Less than four weeks remained until our departure for England. That commitment, predating the Sotos’ re-emergence in our lives, created a gnawing sense of urgency, further complicated by a series of unforeseen events which played havoc with our schedules. It began with Patti, who received an impassioned plea from her father to return to Mexico for two or three days so that her family, as a group, could complete the necessary papers and interviews for their planned immigration to the United States. But a senseless maze of complications arose which blocked her re-entry into this country. “Somehow, I’ll get back here,” she promised. It would be almost a year later, when Roby searched for yet another translator, that Patti would reappear and return to New York. But for now, our problems were immediate. We no longer had a translator and teacher-in-training. Amalia rejoined our family on Wednesday nights. Roby campaigned through his family and friends to find a replacement. Though everyone had learned some Spanish, our ability to converse remained primitive and inadequate in view of the detailed exchanges and dialogue sessions necessary to maintain our program with Robertito.
Concurrent with this upset and our continued search for new living quarters for the Sotos, we began training a summer replacement for Suzi, who would work her scheduled session with Robertito until we returned. Lisa had made her appearance over a month ago. She had fallen in love with Raun, Bryn and Thea during one of their rare visits to a local pool. When we realized we needed another mentor during our absence, she came to mind immediately.
“I’d like to work with Robertito more than anything in the world,” Lisa replied to our solicitation.
Rather than yield to the limitations of time, Suzi and I expanded our work load. We maximized Lisa’s exposure through sessions and observing. The language barrier became her Mount Everest. Each night, after extensive observation periods, she studied with Suzi, Laura, Carol, or Francisca, trying desperately to master pronunciation. Bryn played teacher gladly and administered tests to check Lisa’s memory and increase her fluency in “thinking” Spanish. Since Robertito’s receptive vocabulary had blossomed and his expressive utterances had begun to develop, our endeavor to stay ahead of him required a more conscientious effort. All of us had to expand our vocabulary and comprehension of idiomatic expressions. Lisa attempted to absorb in two or three weeks the language capability we had gained over a period of almost three months. We tacked huge lists of words on the walls in Robertito’s room for her.
When she worked in tandem with us for the first time, Robertito’s immediate affection surprised her. Short and attractively chubby, Lisa looked more like our little friend’s playmate than teacher. And in some respects, he related to her in a way akin to his responses to Bryn, Thea and Raun. I fantasized him thinking… “Ah, she’s one of us.” Though her ability to work puzzles, books, number and word games was limited due to her initial difficulties with language, her contact with him dramatized the very essential non-verbal components of our program. They jumped, danced, ran, skipped, exercised and wrestled together. Although she sang and played simple games with him, the physical aspect of their relationship dominated her session.
One afternoon, following my observation session with Francisca and Lisa, Roby stopped me in the hall. Three minutes later, after an exchange of Spanish words, English words, hand gestures and pantomime, the message penetrated my spongy brain. They had located a replacement for Patti. This young woman would arrive about a week before we left for Europe. “How can we train her? Even if Suzi and I worked with her day and night, a week is simply not enough!” I laughed. No, I would not train her. Suzi would not train her. But Francisca and Roby would. And since this girl was bilingual, Laura and Carol could help. Although I had put extra time into teaching Francisca and Roby how to observe and facilitate awareness in feed-back sessions, I doubled my commitment to provide them with a more solid base and trust in themselves. One day the Sotos would return to Mexico. If they hoped to continue the program, they would have to live and share an accepting attitude, train others, assess behavior and guide the direction of input. The summer would provide them with an essential and unique opportunity to flex their wings.
At the moment we felt reasonably assured of fulfilling our commitments, I received an urgent call from the West Coast. My treatment for the “Son-Rise” movie had been endorsed enthusiastically by all involved, and now, in order to make a projected air date the following spring, they wanted to commission me to write the screenplay immediately. My efforts to delay were aborted by Jane’s counsel, which reminded me that if I could not deliver under their timetable, the producers did, contractually, have the right to seek the talents of another writer. In order to make the impossible possible, I turned to the person who had become my mentor, my first editor and my alter-ego during the preparation of my books … Suzi. Rather than review my writing after I committed it to paper, I asked her to co-write the screenplay with me. Her extensive background is acting. and her natural ear for dialogue made her a perfect partner for this project. A silly, little-girl expression dominated her face as she blurted: “Really?” Two days later, I accepted the assignment for both of us and had her name placed beside mine on the contract.
We had less than two months to deliver. This meant writing during our last weeks in New York and continuing while in England. We substituted script meetings starting at 5 A.M. in place of our morning jogging sessions so we could be available during the day for the Soto program. After lengthy dinners with our children, Suzi and I retreated to the den, barricading ourselves until long after midnight. Although we wrote scenes independently, often, we role-played the various characters and tape-recorded the exchanges. They became the nucleus of many sequences later incorporated into the final script. Despite the profound seriousness of the project, on occasion, we found ourselves consumed with laughter. Perhaps, after eighteen hours of sessions and writing, we had tipped the scale and, like Robertito Soto, we, too, found our very existence a source of incredible humor.
My concern about the early hour proved unfounded as I maneuvered through traffic. This would be Robertito’s second developmental work-up since his return. Although we had awakened him, instead of allowing him to rise on his own impulse, he appeared content, sitting quietly in the back seat with his mother. I exchanged sleepy smiles with Suzi, who, during the testing, would serve as translator.
This was Robertito’s first real excursion out of his room in three months. His world had existed within the four walls of our protected womb. Unlike his behavior during the ride from the airport, during which time he flapped his hands, twirled his fingers, shook his head from side to side, whined, babbled and cooed, he now leaned against the door and let his eyes follow the path of passing cars. When Francisca asked for his hand, he put his into hers with an easy, natural movement. When I told Robertito that I loved him, he looked directly at me for the few seconds I talked, then turned back to the activity visible out the window. Never before had he displayed interest in his environment and, despite the bombardment of motion and noises, he demonstrated an exceedingly greater capability and strength in absorbing a variety of sensory input.
At Dr. Yorke’s office, Robertito scurried into the room following Suzi’s invitation. The little boy eyed the doctor intensely and then, without any direction, he hugged the man as he had once hugged my father and his wife spontaneously. Suzi and I could barely believe our eyes and the dramatic and wonderful statement Robertito had made about his joy and growing trust in people. Visibly moved, Carl Yorke sat in his chair and extended his hand. Robertito took it. When the psychologist shook his hand, the child imitated the gesture. They both smiled, though, perhaps, not for the same reasons. Also spontaneously, Robertito grabbed a ball beside the wall and threw it to Suzi. When she rolled it back to him, he caught it and returned it again.
“Comida,” Robertito said, asking for food and, unknowingly, demonstrating his recently acquired skill to use a limited number of full words instead of the simpler monosyllabic words we had introduced originally.
Carl’s mouth dropped open. In addition to the volume of first testing data he reviewed prior to our arrival, he recalled a vivid portrait of a totally withdrawn, mute youngster who flapped, ran in circles, babbled, did not respond to people or words, appeared fleetingly deaf and blind, lost behind that enigmatic wall of autism.
“If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t believe it!” he blurted. “How could this be the same child?”
“He is … and he isn’t,” Suzi said, grinning.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life… and in only three months,” he declared, shaking his head as he admired the child.
“You’ve probably never seen this in three years,” she countered.
“You’re right.” Carl bent forward as if to get closer. He found Robertito’s happiness and calm hypnotic.
“I think he wants to go to the bathroom,” I interjected, noting Robertito scratch his groin.
“That’s okay,” Carl replied, putting his hand up. “I just can’t get over it. Let him wander around a bit. You can take him in a minute.” Robertito tapped his groin a second time. “I see, I see,” the psychologist said, obviously impressed. He smiled at the child. “Ven, Robertito,” he called, using his minimal vocabulary to see if he could establish contact.
In a flash, our little friend walked over to this relative stranger and stood in front of him without, even momentarily, sliding back into one of his self-stimulating rituals.
“You’re quite a young man,” Yorke said softly, unconsciously slipping back into English.
As the doctor spoke, Robertito watched attentively. “Boca,” he declared clearly, his little fingers touching the man’s mouth.
“Did he say mouth? Another word! He talks?” Carl whispered.
At that moment, as if on cue, as if he knew the purpose of our visit, Robertito Soto put his index finger in Yorke’s eye and said: “Ojo.”
“And where’re your eyes, Robertito?” Suzi asked, The little boy touched his own eyes.
Dr. Carl Yorke shook his head again. “If there’s a heaven, there’s going to be a place reserved for you people ”
In the silence that followed his remark, everyone be aware of the distinctive odor filling the room. Suzi smiled comically, shrugged her shoulders and led Robertito to the bathroom. He had given us ample warning.
Without further delay, Carl aborted his awe and delight in order to administer the same battery and sequence of tests he had used three months ago. The initial statistics defied his previous experiences in recording change and growth, especially in such a so-called low functioning child. Robertito’s I.Q., which had floated between a 7 and 14, had now jumped to 30. His receptive and expressive language, which was on about a one- or two-month level, had leaped to over a twenty-month level. In this area alone, Robertito had exhibited a developmental surge of almost nineteen months in a scant three-month period. More impressive to Yorke was the obvious fact that the child had pierced through the walls of a seemingly hopeless dilemma and had evolved from a vegetative-like state into one of a functioning human being. In addition to scoring the developmental test data and scales, his summary report reflected his many observations.
“Personality Characteristics: The most impressive change that has come about in the last three months in Robertito Soto is the fact that he is now attentive; he looked at the psychologist most of the time; he did not tear up any paper to flap; he did not sit on the psychologist’s desk. Hi behavior was much more conventional. He sat quietly most of the time. He did not spin around and he was certainly not as active and self-stimulating as he was the previous time he was seen. His hands were not flapping. He did not wander around the room restlessly. He attended to Suzi Kaufman and to what she did. She demonstrated most of the tests the psychologist wanted the boy to take and maintained excellent rapport with him.
“Robertito would imitate sounds purposely; he would listen; he would attend and did not stare out the window or stand on the table. He still needs a tremendous amount of attention and direction, but he was co-operative, followed instructions much better and his attention span, in general, was much better. He uttered words; he can now make random sounds and he did not run around in the room in a meaningless fashion. What was most impressive was the fact that when he made sounds, he was always trying to either imitate Suzi, sing songs or speak. He listened and responded during the entire test period. Most important was the fact that he attended to what was going on in the room. His actions were conventional. He sat quietly and he wanted to please and be involved.
“Language Development: The most impressive evolution has been in the area of receptive and expressive language. In terms of receptive language, it was noted that he localized the source of the voice, recognized his name, understood nuances and words, knows the names of objects, stopped when the word ‘no’ was said and recognized the names of family members. He is attentive to music and singing and listens to conversations between adults. He understands simple verbal requests and will give objects or toys to a parent figure upon verbal request. Not only does he follow simple directions, but he demonstrates an understanding by making appropriate verbal responses to some requests; for example, saying ‘bye bye.’ He certainly recognizes and identifies various parts of his body and can comprehend simple questions and carry out consecutive directions.
“In terms of expressive language, it was noted that he can use at least ten true words with some consistency and can say: horse, mouth, eyes, egg, food, juice, cereal, cow, sheep and dog.” Of course, he says these words in Spanish, but the psychologist, who understands some Spanish, was able to understand the boy. Robertito now uses gesture language, such as shaking his head ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ he mimics the sounds of other people and uses some exclamations. He tries to imitate new words and he ‘talks’ to toy animals that he plays with. He points to a doll’s clothes, he scribbles, identifies pictures and uses words on a 20 and 22 month level.
“From a social point of view, he functions somewhere between an 18 to 24 month old level. He now asks to go to the toilet by gesturing and tapping his genital area. He initiates his own play activities and plays with simple toys. He now can remove his coat and get a drink unassisted. He avoids hazards, which he did not do before. He uses the names of familiar objects.
“Notably in terms of fine motor ability, he can imitate a vertical line, build a tower of eight cubes and play with blocks.
“In terms of gross coordination, at present, he can kick a ball forward, can jump in place, but cannot yet pedal a tricycle. He still does not throw a ball overhand.
“This boy has made fantastic progress in the last three months considering his low level of achievement when he first started out. He is being given intensive training by Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman and their staff and is now verbal, social, more interested and less self-preoccupied than three months ago.
“The change is dramatic, gratifying and most unusual.”
One week prior to the expiration of the current lease and two weeks prior to our departure, we located another house for the Sotos. Suzi and I arranged for some painting and repairs as well as a mover to transport the larger pieces of furniture.
In an effort to see Robertito again before any change in his environment, Rita visited the day before the move. She reviewed her notes, climbed the staircase and entered the room. As she seated herself against the wall, Robertito walked up to her and said, “Hola! ” She gasped and smiled at the same time. We had not told her that our little friend had begun to talk. He hugged her and kissed her spontaneously and then returned to Laura, who continued the session. Over the next two hours, Rita watched, aghast, as Robertito completed complex ten-piece house and bus puzzles, as he pointed to an endless stream of people, objects and activities displayed in two books, as he indicated and utilized the toilet correctly, as he initiated physical contact and affection, as he played the harmonica, marimba and drums and as he sang along with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “London Bridge”, often completing sections by himself. His “isms,” which Laura still imitated with unending enthusiasm, accounted for less than 15 percent of his behavior. He had, without coercion or threat of punishment, chosen to participate and, in that choice, he found less interest and time for his self-contained autistic rituals. Rita catalogued over thirty words which he had initiated with decent accuracy: dog, cat, donkey, hair, goat, pig, sheep, cow, horse, duck, mouse, wolf, mouth, eye, ear, nose, care, neck, elbow, thank you, yes, Robertito, okay, Bears, Mama, Papa, Suzi, Carol, Rha-Rha, bear (animal), more, music, jump, dance, food, juice, water. She watched Laura teach him numbers, number concepts and numbering sequences including counting of fingers, eyes, pegs and blocks.
The notebook closed under the weight of her hand. Everything she observed was simple, direct, loving and yet, she had the same sensation as her last visit. This room did not exist in the same time and space as the other events of her life. It was, at once, permanent and unreal. Leaving, for Rita, meant forcing her awareness back into her body, lifting herself off the floor and moving toward the door. When she felt the knob in her hand, she heard Laura asking Robertito to say good-by. Her eyes met his the moment she turned.
“By-by,” Robertito said softly as he waved his little hand. He cocked his head slightly, rippling the smooth skin of his forehead. The little boy remained enveloped in his own silence, his tenderness and unearthly calm leaving the last imprint in Rita’s mind. She found herself feeling alarmingly sentimental.
The psychiatric follow-up occurred on the same day as the move to the new house. Dr. Goodman had been anxious, like Rita, to examine the child while still in familiar surroundings, voicing his concern that a dramatic environmental change might trigger a withdrawal. During the hours he observed and examined Robertito, the movers began stripping the house. When Paul returned to the first floor, he looked around amazed. The completely furnished living room was now empty. Only the bare walls faced his wide-eyed grin.
“Paul, in here,” I said, motioning from the kitchen. “We have chamomile or lemon grass.”
He smiled tentatively. “What’s that?”
“Tea. Herbal tea. Wonderful for your digestive tract, among other things.”
“What are you having?” he asked.
“Lemon grass,” I answered.
“Me too.” He sat at the opposite side of the table as I poured the tea. “It’s remarkable. You should have the whole medical profession behind you.”
I smiled. “Paul, you are the medical profession.”
He forced a laugh and pulled at the tip of his long red beard. “The changes are uncanny. It makes little sense according to the prognosis. And … in three months. Is what I saw upstairs typical of the therapeutic input most of the time?”
“Not most of the time… all of the time, every day of the week, at least twelve hours a day, more if he gets up early.”
He sipped the tea cautiously and rolled the liquid around in his mouth, “A three-month miracle. I mean he’s far from being a six-year-old and the autistic syndrome is still in evidence, but … well, he’s functioning. In this case, that’s quite an achievement. I am also impressed with how happy and affectionate he is.”
At the same instant, both of us became aware of the three husky men looming over us.
“Excuse me,” one of them said, “but this is the only roomn left.”
As Paul and I rose to our feet, the movers scooped the chairs from beneath us and carried the table from the room. We continued our conversation standing, our voices reverberating off the walls of the now empty room. I could hear Carol and Robertito upstairs, working diligently in a houes that had been evacuated.
At the door, Paul shook my hand and said in a low voice: “Humm. Lemon grass. Very interesting.”
His report, consistent with his manner, highlighted various notations.
“In a general way,” the physician wrote, “Robertito shows a strikingly greater degree of relatedness and responsiveness to people than was the case when he was initially observed three months ago.
“For the initial forty-five minutes, he sat still and paid good attention to various tasks such as learning colors, learning names of objects and animals, being read to, doing puzzles and manipulating other educational materials. Towards the end of the session, he became somewhat restless but still could have his attention focused by the therapist. Robertito made frequent eye contact with the therapist, smiled a lot and enjoyed hugging and kissing her. He also responded to offerings of food. He followed simple instructions, is in the process of being toilet trained and has acquired a small vocabulary. His expressive language consists of one word utterances at this point.
“When not stimulated by the therapist, Robertito becomes relatively unrelated and re-engages in autistic mannerisms such as hand-flapping, lying on his back, rocking and jumping up and down repetitiously. However, he was able to stop this type of activity and spontaneously re-establish contact with the therapist somewhat similarly to the way that a toddler will go off on his own and then return to his mother. There is the suggestion of the beginning of a symbiotic attachment to his care-takers.”
Two hours after the completion of the psychiatric evaluation, Suzi, Carol and I transferred Robertito and his boxes filled with toys to the new house. Laura volunteered to take Francisca’s session so that she and Roby could work at putting the new house in order. As I watched Robertito resume participation with the same consistency despite the unfamiliar surroundings, it occurred to me that he would probably not have any adverse reaction if we reconvened our teaching sessions in a crater on the moon. Our environment was not a place, but people.
The very next morning, after I did a triple session with Francisca and joined Suzi in giving Carol and Lisa additional pointers, the new translator arrived. The frenetic activity ceased momentarily we gathered in the hallway, sat on top of unopened cartons and introduced ourselves.
Arcelia, or Chella as we came to call her, viewed us with a deja vu sense of recognition. Had she been here before? Why were these faces familiar? In coming to New York, she had pushed aside her traditional cautiousness. At twenty years old, Chella had left school, her family and friends in order to join us. She had spent most of her life trying to suppress what she termed her “sixth sense”; but this time, she followed a path which seemed scripted in advance.
Exactly two weeks ago, she drifted off to sleep after listless hours in bed. She found herself strolling along huge cement sidewalks crowded with people. Buses, cars, horns and sirens bombarded her. Usually, Chella paid little attention to her diminutive size, but the gigantic scale of the surrounding environment accented her petite body. She weighed little more than one hundred pounds. Yet Cella had no fear. Rivers of cars rushed frantically across twenty-foot distances only to bump and grind in abrupt stops. Straight-faced and self-absorbed pedestrians, their heads bent, scurried busily across cluttered streets. Nevertheless, Chella maintained a slower pace, which allow her to be simultaneously within the activity but apart from it. She watched the panorama and hustle with the sheer delight of an infant. Suddenly, she felt compelled to look up . Skyscrapers! Endless rows of huge glass buildings lined every street. New York! Chella knew immediately she stood in the center of New York City. Though she had never strayed far from the suburb in San Diego where she lived, she recognized that towering skyline from the hundreds of pictures she had seen.
When she awoke in the morning, she reviewed her dream. She had never thought about New York. Why had it appeared in her dream so vividly. A day later, she answered a public service announcement on a local Spanish radio station. A man solicited for help with his autistic child. Only after she arrived did she learn that the program was not in southern California or Mexico, as she had assumed, but in the metropolitan New York area.
During the interview in Mexico, Chella remembered Son-Rise, a book she had read for a college course which had left an indelible mark. For her, it presented a compassionate and loving alternative to deal with a special person. She thought of her mentally retarded sister, Martha, who had been forcibly placed in a residential facility. Not only had Chella wanted to work with special children and adults, but submerged in her goal was the passionate desire to be of greater assistance to her own sister. The book. Martha. The dream. Everything pointed to New York. Twelve days later, she arrived in the city she had previously visited in her dream.
She felt comfortable with everyone, except Francisca, whose rather powerful and authoritative manner intimidated her. In the crunch to train Chella, she had bombarded her with volumes of information on the first night. A loving and accepting attitude suddenly sounded like a regulation rather than something which flowed freely from each person. After Chella and I had several talks and sessions, she shared with me her responses to some of Francisca’s guidance. Though she saw her as an amazing therapist, she questioned the other woman’s perspective of an accepting attitude. I tried to explain the kind of pressure Francisca might feel since Chella would become her first pupil. In less than one week, Suzi and I would be gone, a fact which laid heavily on Francisca’s mind as well as in the thoughts of the other members of the group. Although I would have preferred Chella to work through her own feelings, beliefs and judgments about Francisca, we had to be content with the limited impact of discussions and pep talks.
In response to Chella’s observation, I set aside even more time for Francisca, sharing with her my own observations and Chella’s. We worked through her burgeoning fears with regard to asserting autonomy over the program. Despite the support of Roby, Laura and Carol, Francisca felt inwardly alone, hypothesizing problems and their solutions. But here again, she dispelled some of her beliefs about the permanency of decisions and responses. As time passed, I sensed a mild discomfort in Carol as well. Suzi and I both knew they had the capacity to handle the program, individually and collectively … but did they know it? We asked Rita to be available for Option sessions should anyone feel the need. We asked her, in addition, to give the group input if difficulties arose with Robertito. My brother Steve, whose college Spanish allowed him to converse reasonably well with the Sotos, volunteered to call and visit several times each week so that they would have his support during our absence.
We gathered for our last Wednesday night meeting two days before our departure. Laura, Carol and Suzi sat together on the couch, legs entwined, leaning bodily against each other not only for physical support but to solidify further the bonds between them and us. Lisa cuddled her compact form against the side of my chair. Roby occupied the love seat by himself, Francisca squatted on the floor in front of him, using the coffee table as her desk again. Chella, whose long, jet-black hair and impenetrable black eyes matched Robertito’s, sat near Mercedes, a woman who volunteered to be a back-up translator in case of some unforeseen event during the summer. Rita, our reserve Option therapist, joined us this evening. She listened attentively, making notes and jotting down ideas. Amalia, sitting with her legs crossed, surveyed the group nostalgically, aware that her role as translator expired that very night.
Suzi and I had developed a list of critical considerations. No physical manipulation. Stimulate his hands, rather than compete with his “isms.” Allow him to cry, without necessarily feeling the need to respond. Work on pronouns. If Robertito becomes restless, break the session with physical activity. Ease off if he displays constant resistance to participation. Ask for what you want without being overbearing. At all times, follow his cues; imitate him. If he becomes more consistent in toilet training, space out scheduled visits. Be flexible. Try to remember to keep language simple. No fast or abrupt physical movements, which apparently frighten him. Help him develop more self-help skills: washing, dressing, brushing his teeth … except feeding, which could remain as a joint activity and an arena for eye contact. The point of all the games is not to teach him specifics as much as to give us vehicles for more contact, hopefully to stimulate his motivation to learn even more.
“But the most important item on this list is the last one and that’s … trust yourselves. As soon as we leave, everything we’ve said tonight or any other night no longer counts if you think differently.” I peered into each person’s eyes. Francisca and Carol looked surprised. Laura grinned and rocked her head up and down. Rita eyed me curiously, as did Roby and Lisa. “In effect, this is what we think and know now, but the world for Robertito might change next Monday; therefore, this list or portions of it would no longer be applicable. These are not rules, only guides. If there’s anything we could leave you with, it’s that you will know better on Monday than we could ever know now.”
“I know we’ve gone the circle a thousand times,” Suzi said, “but this is a very special opportunity for all of you.” She paused, allowing Amalia to translate. “For Francisca and Roby, it’s a practice run. One day they’ll return to Mexico and be on their own.”
“Laura’s the old-timer of the group,” Suzi said, “so we’ve asked her, with Francisca, to define areas of concentration each week.”
“What happens if we have questions about where to go next, say with one of the items you just discussed?” Carol asked.
“Let’s go back to the question of attitude and trust,” I suggested. “If you act out of fear or discomfort or if you think about what Bears or Suzi might have done, then in all those instances, you won’t be there to see what you can do.”
“If you’re not,” Rita interjected, “and you want a session or some input … anything, you call me. Okay?” Amalia translated her words into Spanish. Everyone nodded.
“Gracias. Muchas gracias,” Francisca said, genuinely touched by the offer.
“Nothing matters but being there with him from moment to moment, being happy and deciding for yourselves,” I continued. “And I mean that to an extreme. For example, if we suggest not to respond to his crying, especially since he’s developing effective language, but you decide, for reasons we can’t foresee now, that it would be more productive to respond to crying, then do it. We talked about no fast, startling movements around Robertito so we don’t scare him. But if all of you decided it would be good to frighten him” – I smiled mischievously – “then do it!”
Laura screamed her delight as everyone became consumed with laughter. Suzi’s deep, bellowing cackle dwarfed the hysterics. Even Francisca and Roby, who at one time maintained only the most serious attitude during our meetings, allowed a loose response to the humor.
“Bears,” Roby said, “maybe we frighten him all the time.” More laughter.
“Far Out,” Laura chimed, admiring Roby’s infectious comfort with his son’s autism.
“Laura would remember,” Suzi volunteered. “When we worked with Raun, we would get together each night with Nancy, Maire and the others to discuss the work sessions… only, sometimes, we’d have contests. Who would give the most convincing portrait of Raun? We’d all imitate him and laugh at our impersonations. .. kind of a release, a freedom, a special way to love him. And nothing was more important in the world to me than helping my son. Bears and I used to talk about the silliness. We thought other people wouldn’t understand. I’ve seen teachers and therapists mimic their clients and students as a way to belittle them and give vent to their contempt. We love Robertito Our spoofs and laughter could never diminish that.”
Carol pointed at Roby. “Perfect,” she whispered. Everyone turned to see Robertito’s father side-glancing and twirling his fingers beside his head. Applause and cheers greeted his momentary performance. Roby blushed. Only Francisca appeared a bit reserved at his action.
“What do we do about his increasing echolalia?” Francisca asked next.
“Yeah,” Laura said, “he repeats everything now. Every time I ask him something, he repeats most of my question … to the letter, including the way I say it.”
“Usually, people see echolalia as one of the gruesome symptoms of autism,” I noted. “But I think it’s wonderful. We’ve arrived at another plateau and not a strange one at that. We’ve all been echolalic at times. In how many instances have I repeated a question, saying it to make it clearer in my mind? In some cases, trying to determine what to do about the question.”
“One thing you might try, which we’ve found effective,” Suzi interjected, “is to say the question and if he repeats it, then give him the answer. After all, right now, he’s doing what he learned to do.. imitate. Now we have to teach him there’s an answer to our questions.” She demonstrated with diverse examples.
“How does everyone feel about guiding the program yourselves?” I asked.
Francisca’s face quivered. If we could have left clones of ourselves with her, we would have. She was trying so hard. “I feel… uh, more sure of myself now than when we tried to do it two years ago in Mexico.”
“Here! Here!” Laura shouted, whistling as if at a rock concert, her two fingers shoved between her lips. Carol, following her cue, clapped.
Francisca’s face flushed as she acknowledged their support. “I am more relaxed, also. I hope I make less judgments.” She glanced at me, then looked at each person gathered in the room. Her eyes filled with tears. Nervously, she flattened her hair against her head. “I can’t begin to tell you what this has meant to me and Roby.” A hushed quiet blanketed the room for almost a full minute. Suzi took Francisca’s hands; Roby stroked her back.
“I’ll go next,” Carol finally offered. “I feel strong in myself. We’ll do it, I know we will. Only I’m going to miss my sessions. That’s a very special time for me each week,”
“The same for me,” Roby said.
“Me, too,” Francisca concurred.
Laura stretched her body across the floor and assumed a yoga cobra position, “Me. I feel perfect.” Using my bare foot, I pushed her over. She giggled mischievously. “Seriously, I feel more me than ever before in my life. We’ll make it. We’ll do just fine.”
“And I have all of them,” Lisa added, spreading her arms like an evangelist, “all these teachers.”
“You’re doing beautifully,” Francisca said, smiling at Lisa and trying heroically to regain her composure. “I can’t believe how fast Robertito has taken to you.” Lisa smiled self-consciously.
“And don’t be afraid to say what you see and feel,” I said. “The gift is sharing with someone else what you think is the truth, whether it is or not. In either case, someone learns.”
“Feed-back is crucial,” Suzi added, “especially notes on attitudes.”
“Bears, I really don’t want to work with Robertito until I’ve finished reading the other Option books and observe a lot,” Chella said, adjusting her body position.
“When you think you’re ready, you can start. It’s up to you to decide,” I replied. “The most important aspect is your attitude toward yourself as you enter the room. If you’re loving and accepting, then what you do will come naturally… it won’t be something you had to rehearse.”
“If anyone feels he or she has personal things which might be getting in the way of working with Robertito,” Suzi commented, “talk to someone in the group… or to Rita, of course.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I added, corralling the hundreds of last-minute thoughts circulating in my head. “If you’re not judgmental when you’re asking the questions, they become acts of love.” I paused. “And speaking of an act of love. Amalia, tell Roby if he has an accident with our Jeep over the summer, we’ll break his legs.” Everyone laughed. “Any more questions before we review this week’s observations?”
Carol raised her hand and smirked, camouflaging a genuine concern. “Yep, I have a question. Do you have to go away?”