracefully on crossed legs, ignored her sister’s outburst. Though she participated enthusiastically, she maintained only a limited investment in winning. Thea embraced her world in a more ethereal and mystical manner than her sister. The moment-to-moment involvement excited her far more than the outcome.
A small city of wood blocks jutted majestically skyward from the shaggy rug. Raun, our four-year-old architect-in-residence, busily constructed houses and towers and office buildings just west of the coffee table and south of the fireplace. His eyes beamed at the rising structures. Occasionally, he solicited our help for his more delicate designs. Suddenly, Raun paused, looked directly into my eyes with a silly grin, then charged at me like a bull. I intercepted his thrust with my arm, tossing him gently into his mother’s lap. Immediately consumed by Suzi’s kisses, Raun giggled and screeched. On his feet within seconds, he asked me to “slap him five,” which triggered a short series of comic antics.
The piercing ring of the telephone cut through the music. Suzi motioned to me, indicating Jaime Ankrom as the caller. We exchanged a smile, knowing we were about to embark on another journey with another special child.
“Hello, Jaime. Welcome to New York. How was the trip?”
“Good, the plane ride was very pleasant,” he said.
“And the Sotos and little Robertito?”
“They, too, had an enjoyable flight. We have made hotel accommodations for tonight at the airport. The Sotos would like to know what time after work would you be available to meet with them.”
“Oh, wow,” I said, awed by the realization they had traveled thousands of miles for, perhaps, an evening meeting of only several hours. “Suzi and I will be available for you all day tomorrow and if you want, the next day and the next. We’ve cleared an entire work week.” I listened to him translate my words.
“The Sotos are very grateful to you and your wife for your kindness. They say we can arrive any time. What is most convenient for you?”
“Nine in the morning would be fine. And, Jaime, please tell them we will try to share what we know and are happy, very happy to do it,” I said. Again he translated the words, then closed our conversation with a rather succinct good-bye.
Something about the tone of their telegrams and their letters excited both Suzi and me. To translate Son-Rise into Spanish, then hire an interpreter and fly with their son to New York represented a special determination. Though I have carefully responded, in some personal form, to each letter amid the hundreds we received each month, the process of making ourselves available to teach and help by sharing our vision and attitude formed the most difficult task. Without the support of funds and grants, which we continued to solicit, our involvement in this area began to seriously drain our financial resources. Nevertheless, we chose to continue as long as possible, also working with schools and early childhood developmental centers wanting to adopt our perspective and techniques.
Before the Sotos’ arrival, Suzi and I spent hours discussing optimum conditions for working with them and Robertito. Since they had traveled over three thousand miles to see us, we decided to try to be with them on a marathon basis, which differed from our previous involvement with special children and their parents. Usually, our input with them was limited to single visits or a series of full day sessions spanning several months. Although we had witnessed immediate and spectacular changes in some children, in most situations we felt hampered by limited time or the lack of consistency in the child’s total environment.
A grant might have enabled us to help parents surround their children with a network of loving and accepting mentors capable of giving sensitive and responsive input around the clock, seven days a week … a critical component of the program which facilitated our son’s rapid and amazing rebirth. An idea evolved, but not yet consummated; a fantasy composed, but not yet delivered. For the moment, with the Sotos, we would do what we could … not by mourning what wasn’t, but by celebrating what was.
Monday – The First Day
Sasha arrived first, her black shirt tucked neatly into her black pants, a green knapsack strapped tightly to her back. She might have been a pallbearer in a military funeral or a renegade bohemian from a Greenwich Village which no longer exists. Yet a soft, almost vulnerable smile tempered her harsh appearance. Sasha had volunteered to help with meals and the care of our children while we worked with the Mexican family. Since Bryn, Thea and Raun attended school until three in the afternoon, she delighted in having the opportunity to observe.
Several minutes later, a taxi deposited the Soto party at our front door. Jaime Ankrom bowed slightly as he shook my hand, then Suzi’s. His plaid sports jacket framed a starched white shirt and tie. Wisps of hair barely covered his huge head, which sheltered deep-set eyes and offset thick jowls. With great dignity, he introduced Roberto Soto, a tall, handsome man in his late thirties. Dressed more casually in a walking suit, he bowed his head humbly as he took my hand.
Francisca, tall and full-figured, waited with her son. Long, silky black hair dipped just beneath her high cheekbones, accenting her classic features. She searched our faces carefully while being introduced. Her penetrating eyes peered boldly into ours. A hesitant, half-smile fluttered across her face.
Robertito bounced rhythmically up and down on his toes. He made a clicking sound with his tongue as he pulled at his mother’s hand, obviously trying to release himself from her grip. Francisca resisted, knelt down and addressed him with great affection. Her subtle eyebrows and animated face accented each thought. But her words fell on deaf ears, her warmth never penetrating the invisible wall encapsulating her son. A great sadness clouded her eyes as she rose to her feet. Holding back tears, she avoided looking at us directly.
Still unresponsive and mute, Robertito continued flapping his free hand in the air.
Our guests seated themselves stiffly on the couch in the living room. We faced them in silence. Only soft smiles passed between us for those first minutes. Their sensitive faces rippled with moments of anxiety. Francisca tried self-consciously to stop her son’s flapping hands on several successive occasions.
Suddenly, Roby swallowed noisily, then cleared his throat. He pulled a pile of documents from a large leather briefcase which he carried, then began to recount in detail their experiences with Robertito. Jaime meticulously translated each word, each detail, even the implicit attitude between the words. Roby gestured emotionally as he spoke. Each time he glanced at his son, his voice cracked, his eyes watered.
In combination, the papers presented a confusing computer-like smorgasbord of conflicting reports and diagnoses. Three described Robertito Soto as definitely autistic with a grim prognosis. Two labeled him authoritatively as severely retarded; one further suggested the boy was uneducable. Another hypothesized brain damage resulting from an undetected case of encephalitis. The most recent report talked vaguely about an atypical schizophrenic condition complicated by unknown biochemical irregularities. Pages and pages filled with complex four- and five-syllable words; abstractions grounded in theoretical judgments, several of which were concluded after only fifteen minutes of testing. Yet, not one of these clinical work-ups clearly suggested a mode of treatment. Not one analysis captured by description or inference the particulars of the child facing us.
As his father spoke, little Robertito sat awkwardly on the couch. He moved his body like an infant just learning to sit upright. An occasional murmur erupted from his throat. The incessant hand-flapping continued unabated. And yet, his face appeared serene.
“Senor Soto says these reports have not been very useful,” Jaime translated. “No more useful than all the programs the boy has participated in.”
“Ask him why he chose to show them to us in such detail?” Another pause for the necessary translation.
“He says he wanted to illustrate that they care very much for their son and did not come here as … how do you say, as … as innocent or naive people.”
I nodded my head, peering first into Roby’s eyes, then into Francisca’s. We, too, had once jumped through the same hoops to no avail.
Quietly, like a cat, Sasha slipped into the room carrying a tray of coffee and tea. She also brought a large glass of juice for Robertito. Francisca immediately led her son into the kitchen, fearing he might suddenly decide to throw the glass or dump it on the couch. Often, when he finished drinking, he would relax his hand in an absent-minded fashion, allowing the cup or glass to drop to the floor. When they returned to the living room, Suzi sat on the rug beside Robertito. She stroked his leg very gently. When he pulled away, she smiled, slowly withdrawing her hand. Robertito seemed to increase the flapping motion.
As I turned to address Jaime, I realized when any of us spoke, we looked at the maestro instead of each other. Bending forward, I purposely faced Roby and Francisca as I talked. “Jaime, tell the Sotos that I very much would like to look at their faces when we talk, that our eyes carry very important messages for each other. Tell them our words are just one way to speak.”
As Jaime translated, they smiled, nodding their heads affirmatively.
“And I will address you directly,” I continued. Then I turned to Jaime. “Instead of saying ‘they say’ or ‘Senor Soto says,’ would it not be more direct just to speak their words?”
“Senor Kaufman, the role of interpreter is new for me,” Jaime said. “I usually translate written matter. Your suggestions are helpful. I will learn these fine points … ah, on-the-job.” He smiled, enjoying his own ability to use idiomatic expressions.
“Okay,” I laughed, deciding to make one last suggestion, “I want to address you by your first names, Please feel free to do the same. Most people call me Bears, a nickname Suzi and the children gave me. In our home, we’re very informal. For the next few days, we will be one family with one common purpose.”
Jaime considered my words, but insisted on addressing me and Suzi more formally as a sign of respect. The Sotos welcomed the warmth.
We decided to work directly with Robertito the remainder of the day, at least until dinner. Then, in the evening, we could deal with Roby and Francisca … exploring their feelings and attitudes, all significantly related to any program they would institute for their son. We preferred to be alone with Robertito, without any distractions. We offered the Sotos our car to transport them to a local hotel. Jaime gallantly doubled as chauffeur.
Suzi led Robertito into the bathroom, the same one we used with Raun. It provided us with a simple non-distracting environment … no dazzling wall pieces, no busy windows, no mesmerizing lights. The confined space also kept the child in close contact with us.
We sat opposite each other, our backs planted firmly against the wall. Robertito walked aimlessly around in circles. His body seemed clumsy as he tiptoed on the tile floor. Both his hands flapped vigorously. We began to note several distinctive particulars.
Robertito never looked directly at anyone or anything yet he obviously could see. When Suzi lifted an oatmeal cookie from her pocket and held it in front of him, he either did not see it or ignored it. Yet, when she brought it around to his side, he immediately turned and grabbed for it. Robertito absorbed much of his environment using peripheral vision. In that manner, he could easily watch his flapping hands at the side of his head.
Despite his preferences for perceiving the world tangentially, we did notice that he looked directly at the cookie when he grabbed for it, though he maintained that focus only momentarily. In another instance, when Suzi sensed him preoccupied with the faint sound of a distant siren, she snapped her fingers right in front of his eyes. No response. Not even a flutter in his eyelids or eyeballs. Apparently, he had the power to blind himself, to shut off his vision in order to concentrate on his other senses.
Although generally unresponsive to most sounds, this little boy paid careful attention to soft, almost imperceptible, noises. We turned on the tape recorder which we had placed in the bathtub. The room filled with the melodic and lyrical piano music of a Chopin’s nocturne. Robertito moved his head from side to side. He made the strange clicking sound with his tongue. An awe-struck expression lit up his face. Something about his gaze reminded me of the peaceful, wide-eyed stare of a Tibetan monk.
We watched him be what he could be, do what he could do, and wondered about the doctors who once tied his hands to stop him from flapping, the psychologists who wrapped him in a rug and dragged him screaming across the floor, the behaviorists who slapped his hands and finally his face because he did not conform to a specific task. We thought of the physician who suggested electric shock treatment to correct all the “bizarre” and “intolerable” behavior. And so most everyone in little Robertito’s world had played judge and executioner.
They defined certain behavior as good and other behavior as bad. Using those distinctions as commandments, they then took that as license to forcibly extinguish the so-called “bad” or inappropriate behaviors … as if Robertito was not, in fact, at two and three and four years old, doing the very best he could based on his abilities and limitations. To treat a dysfunctioning child, who already displays dramatic difficulties in relating to our world, in such an abusive and hostile fashion raises serious questions. But the issue is side-stepped by the professional, who does not examine his own methods in the face of “no progress,” but simply dismisses the child as uneducable or incurable.
At no time did we intend to manipulate Robertito physically, either to stop or to encourage any movement or response. The attitude of “to love is to be happy with” created the foundation from which we approached him. We had no conditions to which he must conform, no expectations which he had to fulfill. Most important, we would make no judgments about good and bad, appropriate or inappropriate. In effect, like all of us, this strange little boy did the best he could.
Respecting his dignity and his world as we had respected Raun’s, we decided if he, too, could not join us, we would join him … build a bridge through the silence, if possible, and motivate him to want to be here, to want to participate. Thus, we would, within the limitations of one week, try to create the same kind of easy, beautiful, responsive and loving environment as we had once done for our own son.
In joining him, we did what he did. When he flapped his arms, we flapped our arms. When he made the clicking sound with his tongue, we made the same clicking sound with our tongues. He toe-walked; we toe-walked. He granted; we grunted. With the exception of defecating in our pants, an activity he still maintained, we followed him, taking our cues as he presented them. We were really there, moving in earnest, participating as caring friends, trying to say, “Hey, Robertito, we’re right here; we’re with you and we love you,” The session continued to the point of exhaustion. Eight hours later, a little after six o’clock, Suzi, Robertito and I emerged from the bathroom, The Sotos had already returned. They looked at us expectantly.
“Wait,” I smiled, anticipating their questions. “We all had a very beautiful day together … in the bathroom. After observing for several hours, Suzi and I joined Robertito. We did everything that he did with a loving and accepting attitude.”
Francisca took her son’s hand and led him to the couch. “Sienta-te. Sienta-te,” she said firmly, yet affectionately. Then, turning to us, she asked, “Did he respond? And did he know you were there?”
“I know how much you want things for Robertito. We do, too,” Suzi said. “At no time did he respond in a way we could understand. So we don’t know if he was even aware of our presence.” Suzi tapped her chest. “Somehow, deep inside, I know it counts. We have to trust that and allow what happens.”
Francisca nodded her head, trying to camouflage her disappointment.
Roby began to speak rapidly and Jaime waved his hands to slow the burst of words. “We have met your lovely children. Bryn and Thea are quite beautiful and loving. Raun, well …Raun is unbelievable. I never thought he would be … be so, so normal. He introduced himself, sat on my lap, and asked to see Robertito. When I said you were with him in the bathroom, he shook his head like an old man and asked if Robertito was autistic.”
Tears filled Suzi’s eyes. “Wait,” she said, “I want to get the kids. I know how much they wanted to meet Robertito.” She called to them at the staircase. Little feet rumbled across the ceiling toward the stairs.
Bryn appeared, first. “Oh, Robertito,” she exclaimed, “you’re so cute.” Thea and Raun followed. The children gathered around their strange new friend. They smiled and chatted with great excitement.
“Look at his fat cheeks,” Raun shouted. “I just love them.” Any child in the universe with chubby cheeks is automatically adopted by Raun as a special friend. Some children are excited by ice cream, others by toys-our son manages to be quite different most of the time. After a couple of minutes, Raun, visibly confused, turned to his mother. “Mama, why doesn’t he talk to me? He never answers. When I tried to take his hand, he pulled away.”
“Remember our talk, Raun,” Suzi replied. “Robertito doesn’t speak. Maybe one day he will, but right now he can’t. He also doesn’t like to be touched, but don’t think it means he doesn’t like you.”
“Joanna and Brian didn’t talk either,” Raun declared, pondering his association. “Robertito’s autistic like them!”
“Yes,” I said. In a hushed voice, Jaime translated our conversation into Spanish.
Thea stood beside little Robertito and laughed warmly as she flapped her hands the way he did. It was her way of saying hello. For a moment, just a fraction of a second, he paused. It seemed as if, in that instant, Robertito actually looked directly at Thea.
As previously arranged, our visitors left for dinner and returned at eight o’clock. Raun had been put to bed. Sasha, with Bryn and Thea’s help, guided Robertito into the den. The girls wanted to work with him; to join him in his world as they once did with their own brother.
As I stoked the fire, Suzi offered them organic grape juice, turned and mellowed like a fine wine.
“Are you still with us, Jaime,” I said jokingly to the maestro.
“Yes, definitely, Senor Kaufman.” This warm and unpretentious man seldom smiled.
I leaned forward, peered directly into Francisca’s eyes, and asked, “How would you feel if Robertito never changed, if he could never do anything more than you see here today?” Jaime’s eyes jumped back and forth, registering surprise at my question. Then, mimicking my tone, he translated it. Roby sighed. Francisca’s face flushed; her eyes narrowed. An expression of great sadness and pain overwhelmed her face. Anger curled her lips. She fought her instinct to cry or scream or shout.
Again as gently as possible, I asked the same question. Jaime hesitated, then repeated it. This time, Francisca gave in to the feeling and sobbed heavily. Roby held his wife, barely containing himself.
When she regained her composure, she faced me and said: “It would be awful, terrible. Don’t you think so?” And so began our first Option dialogue.
“Well,” I said, “what I think is not as important as what you think. It’s your son, it’s your pain. What is it about being this way that is so awful, so terrible?”
“He can’t do anything for himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“He does not feed himself. He cannot dress himself. He is not toilet trained. He does not talk. I could go on and on.”
“All right, what is it about all those things which he can’t do that gets you so upset?”
“I want more for him,” she said, crying again.
“I understand that, but wanting more for someone we love is different than being unhappy about not having more. What is it about all those things he can’t do that upsets you so much?”
“Most children his age do many things. Although he’s four, he’s like an infant. People stare at Robertito, make fun of him. I can’t stand it.”
“He’s not a freak. I don’t want him treated that way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The whispering. The pointed fingers. The laughter.”
“What about that makes you unhappy?”
She glanced at Roby, who remained silent but obviously involved. “I … I…” she stuttered, “I’m afraid it will always be that way.”
“Why do you believe that?”
“Because I don’t see any changes,” she answered. “Because he gets older and older without learning new things.”
“Since your fear is about the future, why do you believe if, up till now, he has learned very little or even nothing, that it means it will always be that way?”
Francisca looked at me, confused. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it doesn’t have to mean it’ll always be that way.” She paused to rub her eyes. “Okay,” she continued, grinning self-consciously, “but I’m still unhappy about the way Robertito is.”
“What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t unhappy about his condition?”
“Then, maybe, I wouldn’t do anything about it.”
“Are you saying by being unhappy, you stay in touch with wanting to change the situation?”
“Yes,” she said.
Roby’s face lit up, but as he raised his head to speak, I held my finger to my lips.
Directing myself back to his wife, I said: “Why do you believe you have to be unhappy in order to pursue what you want?”
“I don’t,” she answered, quite clear on that point. “But I guess I act like I do.” She shook her head, “This is all very new for me.”
“What is?” I asked.
“Well, if my son is sick and I am not unhappy, then maybe it would mean I did not care about him,” she concluded.
“Okay,” Suzi interjected. “Let me give you back your statement as a question. If your son is sick and you do not get unhappy, would that mean you don’t care?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure any more,” Francisca mumbled.
“What would you guess?” Suzi continued.
“The more I think about it, the sillier it is. Why do you have to be miserable when someone you love is sick? Sometimes you are so busy helping them, there is no time to feel sad … and yet, you still care. I know, I had that situation once with my mother when she was very sick.” Francisca smiled fully for the first time since her arrival. She kept shaking her head up and down.
I apologized to Roby for my curious finger, but thanked him for holding his comment.
He had understood. “Bears,” he said, “I want you to know that each time you asked a question, I tried to answer it for myself. Each time, I found my own thoughts in Francisca’s answers. Often I have worried about whether this will go on forever. Now, I feel different.”
We continued the dialogues until three in the morning. Roby further explored his fears about the future, his concerns about who would care for Robertito when he died. He uncovered the belief that if he wasn’t afraid of these possibilities, he might not do as much as he could. When I asked him why he believed that, he answered that he didn’t know. So I asked him what he was afraid would happen if he no longer believed it. Immediately, he laughed. His answer was the same as before; the fear he might not do all he could. At that moment, as he came to understand how he frightened himself into moving, the belief and the fear disappeared. No, he assured himself, he did not have to scare himself to make sure he covered every base. In fact, he became aware that the fear of the future had actually diverted him from fully attending to all that he could in the “now.”
I quoted to him the words of a wall poster in a friend’s office. It read: “I’m an old man now. I’ve worried about many things in my life, most of which never happened.”
Francisca reviewed her thoughts and feelings about being responsible for Robertito’s condition. When she could not give one concrete example illustrating how she might have caused his problem, she blamed it on heredity. Why did she believe that? She didn’t know. What was she afraid would happen if she no longer believed it? Her answer surprised both her and her husband. If she no longer believed it, then she would have another child. And how would she feel about that? Badly. Why? Because she did not want to stop trying to help Robertito. Why did another child mean that? It didn’t … necessarily. And so, piece by piece, she unraveled some of her fears.
At ten minutes to three, Roby suggested they leave. He carried his son to the car as I followed with his briefcase. Francisca, Suzi and Jaime joined us on the sidewalk.
“It has been a most enlightening evening,” Jaime said, shaking my hand.
“Perhaps, later in the week, I will ask you some questions,” I said. The others laughed as the maestro smiled awkwardly.
Roby grabbed both Suzi’s hand and my hand. His arms trembled as he said: “Gracias. Muchas gracias.” Without warning, Suzi kissed him on the cheek. Obviously very touched, he turned quickly to hide his emotions and slid into the driver’s seat. Suzi then hugged and kissed Francisca. Jaime stepped back, anticipating her next move. Seeing his discomfort, she threw him a kiss.
“Nine in the morning,” I shouted as the car left the curb. Time was so short, so limited. We wanted to cram as much into this week as possible.
Suzi looked at me with a knowing smirk, then she consulted my wristwatch. “I know exactly what kind of crazy week this is going to be. Okay, superman, if you can do it, I can too.”
Tuesday – The Second Day
The Sotos arrived at nine o’clock. Jaime bowed when I opened the door. Before entering the house, Francisca and Roby, both red-eyed, began chattering simultaneously. The maestro put up his hand like an umpire, slightly embarrassed to hush his employers. Francisca indicated Roby would speak.
“A very strange and wonderful thing occurred in the hotel this morning,” he said. “Normally, when Robertito rises, he sits on the bed, flaps his hands or clicks his teeth Always, he appears listless, confused, like he does not know what to do. He’ll just stay in that position until someone comes for him. This morning was very different. Robertito sat up in bed as usual, but his expression appeared more thoughtful than at most other times. He didn’t flap or make sounds. With great determination, he slid off the bed and walked directly into the bathroom. And waited there … in the bathroom!”
I nodded. Awed. Dazzled by the information. In the midst of Roby’s narrative, another significant event occurred. Little Robertito had left us standing in the doorway while he toe-walked through the living room, down the hallway and into our bathroom. A connection established and reaffirmed.
Suzi beamed like a proud mother, her blue eyes ablaze. She waved to us as she jogged through the house to greet the waiting student. “Buenos dias, Robertito,” she said cheerfully as she closed the door to our tile classroom.
Addressing Roby and Francisca, I said, “We’d like both of you to observe today, one at a time. The only place possible is from the bathtub. With the glass doors closed, you won’t be distracting. I put a stool in the tub so you can look over the top of the bath enclosure.”
“I would like Francisca to go first,” Roby insisted, tapping his wife on her shoulder to bestow on her what he considered an honor. We all agreed.
“One more thing,” I added, looking at Jaime. “We decided if Robertito has some receptive language, some awareness of the words which have been used around him, it would be all in Spanish. So, in view of that possibility, Suzi and I decided to speak only in Spanish when we’re with him. Can you give us a fast lesson, a list of familiar words or even short phrases?”
“Of course,” the maestro replied. “I will sit with the Sotos and we will write the words for you in both English and Spanish.”
“Write big,” I said. “I want to tack that paper up in the bathroom for both Suzi and me.” Talking through Jaime had become much easier. He had learned to mirror the tone and inflections of our voices.
“Also,” I continued, “Suzi knows some Spanish. She already was speaking to Robertito in Spanish yesterday. She’s a natural with language. Me? Well, I’d want to review the pronunciation with you. I’m an enthusiastic student, but with a tin ear.”
When they finished their list, we carefully reviewed the words and phrases together: agua (water), la musica (music), habla (talk), mira (look), jugo (juice), leche (milk), los ojos (eyes), las manos (hands), la boca (mouth), diga-me (tell me), un besito (a little kiss), aqui (here), pongala aqui (put it here), yo te amo (I love you).
With Francisca positioned behind the glass doors, we began our day in the bathroom with Robertito. Suzi had already turned on the music and sat with him on the floor. They rocked together, from side to side. A peculiar smile dawned on Robertito’s round face. If I wanted to jump beyond what I could definitely know, I might speculate that this little person appeared to be enjoying himself. One activity gave birth to the next. Whatever he did, we did.
At lunch time, Roby replaced Francisca. Having been closeted in the bathtub for hours, her hair, her face and her shirt dripped with perspiration. Nevertheless, she left the room smiling.
Sasha slipped in food for Robertito. we fed him organic peanut butter and jelly on stone ground wheat bread. Normally, he would feed himself with his hands sloppily, depositing food concurrently in his lap and on the floor. Since we wanted to develop eye contact, we fed him ourselves, morsel by morsel. At first, we had to hold a piece of bread beside his flapping hand to draw his attention to us. Then we placed the food between our eyes, inches in front of our faces, and smiled. We also used soft, verbal cues to try to maintain his attention. Robertito grabbed the food awkwardly, moving his hands lethargically as if they were only vaguely attached to his body. “Mira,” Suzi said each time she held up another piece of food.
“Oh, Robertito, Robertito,” she suddenly exclaimed, “Yo te amo, Robertito.” Suzi whipped her head around, barely able to control her excitement. “Bears! Bears! He looked directly at me for a fraction of a second. He really did. I’m positive. Right at me!”
For the next several hours, we sensed Robertito observing us observe him. On one occasion when we flapped together, he stopped abruptly, leaving Suzi and me still shaking our arms. From his peripheral vision, he watched us curiously. We stopped flapping. Then, he shook his hands again. We followed. An incredible smile dawned on his face. He had it. I couldn’t believe it, but he had it! And only in a day and a half. How could it be moving so fast? I thought to myself. Ah, I chuckled, fast and slow; they’re only judgments and expectations.
We offered him puzzles and other simple toys, which he discarded immediately. Suzi and I stroked his legs on and off during the entire day. Robertito moved away each time. Finally, toward evening, he allowed physical contact. I moved from stroking his legs to stroking his arms. Very, very slowly and gently, I eased my hands across his belly and around his back. The little man stopped flapping while being touched. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and walked in circles again. We followed.
Dinner was also served on the bathroom floor. I put each morsel of food between my eyes and smiled, repeating our luncheon ritual. He seemed more directed this time. On four occasions, he stared boldly at me, though only for a few seconds at a time. Real and spontaneous eye contact! These movements originated within him. They were beautiful and profound steps.
A child coming from himself, motivated from within, is significantly more powerful and effective in growing and in getting what he wants. If Robertito could ever climb the mountain, we knew he would have to do it himself … not as a function of anyone’s commands, but as an expression of his own wanting.
After the Sotos returned from their dinner, Sasha and the children took Robertito into the den again. In the distance, we could hear Raun’s enthusiastic voice: “I just love his cheeks. Thea, look! They’re so cute, those fat cheeks.” Jaime translated his words.
Clearing his throat and swallowing noisily, Roby faced me and asked: “Will you teach him how to eat with utensils?”
“Oh,” I smiled, “in a way, Roby, we aren’t trying to teach him anything specific at the moment. What we do is not important right now. We want to create connections, build bridges. Eye contact is so essential. Children learn by copying, imitating. If Robertito does not look at us or hear us, then, of course, he will not learn how we move in the environment and how he can move in the environment.” I paused, wanting them to digest everything … and to question everything if they wanted.
“Since it’s so, so much more difficult for him to do that than the average child,” I continued, “we have, to take special care, create a special environment. For example, he’s hypersensitive to sound. When he’s bombarded, he closes his hearing down to protect himself. For you and me, a cough sounds like a cough. Perhaps, for Robertito, it sounds like an earthquake. So, we try to bring music and our words to him in a gentle, soft manner.”
“Yes, yes,” Francisca said. “I’ve noticed his tendency to flap his hands more or pull away when there are many people in a room with him. People make much noise.”
“Also,” Suzi interjected, “people are visually very bombarding.”
“Things begin to fit,” Roby said with great excitement. “Now that you have said that, I remember watching him took directly at a small red truck we once gave him. Also at a doorknob. Also at the chrome leg of our dining room table. But, usually, he would never look directly at a person. In fact, he is much more relaxed alone. He seems confused when a lot of people move around him; it’s his most difficult time. I never realized that before.”
“And what could you know from that?” I asked.
Roby nodded. “That if we want to make contact or teach him something, it’s best to do it without a lot of people around – one to one like we are doing here. Now I really understand about the bathroom.”
“Beautiful,” I commented. “Your observations, ultimately, are more important than ours. Roby, Francisca – it’s you who will be putting this together. In a couple of days, you’ll be on your own. You’ll be watching for cues and deciding how to respond. You said you wanted to work with Robertito all day, every day. Okay. Your attitude is still the key because if you’re loving and accepting, you’ll also be a better observer. When we have expectations or need things to happen, we’re distracted by our goals, by our fears. Being here moment to moment is essential.”
“Look at all the professionals who told you Robertito was unresponsive,” Suzi said. “Yet we’ve noticed many small statements … with his eyes, with his varied responses to being touched, with the imitation games. It’s incredible, but some people discard such tiny bits of information as insignificant. But we know, if you’re sensitive to all those cues, big and small, you create opportunities to make contact in a meaningful way.”
“He’s very into eating,” I added. “You can use it – use everything! Anything! I’m not talking about bribing or conditioning. Each morsel of food can set the stage for possible eye contact. Our smiles, our warmth is just a way to say hello. He doesn’t have to perform to eat. Yet when he takes the food, he might look past it and find our faces. And in that moment, we can be there saying something with our eyes, our expressions, our voices.”
“Suppose he doesn’t look?” Francisca asked.
“Then we wait,” I suggested. “It makes all the difference in the world if we let it come from him. There’s quite a distance to travel before we would try to teach him specific things like eating with forks and spoons.”
“Yes, I see,” Roby said. “You are talking about being there with him and for him.”
“Even more than that. We’re talking about going with him,” I emphasized. “First: acceptance, contact, joining his world. Second: with our attitude and the responsive environment, we want to draw him out … have him be motivated to try. Then, and only then, would he be ready to really learn many different things. And there’s a bonus. If he’s motivated, in touch, finally watching us, then he’ll learn much by himself”
“In a way,” Suzi said, touching Francisca’s hand, “it’s trusting the child. And trusting yourself to trust the child.”
“But he has very definite… ah, how, ah, can I say it properly?” Roby stuttered.
“It doesn’t matter how you say it,” I assured him.
“Well, he has a specific handicaps. The on-and-off hearing.”
I don’t know if that’s a handicap,” I said, “as much as it’s a way to take care of himself. He can certainly hear and see.”
“What about memory?” Roby asked. “He can’t remember from one moment to the next. Every day he looks at his hand like he’s seeing it for the first time.”
“I’ve noticed that, too,” I said. “Especially with food, which we know he likes. He follows the food ferociously until it goes out of sight – behind my hand, in my pocket. Once it’s out of sight, he doesn’t pursue; it’s as if he can’t remember it or retain it without having it in front of him. It’s a kind of memory dysfunction.”
“There’s nothing we can do for that,” Roby concluded.
“Let’s look at it in terms of motivation. Research illustrates that doctors will often predict that two people with identical brain damage resulting from strokes will never be able to talk or walk because the centers in the brain which control those functions have been destroyed. Yet, a year later, one stroke victim is speaking and moving about easily; the other is still mute and bedridden. When you ask for an explanation, the doctors say: ‘Well, it’s will-to-live.’ In effect, the person who learned to speak and move again had to find new pathways in his brain, create new connections amid the debris. Since it required an incredible thrust, the person had to be highly motivated. And there’s the key. Call it ‘will-to-live’ or motivation, but that’s the power and energy we give ourselves to do what others might label as impossible. And that’s what I’d love to see Robertito do. But you can’t give him the spark. You can only be there, like a mid-wife, helping him find it within himself ”
“Do you think he will find it?” Francisca asked.
“We can’t really know that” I said. “We can only stay in touch with what we want for Robertito, for ourselves, and then do what we can to get what we want. Part of acceptance is allowing him to come our way or not come our way. Which leads me to a question. Francisca, how would you feel if Robertito never changed, never learned more than he knows at this moment?”
Jaime peered at me, his head cocked slightly to the side.
“Maestro?” I called.
“Ah, Senor Kaufman. I wondered why you were going back to that question.”
“I’m not, Jaime, I’m going forward to that question,” I said. Jaime became very pensive, then translated my words.
The Sotos looked at each other. Roby sighed. Francisca turned to me and said. “Still, it is a difficult question.”
“Why?” I asked.
Her face became flushed. Her eyes reddened instantly. Tears flowed down her cheeks.
“What are you unhappy about?”
“Being a mother was something I wanted more than anything, more than anything else in the world. To love a child and have him love me. It’s not …” Francisca stopped herself. She glanced at Roby, touched her fingertips to his face and said: “I know it’s the same for him, too. We try to love Robertito and he rejects us.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said.
“How do you see it as obvious?” I asked.
“If I go to hug him or kiss him, he moves away.”
“That’s a good question,” Roby interjected, leaning forward on the edge of his chair. “I think I always believed that’s what his moving away meant. But if he’s oversensitive, he could be protecting himself … like with the hearing. So when I call him, the switch isn’t even turned on. Then, of course, he would not respond. And maybe, in some way, he’s frightened.” He rubbed his forehead nervously. “I guess I was so busy being hurt about being rejected, I never questioned why.”
“And now?” I asked.
“And now,” Roby said, “there are other possibilities. I can see it differently.”
“Let me ask the question again. Do you believe moving away means rejecting?”
“I don’t think I do any more,” he answered.
“‘Don’t think’ sounds like you’re not sure.”
Roby smirked self-consciously. “I guess I’m still deciding.”
“About what this all means. If Robertito is doing what he can to take care of himself that would be okay with me. I would want him to be able to do that for himself.” A huge grin radiated on his face.
“What are you smiling about?” Suzi asked.
“Oh, I guess, at how you assume things without ever questioning them. Somehow, I thought Robertito’s action meant something about me … like if I were a better father, he’d let me touch him.”
“Do you still believe that?”
“No,” Roby affirmed.
“And you, Francisca?” Suzi asked.
“I can see how Robertito is trying to take care of himself … in the only way he knows how. I can accept that. It doesn’t have to mean we’re not good parents. But, Suzi, you know. I want to hug my son. I want to hold him close. I want him to hold me close.”
“I know how much you want those things. I was once there, too,” Suzi said gently. “But being unhappy about not having them is different than wanting them. What is it about not having that exchange of affection that’s so painful?”
“I know how much you want those things. I was once there, too,” Suzi said gently. “But being unhappy about not having them is different than wanting them. What is it about not having that exchange of affection that’s so painful?”
“What do you mean?” Suzi asked.
“Like something is missing. There’s supposed to be more.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Between a child and its mother,” Francisca said, “there is a whole relationship which does not exist between Robertito and me. There should be so much more.”
“Why do you believe that?”
“That’s why I had a child.”
“I understand what you wanted in having a child. But why do you believe there’s supposed to be any more than there is right now with Robertito?”
“Because I want it!” she insisted.
“Why does wanting it mean it’s supposed to happen?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Francisca said, shaking her head from side to side.
“When I think about it, it sounds foolish. What is, is … but I still want so much more.”
“That’s what you want. But how do you feel about ‘what is’ right now?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said with a touch of hesitation. “I feel clearer. You can really drive yourself crazy trying to make your life fit your dreams. I see that now.”
“That’s what we mean when we talk about expectations, shoulds and supposed to’s,” I added. “We get into needing things to be a certain way in order for us to be happy. If they’re not, we’re miserable. And so, while we look anxiously for what we don’t have, we frequently miss what we do have.”
“I’m proof of that,” Francisca grinned, pointing to herself. “I have barely allowed myself to be excited about what’s happened in these past two days because I’m still so concerned about Robertito’s being toilet trained, feeding himself, talking. All the normal things a child is supposed to do.”
Francisca stood up and turned away from us.
“What’s the matter?” Roby said, jumping to his feet.
“I’m all right,” she said, “I just realized something. In a way, I’ve never really loved Robertito for what he is; I’ve always loved him for what I hoped he would become, what I thought every little boy should become.”
“That’s not rue,” Roby insisted. “You’ve loved him and given him so much.”
“Yes, I know, Roby, in a way that’s true. I have given him everything I could. Tried to touch him, sing to him, talk to him, teach him and … and even discipline him. But maybe now, I can give him even more by accepting him, loving him as he is.”
Wednesday – The Third Day
The Sotos arrived at exactly nine o’clock. Before anyone could be seated, Francisca started talking very rapidly. Jaime put both hands up, trying to slow the avalanche of words. Suddenly, she started crying. Roby held her, then spoke quietly to Jaime, who turned to us.
“Senor Soto asks me to explain to you what happened last night in the car. Robertito and his mother sat in the back seat, which is usual. Always, the child pulls his arms into his body and falls asleep wrapped up in himself. Last night, quite specifically, he did something he has never done before. Never! Robertito edged across the seat until he sat right next to Francisca. Then, several seconds later, he rested his hand on his mother’s arm, leaned his head against her shoulder and fell asleep.”
Jaime, our dignified and very formal interpreter, drew a handkerchief from his breast pocket and put it to his eyes.
We all stood there. Together. In silence. Smiling through moist eyes for the mother who had waited four years for such a gesture from her child. Francisca hugged Suzi, then put her arms tightly around me. Her son walked easily across the room and headed for the land of toilets and tubs. Suzi kissed Jaime, then followed her student. The maestro beamed.
“I don’t understand,” Francisca began. “You and Suzi have been working with Robertito and yet, he is different with us.”
“Because you’re different with him, Francisca,” I said. “By working on yourself, you’ve been working with him. Each night, you’ve looked at some of your unhappiness and the beliefs which caused it. Every time you’ve changed a belief, you’ve changed your attitude and your feelings about yourself and your son. Your eyes, your smile, the touch of your hand, your body language – it all has begun to change. Remember, we’re not talking about poses or strategy. When we’re more accepting, Robertito knows. When we show him he can move us, he takes more risks.”
“I don’t know whether we’re fully accepting yet,” Roby admitted.
“Wherever you are now, your attitude has obviously made a difference already. We can explore it more tonight. Today, we’d like both of you to start working with Robertito. Okay?”
Roby and Francisca nodded their heads enthusiastically.
“You’ll start right after lunch.”
Eye contact with Robertito had improved dramatically. From time to time, he would look directly at us, sometimes for as long as eight to ten seconds. We noticed he stopped and started flapping more often in an effort to control us. He smiled much more easily. Though he still watched us peripherally most of the time, he seemed to understand we were there for him; without demands, without conditions. When Suzi out-flapped him, shaking her hands faster than he did, Robertito burst out laughing. They both giggled for several minutes.
Roby and Francisca took over the session in the afternoon. Suzi and I worked with them alternately. By early evening, we stood sweating behind the glass doors of the bathtub.
Robertito’s spontaneous eye contact increased significantly all day. Francisca fed him dinner eye-to-eye. But we segmented half the meal for an experiment. Roby placed pieces of vegetables in all different parts of the room. Robertito watched carefully, then reached for the food as his father deposited it. One time, Roby put some carrots on a ledge too high for his son to see. At first, Robertito just stood immobile. The blank stare returned to his eyes. Then, very slowly, very methodically, he raised his arm, and felt along the inside of the ledge. Within seconds, he stuffed the food into his mouth. A mind-boggling feat for this little boy. We could actually watch him develop before our eyes, actually witness his unfolding from moment to moment. His flowering made the movement with out son, Raun, suddenly seem like slow motion. It took eight weeks or seven hundred hours until we had developed observable eye contact. It took many months until we had developed observable eye contact. It took many months until Raun could retain objects in his mind without concretely seeing them.
Our excitement consumed us. We decided to try to make the interaction between Robertito and his parents slightly more sophisticated. Roby placed plastic containers of juice and water in different parts of the room, out of his sons reach, but clearly within his line of vision. Robertito stood below the medicine cabinet and scratched on the mirror. He looked frantically at the can of yellow liquid beyond his reach.
“Jugo. Jugo, Jugo,” his father repeated. “Diga-me, Robertito, Jugo.” Allowing five seconds for any kind of response, he gave his mute son the juice. These games continued throughout the remainder of the day.
As Robertito became more attentive, wanting more from us and his parents, we tried to place ourselves in positions of use. Each time he indicated his desire for food, by grabbing or even by standing and looking at the objects, we came to his assistance immediately.
In the last moments of the session, Francisca introduced a simple stacking toy designed for six-month-old infants. Each time her son knocked it down, we rebuilt it. Just as we left the bathroom, Robertito bent down and placed one block on top of another. The roar of our applause and cheering chased him from the room.
After dinner, we continued the dialogues with Roby and Francisca. They explored more of their discomforts, unearthed more of their beliefs. We dealt with their questions about their own abilities to continue the program in Mexico. As they became more accepting and trusting of themselves, they began to realize they could have the answers if they allowed themselves to look freely.
Thursday – The Fourth Day
The morning session with Robertito signaled another movement. The Sotos accented physical contact, but not as a designed strategy. It evolved naturally during the first minutes they spent together. Roby imitated and tickled his son. Francisca hummed and stroked him while he stood stiffly like a figure cast in bronze. Then, quite casually, as if he had done it a thousand times, Robertito suddenly plopped into his mother’s lap. Her mouth opened wide in delight. When she embraced him instinctively, he pulled away and jumped to his feet. Five minutes later, he dropped into her lap again. This time he remained seated for several minutes. Francisca handed her son insertion cups. He flapped the colorful plastic toys by the side of his head, then dropped them on the floor. They repeated this exchange many times. We noticed Robertito’s increased agility with his hands, though he still moved them with considerable awkwardness.
Roby presented lunch to his son in the same fashion as the previous dinner. He fed half to him eye-to-eye and placed the remaining food around the room. Little Robertito did not follow his father. Instead, he grabbed the juice container off the floor and held it. He put it to his mouth, but the cover cheated him of a drink. Roby moved to seize the can, but stopped himself and waited. His son walked up to him, dropping the container right in front of his feet. Roby gave him a drink quickly. Unwilling to assume Robertito knew what he did, he duplicated the situation with the water container. The little boy picked up the can and this time, literally dropped it on his father’s shoes.
After lunch, we coerced Jaime into taking a position in the bathtub. He declined at first, but the outcry from all of us persuaded him. The maestro leaned against the tile wall, watching the child he had grown to love.
Continual talking to Robertito about what we did and naming every item we touched formed an important aspect of the program. We suggested that Roby and Francisca shorten words and language forms. Jugo would become ju. La musica would become moo. In other areas, such as expressions of love or excitement, they maintained the full richness of speech.
During early afternoon, we had a change of guard at our home. Sasha returned to the city and Elise, a dear and loving friend, joined to help. Her bubbling, new-age, astrology-oriented vision added another specialness to the texture of moods and energy at the house. Until our crew returned from school, she positioned herself outside the bathroom door. Later, she shared with us her endeavor to envision the room filled with white light so that Robertito might see an even clearer path.
We spent our last full evening together with the Sotos trying to lay to rest any remaining beliefs which caused them to be uncomfortable or disturbed about their son or themselves. Francisca discussed a problematic relationship she had with a dear friend. In the midst of a dialogue, she apologized for dealing with material she thought irrelevant to her son and our common purpose.
“Everything in your life is relevant, pertinent,” I suggested. “How often have people expressed anger toward someone they loved as an outlet for the anger they actually felt in another frustrating situation. And so, the frustrating situation or other problematic relationships affect other aspects of our lives. We’re not compartmentalized, split into neat little sections. So, as we don’t have set mechanisms for helping Robertito, neither do we have set subjects for helping ourselves.”
Friday – The Fifth Day
Although we used our last day to continue observing and exploring, we also reviewed and embraced the events of the past week. The visible movement had been dramatic. The totally withdrawn and inner-focused little boy now sat on our laps and giggled in our faces. The child who never pursued anything or expressed his wants now found hidden objects and brought containers of juice and water to people in order to solicit their assistance. The staring, hand-flapping Robertito deviated from his well-entrenched patterns to hold cups and stack blocks. Though he continued to retain old behaviors, most of the time, his non-distractible commitment to self-stimulating activities, such as hand-flapping and rocking, had dwindled. Robertito had taken huge steps across the bridge, to meet us in a way that he had never done before in his life.
In this day’s session, Francisca began by handing the insertion cups to her son. He turned them in front of his eyes then tossed them across the room. Smiling, she gathered the plastic containers and inserted one into the other. Robertito, flapping slightly, watched from the corner of his eye. Quite often, he looked directly at his mother. She gave him the cups again. Robertito dropped them to the floor. They continued this exchange for almost twenty minutes with Francisca talking and demonstrating how one cup fit into another.
Roby served lunch in the usual manner; some pieces placed and others hidden around the room. They positioned the liquids within Robertito’s easy reach. Their son brought the juice can to his father. “Diga-me, Robertito. Ju. Ju,” Roby repeated as he filled the glass. The little boy sat on the floor and rocked from side to side after the meal. Roby joined him. They both smiled … at each other.
Although the conversations were kept hushed and subdued, we noticed Robertito’s growing tolerance for louder sounds. He also made a definite statement about his interest in music by fingering the tape recorder until Francisca switched it on.
We ended the session in mid-afternoon and gathered in the living room. Bryn arrived minutes later from school. She kissed everyone in the room. Jaime blushed, flattered by her affection. Thea and Raun entered the house noisily. Within seconds, our son ran to Robertito and stroked his cheeks gently. Laughter bubbled throughout the room in response to Raun’s infectious giggle.
Although Jaime still translated the conversation, we all talked together easily, intimately. With Thea on my lap, with Raun touching Robertito, with Bryn sitting ladylike beside Roby, with Suzi smiling warmly at Francisca, we had become, for these moments, a loving family of people sharing and enjoying one another.
After playing a game of “thumbs” with my son, I ushered the children into the den beside the kitchen. Bryn and Thea took charge of Robertito authoritatively. Returning to the living room, I smiled at Roby and Francisca, who had busily composed an elaborate list, complete with numbers and indentations. Reflections of a college outline.
“Why the list?” I asked.
“So we make sure we remember,” Roby asserted.
“What is there to remember?
Roby laughed. “Bears, are you serious?”
“All the games we have established with Robertito, things to watch for, cues to catalogue.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Yes, that is all,” Roby said.
“How come you don’t have to make lists of all the things we explored during our long evening sessions?”
“Those are part of us,” he answered.
“Are you saying what we did with Robertito isn’t part of you?” I questioned.
Grinning broadly, he said, “I … I guess go.”
“Do you believe that?”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Everything we’ve done here has become part of us.” Roby put his pencil down.
“Roby, you can still make your list. I only wanted to clarify why you did it. Sometimes we can observe ourselves doing precisely the same behavior – one time from unhappiness, another time from our good feelings.”
I took Suzi’s hand and looked into her bright eyes, then turned back to Roby and Francisca. “The reason I raised the questions about the list is because I want each of you to know you are your own best expert on yourself and your situation. Don’t see the list as a guide to the future; at best, its only a record of the past. If Suzi and I suggested turning left and, tomorrow it seemed apparent to you to turn right, then trust yourself and turn right.”
“There aren’t any rules of conduct,” Suzi interjected. “Only your choices, your decisions. And you can know better than anyone else, including us, what there is for you to do.”
“I’d like to pose one more question, specifically to you, Francisca. It’s one I’ve asked you almost every day. How would you feel if Robertito never changed from the way he is today, never learned anything more?”
She smiled broadly. “Bears, when you asked me that on the first day I met you, I became so upset, so angry. I wanted to run out of your house and never, never come back. How could I have traveled over three thousand miles to be asked such a crazy question? I thought there was only one possible answer … that, of course, I had to feel terrible if he didn’t improve.” A long, relaxed sigh echoed from her throat. “Now I can say it would be okay. I never realized by not accepting Robertito as he is, I was disapproving of him.”
“It’s like saying to a person it’s not okay to be who you are; you must be something else to be acceptable,” Suzi commented.
“Yes, I understand,” Francisca said. “Although I want more for Robertito and will work for more, I can see my son clearer now and can enjoy him now … really enjoy him. Oh, God, I feel so much easier with myself.” Her face glowed; her eyes emanated a peacefulness which had never been apparent before.
Bryn charged into the living room wide-eyed. She held her index finger in front of her lips, hushing our conversation, and motioned for us to follow quickly. We gathered at the kitchen door. A bottle of juice balanced precariously near the edge of the counter. On tiptoes, little Robertito stretched his arms as high as possible, but missed his mark. A strange, throaty sound oozed from him. And then it became apparent. “Ju. Ju. Ju.” Francisca laughed and cried as she quickly poured the juice into a plastic glass.
Raun pulled on Suzi’s pants. “Mama, can I have juice, too?”
“I’ll give him some,” Thea offered.
When we turned to re-enter the living room, I saw Roby sitting by himself, his face flushed. Francisca sat beside him quietly, then talked softly to Jaime. “Francisca,” he said, “believes Roby would like to be alone.” The Sotos rose from the couch.
“Tell them to stay. Well be in the other room.” I asked Elise and the children to keep Robertito in the kitchen while Suzi and I sat in the den. A man’s muffled sobbing filtered through the walls.
Within the next hour, Robertito used two more words in order to communicate his wants.
Later, we reassembled in the living room. Roby and the maestro completed a rather intense conversation. Jaime directed his words toward me.
“Senor Soto would like to say something, but he is concerned you might get insulted.”
I laughed. “Tell him I doubt it. If I get insulted, I do that to myself. And since I don’t want to feel uncomfortable or upset, there’s no risk. Let him say what he would like.” B
Jaime spoke again for Roby. “The Sotos would like to pay you. They have calculated that you have worked with them and their son for almost eighty hours during the past week. They realize you and Suzi had to stop many other things in order to do this. They wish to compensate you for teaching them.”
Leaning forward, I put my hands on top of Roby’s and Francisca’s hands. I searched their sensitive faces. “First, I’m not insulted. I understand your intentions. If we wanted to be paid, I would have told you that in the beginning. We chose to be here, to help. I don’t know if we could always do this, but we wanted to do it now. We’ve been enriched by knowing you, your son, and witnessing his movement. It has been a very beautiful week, a very complete week. Your joy stands as our payment.”
Roby nodded, acknowledging my words. Francisca’s eyes sparkled. Caring thoughts passed from person to person in the silence. Suddenly, the blaring horn of a taxi invaded the room. Jaime excused himself, stepping outside to ask the driver to wait. Roby checked his passports and plane tickets.
Suzi fought back tears as she hugged Roby, Francisca and little Robertito. I embraced each of them as did our children. Then I turned to Jaime, refusing to say my good-bye to him with a formal handshake. As I reached to hug him, he reached to hug me. We patted each other on the back and laughed.
“Senor Kaufman, I am slow at changing, but this has been a great learning experience for me. On the day we met, you asked me to call you Bears. I am ready now.”
“Peace, Jaime,” I smiled.
“And to you, Bears. Adios,” he said. Then the maestro embraced Suzi.
“I have no more words,” Roby whispered. “My feelings are too strong for my words.” He bowed his head and led his family down the walk to the waiting car.