The pressure of the plane speeding down the runway riveted Roby to the back of his seat. The stress in his stomach increased as the huge, mechanical bird lifted off the pavement. His eyes snapped frozen pictures of a late afternoon sun descending behind the towering skyline of New York City. The people on the ground were no longer visible. Cars and trucks had the appearance of match-book miniatures. As he thought about his wife and child, his conviction about returning alone to Mexico weakened.
His business had declined to such an extent that its very existence was threatened. His cousin, lacking Roby’s expertise, sent out a loud cry for help. Roby would have let it all go for the sake of his son, sacrificing the little shoe store he had spent most of his adult life building. But he knew they needed more time in New York, even more than their original commitment of three to four months. Their savings had almost been exhausted. He needed the support of his business in order to sustain a further stay in New York. Roby wanted that time desperately for Robertito, for Francisca and, if possible, for himself.
The evolution of his son dazzled him. Although Robertito had only begun to learn the most primitive responses and functioned at a fraction of his chronological age, the pattern of growth defied the fruitless and often brutal alternatives they had encountered during those years of searching. But he wanted more time for another reason which he had difficulty admitting to himself. Francisca and he, too, had found something special for themselves during the past two and a half months. His wife smiled and laughed and displayed a confidence he had never witnessed before. The years of tears had ended.
The concept of family haunted him. He could not love his wife or son any more than he did, but he had found, within the context of his new family in New York, a more profound and fulfilling way to express his love and caring. Roby smiled as he remembered the few jokes he had told over the past weeks. He had never played the comic, leaving that role to others more gregarious than himself. His father had called laughter a frivolous whorehouse diversion. Even the smile had been banished from his early childhood. But here, in New York, the old taboos no longer appeared valid. Laughter and smiling had become part of the loving. Everything had developed so naturally, so easily, that the process of exploring and discarding his fears and doubts almost receded into a secondary position, although he knew that very process had given him the key to open so many locked doors. He wanted more, much more! And Robertito needed more, Roby thought, supporting his desire to extend their stay. Francisca had begun to find the first glimmer of joy and comfort since the diagnosis of their son. He did not trust her euphoria. She could slip back. She could! He had to bolster his business. If it meant standing in the street like a circus barker, he would.
The nose of the plane dipped as it reached its proper cruising altitude. Roby reassured himself he had made the right decision despite this separation from his family. He calculated each possible step, hoping to return in less than a month. The flight attendant fractured the internal conversation. She offered him a beverage, which he declined. He stared at the blanket of clouds beneath him. He imagined endless white pillows and quilts covering the earth. “Co …Co …” His son’s little voice danced in his ears. “Moo …” Roby hummed to himself “Moo…” Against the teal-blue sky above a golden horizon, he watched a faint image of Robertito’s lips pucker and curl as the child blurted the sound of a cow.
“I will take care of everything,” Francisca had assured him bravely at the airport. Not one tear escaped from her eyes. She had locked everything in, refusing to let her husband know how sad she felt about his departure. They had never been separated before. Earlier that morning, alone in the kitchen, she cried more for Roby than herself. But she promised to leave him with a smile, the very one she practiced when she fixed her hair and make-up in the airport bathroom. “I love you, Roby,” she shouted as he passed through the gate. “I love you, Mommy,” he called for the last time as he turned the comer and joined the river of people moving down the ramp. He fought the vertigo which threatened to envelop him. But now, thirty-thousand feet above the ground, he stabilized that uncomfortable floating feeling. He trusted his new family in New York even more, perhaps, than himself. He smiled. “Bears,” he whispered, “I’m learning. One day I will trust me more than you. One day.” Within seconds, Roberto Soto drifted into a deep sleep.
Suddenly, he found himself transported to the town of his birth. Small, white buildings clustered around one central street. An open market and a hardware store with two gas pumps provided the village with its most notable landmarks. The remainder of the small town stretched to the west toward the desert. Roby felt peculiar driving his old Thunderbird through these streets. The donkeys, cows and goats, which had once accompanied the residents across the dirt and gravel roads, had disappeared. Black macadam covered the three block distance from the store to the wind-swept square in front of the church. Old buses, dusty trucks and vintage American cars lined the three-inch clay curbs. Everything appeared incredibly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The left turn into his street startled him. The old sheds were gone. The stone walls of his house had been painted brown. Anemic shrubs softened the presence of the building against an arid landscape. In the distance, he raw Francisca carrying a basket through the front door. And then he knew. This was no longer the house of his parents, but his own home. Roby felt disoriented as he left the car and walked along the neatly set cobblestones to the front door. He drew a set of keys from his pocket mechanically. To his amazement, he selected the correct one and opened the door as if he had done it a thousand times. He stepped forward hesitantly and almost tripped over the basket, the same one his wife had carried into the house. Annoyed, he searched for Francisca.
“Francisca,” he said in a loud voice when he entered the kitchen and noticed her motionless figure by the rear window. Her shoulders looked broader than he had recalled. Her arms and hands were bruised and callused from excessive physical work. Dusty strands of hair lay lifelessly on her shoulders. “Francisca!” he called a second time, betraying his growing impatience. She did not respond. She stood there like the statue he had seen in the museum. “Aren’t you going to greet me?”
His wife turned around slowly; her body pivoted on her toes like a ballet dancer. She cocked her head and side-glanced at him peculiarly. Her glazed eyes did not blink, though she smiled momentarily. Her nostrils flared while her lips moved spastically. Finally, in a deep, choked voice, she bellowed: “Co.” Her body became rigid. She twisted her face, breaking her own inertia. Then Francisca twirled around in circles and flapped her hands beside her head.
Roby hunched over and held his chest as he stared at his wife. He could not distinguish her actions from those of his son. “Francisca, for God’s sake, please,” he begged. But the woman did not seem to hear him as she repeated the monosyllabic word “co” many times. And then he knew, irrevocably, without any doubts. She, too, had become autistic like his son. How could he have been annoyed with her? How could he ever have considered scolding her? He noticed a puzzle board on the table. He picked out the duck form and held it up. Francisca peered at it from the corner of her eyes. “Quack. Quack, quack,” she shouted. Roby looked up stunned. He couldn’t breathe any more.
The burn of the engines buzzed in his ears as he opened his eyes. A chill rippled down his spine. The sweat lay caked on his face. A dream! Only a dream! He bent his head and peered out the window, trying to eradicate those disturbing images of his wife. He pulled the flight magazine from the seat back in front of him and tried to lose himself in the articles and advertisements. Seconds later he turned to the window again. Portions of the dream repeated themselves. Perhaps, he reasoned, he had not been so good in his past. Perhaps he had not been as supportive as necessary. Perhaps he should not have left Francisca in New York. Roby tried to stop accusing himself He closed his eyes and forced his mind to go blank.
“Hello,” a little voice chimed.
Roby opened his eyes and stared at the blue eyed little girl standing in the seat directly in front of him. She flapped her fingers at the side of her head, waving to him. He smiled and returned the gesture. In his peripheral vision, he observed the motion of his own hand. He recalled the rhythmic flapping gestures of a flamenco dancer in Mexico City. He saw Francisca in the dream. Everywhere he looked, he saw signs of Robertito.
“Hello,” the youngster said again, her face radiating with a warm smile.
“Hello,” Roby answered in heavily accented English. The child grabbed his hand playfully. He tapped her palms and clapped, as he had done hundreds of times with his own son. She followed his lead instinctively and sang: “Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker’s man, make me a cake as fast as you can.”
Less than a week after Roby left, I found myself on a plane headed west. I had been asked to attend a two-day series of meetings in Los Angeles to discuss the possible writing of a treatment for the proposed “Son-Rise” television special. The producers had not exercised any further commitment beyond the initial option. All projects pending. Even the Soto program hung in the balance. Suzi and I had anticipated Francisca and Roby’s asking for more time – another three months, another six months, or perhaps, a year. We had decided to try to give them whatever they asked for. And yet, how could we possibly make it through a year or even two more months without additional funds? The involvement with Robertito consumed a mammoth amount of our time, sprinkled over six, sometimes seven, days a week, What would be right for Francisca and Roby had to be right for us as well. It had to be!
The California conference with the producers had a certain tone, respectful, yet patronizing. Everyone had an opinion. They subdued their own conflicts and fenced politely in my presence. Their response to my specific ideas for the film as well as individual scenes was enthusiastic.
When I returned to my hotel on the second night, I found a telegram slipped under my door. As I ripped open the envelope, I noted the name and address of the sender. Jane had written the wire. Good ol’ Jane. The master hand-holder. She had probably wanted to give me additional support, having warned me against the tinsel madness of Hollywood and false gaiety.
I walked onto the balcony and flopped into a chair. The lights of the city glittered before me, obscuring the shroud of brown smog which had encased the buildings and landscape since my arrival. I pulled the telegram from its enclosure. A pep talk. Yes, I would welcome that. But instead, the telegram contained a very different message.
“Sit down! Stop have secured three offers for book on robertito project stop one offer very special stop they value journey as you do stop advance will finance you while you work stop you are making a believer out of me. Signed: red roses.”
Breakfast had been awkward for her. Suzi delighted in the cards and handmade gifts from our children in celebration of Mother’s Day, but my empty seat unsettled her. Although I had been scheduled to return the following day, she wanted a closeness she could touch and she wanted that closeness now.
A visit from my father and his wife, Roz, gave her a more enriched sense of family. Abe, tall, thin, sporting a dapper mustache, kissed Suzi and greeted the children with his usual understatement, yet his eyes radiated an abiding warmth.
Raun jumped into his grandfather’s arms and turned his face by pushing on the man’s nose. “Grandpa, how come you have a big nose like Daddy?”
My father laughed. “I don’t have a big nose like your daddy; he has a big nose like me … because he’s my son. And you are his son. So one day you will probably have a nose just like us.”
“Oh no, no I won’t. I like my nose the way it is. You guys have the biggest noses I’ve ever seen. Honest!” he said.
“Raunchy,” Suzi interjected. “I think Grandpa and Daddy have wonderful noses.”
“Well, I’m not saying they’re bad or anything,” Raun insisted. “I just don’t want one.”
Thea hugged Roz and laughed at her brother’s commentary. “Raunch, you’ll have to concentrate on keeping your nose small.”
“Since I’m neutral,” Roz said, patting her own small nose, “I’d say a nose gives character. A strong nose for a strong face.”
“Here, here,” Abe said happily, until Bryn jumped into his arms without warning. He groaned.
“Oh, Grandpa,” she said, disappointed.
Suzi laughed. “Brynny, maybe you haven’t noticed, but you’ve grown in the last few years. You’re almost as tall as me.”
“That’s only because you’re a shrimp, Mommy,” Bryn commented matter-of-factly.
“Oh yeah,” Suzi said, eyeing her daughter. Bryn, sensing an impending assault, ran into the living room. Suzi trapped her on the couch and tickled her into a minor fit of hysterics.
“Okay, okay. You’re not a shrimp,” she pleaded. “You’re not.”
Later that afternoon, Suzi took Abe and Roz to meet Francisca. Despite the fact that this was Mother’s Day, Suzi had a work session scheduled.
Suzi entered the workroom quietly. She guided Abe and Roz to positions along the wall. “Oh, look, Robertito,” Francisca said, in Spanish. “We have guests. Do you want to say hello?” Robertito stood on the top of a low bureau, a favorite place he had learned to mount. He side-glanced at the new arrivals, then he faced Roz directly.
“Come,” Suzi said softly, walking up to her student, “Hola! Robertito.” She caressed him and kissed him. He accepted her affection, but his smiling eyes were drawn to Roz. “Go ahead,” Suzi encouraged her visitors. “You can say hello to him.”
Abe found the child’s face hypnotic. Something about his dark, penetrating eyes reminded him of Raun. He approached slowly. “Hola! Robertito,” he said, affectionately, taking the little boy’s hand.
When Roz approached Robertito put his head against her chest and stroked her with his soft fingers. He smiled. Suzi and Francisca gasped. He had never been affectionate to strangers before. Roz rubbed his back while he leaned against her. After several minutes, he stood upright and flapped his hands vigorously. Suzi mimicked him, as did Francisca. Abe and Roz watched, bewildered and slightly uncomfortable with the pantomime. Robertito bent forward toward Roz and twirled his fingers in front of his fare and hers. She watched the others, then, she, too, imitated him. In abandoning familiar rules, Abe and Roz entered into a world which, in these moments, no longer appeared strange.
It seemed impossible, but during my four-day absence, Robertito had matured noticeably: happier, more receptive, longer periods of concentration, less “isms,” more vocalizing. During the next few weeks, his attempts to duplicate sounds increased dramatically. He began to imitate songs in a mumbled fashion. We taught him the vowels. We would say words and letters and put his hand on our throats so he could feel the vibrations. Many times, he mimicked our lip and mouth formations, but could not drive the air through his larynx to make the sound. But after days of practice and abortive attempts, he slowly gained control over the apparatus he had not used in a purposeful manner for the majority of his life.
Robertito learned how to make the simple sounds of most of the animals. Though he learned very slowly the words “ju” for jugo (juice) and “si” for yes, he said “agua” immediately instead of the shortened form for water. His Gargantuan leap in receptive language during the period astounded us. He understood where is, more, pull, push, close, hit, touch, kiss, hug, jump, sit, turn, put, lie down, look, look at it, look at me, come, run, walk, bathroom, music, dance, stand up, give me, circle, triangle, square, dog, cat, duck, chicken, cow, horse, bird, book. With apparent difficulty, he learned the meaning of red, blue, yellow, green, black and white. Often, upon entering his workroom, he indicated by touch or body position a preference for a game or activity. The use of books allowed us to expand his visual and language-recognition skills. The “isms” persisted, but our interaction now competed seriously for his time and concentration.
Variation in moods became more apparent. In seconds, he could switch from laughing to crying. In general, he exuded an incredible sense of calm and inner well-being. His fixation on food had also escalated, although the focus of our support came from our over-articulated enthusiasm, love and affection. Though the rate of his development soared, he still spent the majority of his time within himself. We had managed, by using all those fleeting moments of contact, to help him exercise and fill some of those empty file cabinets in his mind.
Since he appeared more willing to imitate us, we developed an elaborate program of physical exercise for Robertito. Running, skipping, jumping and tumbling became part of the curriculum. We also had him lift small weights, trying to strengthen his arms and hands, especially his right arm and right hand. We worked his fingers with smaller objects which required more skill, trying to increase his hand-eye co-ordination as well as his small motor dexterity,
We had a blood and hair analysis performed. Though his diet had been all organic and vegetarian, marked by the absence of sugar, salt, artificial preservatives, colors and flavors, we refined his intake further based on our increased data.
By touching his groin, he indicated not only when he wet himself more often, but he used that gesture before he voided. Toilet training now became a possibility and Robertito seemed willing to use the bathroom facilities.
Yet in the midst of all this growth and movement, our young friend rode a roller coaster of contact and withdrawal. For two days during this period, he stopped participating completely. He “ismed” to the life-sized, air-filled Popeye in his room. He flapped at Angelina, the little infant-sized doll we introduced to him. His autistic behavior no longer secluded him totally from his surroundings. In his ironic and humorous manner, he used those rituals as a tangential way to touch the world. We noted short periods of hyperactivity as well as unpredictable withdrawals for two and three hours at a time. The sessions took on a seesaw quality, touching the extremes of non-distractible self-stimulating behaviors to needle-point relatedness. The gap widened as if he kept one foot firmly planted in his autistic world while making bold and adventurous thrusts outside with the other.
In Roby’s absence, Bryn, Thea and Raun took turns sleeping at the Soto house. Their presence gave Francisca a sense of security and a bond to us. Bryn conversed with her on a basic level, relying on her textbook Spanish to help. Thea tried sign language and pointed to make her wishes and thoughts known. Raun babbled incessantly in English. At times, he stopped himself, recognizing Francisca’s inability to understand him, but then, two minutes later, he would continue his happy barrage of verbiage. The two little boys slept together. Often, Raun fell asleep with his arms tucked securely around his friend.
Amalia positioned her chair equidistant from Francisca’s seat, Suzi’s and mine.
Having sprinted up the path to our house, Francisca panted conspicuously. An awkward smile fluttered across her face, then disappeared. “I am late again,” she began, “and I have so much to discuss.” Amalia translated her words into English, preserving most of the inflections and idiosyncratic qualities of Francisca’s speech.
“If we can give you extra time, we will,” I said. “Two people are coming from Boston later this afternoon. Ironically, this is the first time I’ve scheduled anyone outside of the program in three weeks.”
“Don’t worry,” Suzi assured her, “if we don’t finish now we’ll do it tomorrow. But before we talk, I want my hug.”
Suddenly aware of her omission, Francisca seized Suzi vigorously. “My girl friend,” she announced proudly. She followed her embrace of me with the words “grande oso,” which meant big bear. Amalia received an enthusiastic hug as well. Francisca had converted the simple greeting into a formal ceremony. Even the act of seating herself seemed a touch rehearsed. She leaned forward as she talked. She relayed the news about Roby’s business steadily improving since his return to Mexico. They could stay longer. Despite the fact that our previous commitment for six weeks in England had finally solidified, she wanted to stay through the summer and into the fall … at least for an additional six months, maybe more. “Robertito is doing wonderfully here. There’s so much we still have to learn.”
Suzi and I had anticipated their request and our own response even before the book commitment. Somehow our affirmative answer had a special sweetness now, knowing that, indeed, only beautiful and realistic things came from our so-called unrealistic decision to work with the Sotos. We celebrated that gift. Nevertheless, we found ourselves cautioning Francisca again. The bond between all of us and her son was embryonic and fragile. Anything, from the lights of a video session to a loud noise, could shatter the connection. Even Robertito, by his actions, had demonstrated his unswerving, hypnotic attraction for the autistic womb.
Francisca said her awareness mirrored ours and for that reason she wanted to talk about the summer. “Everything is so delicate; that’s why I’m not sure about the summer. I am sure about staying here, but, who will direct the program?”
“Who would you want to direct it?” Suzi asked, deciding to transfer some of the initiative to Francisca.
“Either of you,” she affirmed.
“And in our absence?” I questioned.
Francisca straightened her back and gestured authoritatively, like a princess holding court. “I think maybe me and Roby…” A little girl grimace surfaced on her face as she abandoned her studied pose. For the first time, as a conscious decision, she freed her body to relax and be spontaneous, a physical state of being she had previously reserved only for her son. “I said me and Roby, but I’m not sure.”
“What aren’t you sure about?” I asked.
“Us. We have much to learn,” she said, doodling on a pad. Her hair fell over her forehead, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Even if you have much to learn, Francisca, why do you question directing the program for a six-week period?”
Her face tightened. She licked her lips. “We love our son very much. And even with Laura and Carol … I mean, they could help make decisions, we can all do it together … even so, maybe, well, it’s scary,”
Suzi bent forward and touched the other woman’s hand. “Francisca, what’s scary about it?” she asked.
“Suppose we make a mistake. Suppose we decide something very stupid. When I listen to both of your suggestions on Wednesday nights, I think to myself – hey, Francisca, how come you did not think of that? Now I would have to.”
“Perhaps you never asked yourself that question on Wednesday night,” Suzi said. “I used to do that all the time, let somebody else do it instead of me. If you did do it, if you made the list each week on what the group would concentrate on, how would you feel?”
“Scared,” she snapped. “Really scared!” A peculiar grin quivered on the lower portion of her face. The area above her high cheekbones remained fixed.
“Why would you be scared?” I asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s that thing about making a mistake.” Francisca clasped her hands together.
“What do you mean by making a mistake?”
“Suppose, uh, just suppose,” she began. “Well, let’s say I decided we would take Robertito to the park one hour each day. Okay?” Suzi and I nodded. “And let’s say when he is outside, he withdraws. That would be terrible.”
“Don’t you think it would be, Bears?”
“Maybe the important thing here is what you think, Francisca?”
“It would be, uh, terrible because he’d stop learning. I mean that’s okay,” she asserted, “as long as it’s not my fault.
“Francisca,” Suzi interjected, “if you take Robertito out and he withdraws, how is that your fault?”
“Well, maybe he did not like to be outside. Maybe the noise and wind, the cars were too much. So he withdraws – I know it’s to take care of himself – but he withdraws.”
“How is it your fault if he does?” Suzi asked again.
Francisca stared at her curiously and shrugged her shoulders.
“Do you make him withdraw?” I questioned.
She paused for a moment. “No.”
“Then if you didn’t make him withdraw,” I said, “how are you responsible for his withdrawal?”
“I don’t know.” She stared at the window, smiled fleetingly at Amalia and said: “He withdraws because he doesn’t like the outside or it is too difficult for him.” She stared at the ceiling again. “But I should have known it would be too much for him… that’s why it is my fault!”
“Why should you have known?” I inquired.
A disturbed expression rippled across her face. “I don’t know, Bears. I should have… that’s all. I should have known.”
“Francisca why do you believe you should have known?”
She tapped her fingers together nervously. “First, I would have thought he needed a break from the room. If his contact improved, even more than now, he might be able to relate to things outside. I’d ask Roby and Carol and Laura what they thought. I guess, if no one objected, I’d try it.”
“Okay,” Suzi acknowledged, shifting her position on the couch by crossing her legs beneath her. “And suppose you did all those things, gathered as much information as you could, and still Robertito withdrew – then, how would you feel?”
“I know I can’t decide for him how to be, Suzi, you know, he’s so unpredictable. Sometimes he deals with us wonderfully; other times he stays by himself ” Francisca smiled thinly. “It doesn’t look the same now, not after talking about it. I wouldn’t be responsible for what he does, only what I do.”
“If you’re not responsible for what he does and you did the best you could, how would you feel about that?” I asked.
“Well, if I did the best I could, then … that would be okay.”
A smile adorned Suzi’s face. She could feel Francisca’s movement and wanted her to go the whole distance. “And, my girl friend,” she said, spoofing Francisca’s favorite idiom, “if you looked at the situation, and considered all the alternatives, then made a decision, would you be doing the best you could?”
Francisca glanced back and forth between Suzi and myself. “Yes,” she declared. “Of course I would.” A hint of a smile creased the skin around her eyes. “If taking him outside is the only thing I can think of, then I’m doing the best I can do at the time.” She allowed a full smile and crumpled into the chair, uncharacteristically, like a little girl. Francisca laughed, closed her eyes and whispered: “It’s like learning to forgive yourself.”
After a nineteen-day absence, Roby returned to New York. Instead of eating or resting upon his arrival, he volunteered to take Francisca’s next session with Robertito. I sat on the side of the room after Suzi left. The little boy jerked his head upward and looked directly at his father.
“My son. How is my son?” He knelt down and embraced the child. The little boy rested his head on his father’s shoulder and ran his little fingers up and down his arm. Roby lived for this moment. They held their easy embrace for almost four minutes until Robertito turned around and held his arms up. “You remembered,” Roby shouted. “My boy!” He locked his hands under his son’s arms and swung him in giant circles around the room. The little boy laughed.
Spontaneously, Robertito said: “Co.” Roby gaped at the child, then glanced wide-eyed at me. I smiled and pointed to the food on the shelf. He grabbed the cup quickly and gave his son an ample portion. Robertito jumped while he chewed. His father imitated him. Robertito twirled his fingers. His father repeated the same motions. When the child sat down with a book, his father nestled close to him. Roby asked his son to locate the cow. Without the slightest hesitation, he pointed to the spotted animal.
“Where’s the duck?” he asked. The boy touched the fluffy white form depicted in the book. Roby looked up at me aghast. I pointed to my mouth and pantomimed the duck’s cry. “What does the duck say, papito?” No response. “What does the duck say?”
Robertito touched the drawing in the book, his small fingers caressing the yellow beak. “Quack, quack,” he barked. “Quack, quack!”
His father applauded, cheered and hugged his son. They rolled together like wrestlers on the floor. Roby’s awe led him to extract the cardboard basketball unit from the closet and demonstrate throwing the ball into the hoop. When he gave the huge foam replica of a basketball to Robertito, he dropped it. But on the second deliverance, the little boy made an energetic attempt to toss the ball. Though he missed the backboard completely, Roby jumped and shouted. “You threw the basketball! Didn’t you?” Roberto Soto sank to the floor and laughed. His son picked up the ball again, this time hitting the backboard and almost sinking his first basket. Robertito dropped to the floor beside his father and like the older man, he, too, laughed.
Time had stopped for the two of them, a father and a son, both of whom had defied every prediction and found each other. I lost it in that moment, the tears blurring my vision as I rose to my feet. I felt like an intruder witnessing the most intimate scene. What a wonderful gift this child had given his father on the first day of his return. Rather than disrupt them with my good-by, I slipped out of the room unobtrusively.
In the kitchen, I hugged Francisca and Laura, told them about what I had just observed, then turned to leave.
“Wait,” Laura said, fumbling through her pocketbook as she followed me into the living room. “I want you to read something my mother clipped out of the newspaper.” She extracted the piece and held it poised in the air. Her fingers twisted the corner of the page angrily. “I… I, well, here, you read it.”
I recognized the article immediately as duplicating other copies which had been sent to me in the last two days from people in various parts of the country. Until this in moment, I had not taken time to read it.
“I don’t know if you’ll thank me after you read it,” she declared.
“Things come our way for a reason,” I said, smiling and tapping the newspaper.
“Okay, Papa Bear. Anything for your enrichment,” Laura winked, hugged me and returned to the kitchen.
The floor of the porch was unyielding as I sat against the wall outside of the front door. Roby and Robertito’s animal sounds and intermittent laughter filtered into the yard through an opened window.
The story about a treatment center in the Southwest had whipped through the wire services and appeared in newspapers throughout the country. The reporter had watched and recorded his findings with unswerving fascination. I gave myself to his printed words.
At ten years old, a little girl named Lisa, dressed cheerfully in an orange polka-dotted dress, leaned against the side of the building. Her eyes gazed at the trees towering above her. Her expressionless face suggested a child lost in a daydream. But Lisa’s stare could not be distracted. Locked in a world without emotion, she never giggled or smiled. She never cried.
Lisa was not retarded. Diagnosed autistic, she exhibited the usual constellation of severe learning disabilities and bizarre behavioral problems. When she arrived at the clinic, her only expression response was to throw every object she could find. At that time, her inability to communicate made her indistinguishable from a deaf mute. Recently, she had begun to learn to speak in sign language on a primitive level. On command, she had even hugged her mother.
Progress with Lisa and other autistic children was attributed to treatment which included pinchings, slappings, the placement of children in dark closets and, in some cases, the administering of electric shocks with a cattle prod.
After two years in the program, Lisa uttered five recognizable sounds and demonstrated a significantly larger sign language capability. When instructed, she touched her nose; after a teacher’s elaborate illustration, the little girl put her hands over her head.
“We can teach them,” said Dr. Whitney Denton, “We can make them manageable. We can train them, but the question is whether we can make them normal. Many of these kids become self-destructive. They bang their heads against the wall hard enough to crack their skulls. They claw the flesh off their faces or try to put out their eyes. Some of them bite themselves – take chunks of flesh out of their arms and shoulders.”
Preventing the children’s deviant behavior, whether self-destructive or not, became what the doctor and his staff envisioned as their first responsibility. The exploration of why the behaviors might have begun or what reorientation could help the children express themselves in other fashions had not been considered relevant.
“We punish them to reduce the rate of response we’re trying to eliminate,” Dr. Denton explained. “Then we go in and try to teach them something else. An alternative to the inappropriate behavior.”
The doctor profiled a description of the “normal” child who might, he suggested, explore various methods to secure attention and affection, including self-destructive behavior. That child might strike his body, but after a period of time, the parent will get impatient and angry, commanding the child to stop. Since the hitting does not get the child what he wants, the “normal” child will stop and choose another behavior in order to get a favorable response from his parents.
“But the autistic child,” according to Dr. Denton, “can’t do that. ‘It’ doesn’t know an alternative. So ‘it’ will just keep hitting harder and harder until physically restrained.”
No one, not the doctors or the staff members or even the reporter, had realized the distinctive use of pronouns in Dr. Denton’s commentary. The autistic child was no longer a boy or a girl, but, matter-of-factly, an “it.”
And so the physician continued, “It could literally beat itself to death.”
“In milder circumstances,” added Dr. Elber, an associate director, “we punish merely with a slap on the arm or a simple ‘time out’ procedure; that is, placement in a dark closet.”
“If the behavior continues,” Dr. Denton said. “its arm or hand may be slapped hard enough and often enough to get it to stop. Hopefully, after a significant period of time, the child will associate the slap with the behavior and will often stop. Sometimes, the dark closet has the same effect.”
In many cases, Dr. Denton and his staff used cattle prods to stop undesirable behaviors. Despite the center’s successful record within its limited boundaries, the doctor’s still wondered if the other problem could be treated – the absence of emotion.
At that moment, I stopped reading and listened to the little-boy giggles of Robertito Soto and friend; then I pushed myself to finish the article.
The staff members of the clinic recounted more details of Lisa Carey’s story. Initially the young girl recognized her mother but showed no emotion, no affection and no love. Now, “for some reason,” she will greet her mother with a kiss and even hug an instructor, although those gestures have a certain mechanical quality.
“We can teach them almost anything,” Dr. Denton commented, “but we can’t make them human.”
I dropped the paper on the floor. What if that had been me? What if I had difficulty understanding and assimilating my environment? What if I had severe learning and behavioral disabilities and then someone subjected me first to the ritual of pinching, slapping, then confinement in a locked, dark closet and, finally, painful electric shocks with a cattle prod? Would I want to deal with this world and those in it? Would I want to hug my “instructors”? And if I didn’t, would they, too, point their accusing fingers and call me something less than human?