I propped myself against the pillow as I watched Jeannie work with Robertito. She had completed almost four weeks with us, marking our entrance into the seventh month of the program. Her responsiveness to an onslaught of dialogue sessions and feed-back discussions propelled her into an immediate and effective use of her teaching talents.
She growled and scratched her hands on the floor like a young lion, then lunged at Robertito, tickling him while trying to wrestle with him as well. He remained gentle, passive and rubbery in her hands. Little-boy giggles filled the room as she rolled him over and over like a limp sack of disconnected limbs. Jeannie played peek-a-boo with him by asking him to hide his face behind his hands. He separated his fingers enough so that he could peek out at her.
“Whoaa,” she groaned comically. “You’re cheating, Tito. C’mon, I see your eyes.” Jeannie pushed his fingers together tenderly. They opened immediately. “Okey dokey. I’m gonna get you.” She assaulted him again with her playful fingers, tickling his belly and thighs. He tried to scramble out from beneath her when she tucked her bare feet under his body and shook her sandy-blond hair in his face. I remembered my first impression of Jeannie. I could easily recall the warmth, the caring and the wonderful enthusiasm, but something had changed. She had grown prettier in the past weeks. I noticed that phenomenon after some of our dialogue sessions. After she discarded a problem or fear, her face actually seemed to change, or evolve, as if she felt freer to be and expose more and more of herself.
As we had discussed the night before, everyone began to concentrate more on massaging his hands, particularly the right one. Although we had continued stimulating the right side, the time allotted to that activity had gradually diminished. Our constant vigilance allowed us to keep reassessing all our decisions. I had tested his hands with the needle a week before. His right one had almost as much feeling as his left. As he put the left side of his brain to more and more use, we noticed a dramatic increase in physical sensation. We also noted that the more we stimulated his right side, the more active he tended to be in terms of talking and game-playing for the remainder of the day. When we brought these elements into sharp focus, a renewed effort with tactile sensory input appeared appropriate. In itself, such an accent had little meaning. But in conjunction with our total teaching and therapeutic effort with Robertito, physical stimulation had a significant supportive role.
Jeannie sat him at the table and rubbed his soft, fleshy hands. “They’re like little paws,” she mumbled, smiling at the child who waited patiently while she worked on his limbs. In conjunction with her physical contact, she tried to create a dialogue of questions and answers.
“What is your name?” she asked.
He watched her mouth studiously, then said: “Robertito.”
“Ro-ber-ti-to-So-to.” He grunted each syllable separately. His eyebrows arched into his fleshy forehead as he pushed out each breathy sound.
“Wonderful. Fantastic, But how do we say it? Not Ro-ber-ti-to-so-to, but Robertito Soto.”
“Robertito Soto,” he repeated perfectly.
She hugged him, then gave him a silly high school cheer.
“Okey dokey. Ready? Okay, how old are you?”
He looked at his fingers to find the answer. “Mas, Jeannie,” he said.
Flabbergasted by his use of two words together, Jeannie gaped at him wide-eyed. I couldn’t believe it either. He had strung two words together. An image of Raun flashed before me. I still remembered the day, the hour, the instant when he first used more than one word as he sat, smiling, on the bathroom floor.
“More what, Robertito?” she asked, recovering from the shock quickly. He did not answer. “C’mon, we’ll try again. How old are you?”
“Six,” he replied. When she applauded him, he, too, clapped his hands. But when she finished the accolade, he continued banging one hand against the other. In recent weeks, he had elevated this activity into an “ism.”
She looked at me, obviously seeking advice with her confused grimace. Realizing her own responsibility to decide how to respond, she shrugged her shoulders innocently, then smiled and waved at me. Jeannie and Robertito clapped together for over two minutes, then she resumed the massage.
“Que es esto? ” she chimed, touching between his lips.
“Boca,” he answered correctly.
“And what is this?” she asked, touching his eyes.
He pulled his hand away from her and ran to the window. A plane passed overhead. He followed it until it passed out of view, then, still holding her question in mind, he mumbled, “Ojo,” the Spanish word for eye. Jeannie lavished applause and affection on him, ending her celebration of his achievement with some food.
Later, she and Robertito lifted weights. He pushed his hands up together, favoring his left slightly. Two months ago, he could barely get the dumbbell off the floor with his right hand.
“Okay, now let them down slowly … slowly,” she counseled. But instead of listening, he let them drop to the floor. She repeated the exercise countless times, yet, no matter how much she asked him and demonstrated how to put the weights down, he still let them drop. I felt he enjoyed the sound of the loud thud against the floor as well as the vibration beside his body. Seven months ago, such a sound might have sent him scurrying from the room.
Jeannie introduced the blocks next. Robertito started to build a tower. He moved his hands mechanically, frequently looking away as he constructed his little building. We made a special effort to vary the games and interaction since Robertito often learned things by rote, repeating exercises and accomplishments as if programmed. We wanted him to flex the membranes of his mind by using them creatively, rather than performing sequences on automatic pilot. Jeannie built the exact same tower as Robertito, allowing him to be teacher. When he put four blocks together, she put four together. He put a block on his head. So did she. Jeannie loved her sessions with Robertito. She used more of herself with him than when in school or student teaching. Aware of the sameness of some of his actions, she reasserted the initiative again in the session. She placed two blocks parallel to each other and a third block on top of them. The design was infinitely more sophisticated than a vertical tower of single blocks on top of each other. Robertito eyed her, then clapped his hands rhythmically. She put a second story on her original form. Robertito threw his head from side to side, then stopped. He looked directly at her structure and, without hearing any request, proceeded to duplicate it on his own.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Jeannie exclaimed. In that instant, Robertito had graduated on to the next level, illustrating his increased ability to understand as well as a dramatic improvement in his small motor dexterity. I found myself clapping and cheering with her. His intensity of concentration continued throughout the remainder of the session. He reassembled three puzzles simultaneously after Jeannie mixed all the pieces together. His ability with the contrasting lotto cards also increased. His receptive vocabulary had grown enormously, but now, as he viewed some of the cards, I noticed him mouthing words before Jeannie even said them, documenting the expansion in expressive language as well.
The final activity of the session had a very special meaning for all of us. Jeannie lifted several big books from the shelf and put them on the table . They contained portraits of animals, household objects, vehicles, tools, people and a host of other diverse elements. Each item had been expertly cut out of magazines or reclaimed from other sources and then glued on a page. The Spanish name was placed below each form.
These handmade education books had been fashioned by Roby Soto for his son. Each night, alone in the silence and emptiness of his house, he turned his energy to making these books. He had spent weeks collecting pictures, photographs and magazine illustrations, often securing discarded publications from customers and other store owners. As I watched Jeannie use these hand-crafted tools, I felt, the soft, gentle man by my side. Roby remained as much a part of the program as any of us.
I brought Robertito back to my house at the end of the day, enabling Carol, Jeannie and Chella to treat Francisca to dinner and a movie. Suzi and I, with Bryn, Thea and Raun, played with our little friend as we prepared him for bed. Raun made funny faces which Robertito tried to imitate. Thea played patty-cake with him. Bryn experimented with short memory sequence games, saying three dissimilar words in a row and having him repeat them. Initially, his success at it astounded us, but soon he tired and stopped participating.
Despite the fact that he was in unfamiliar surroundings, a strange house, a strange bed and without his mother, he seemed entirely relaxed. We took turns camping outside our bedroom door and waited for him to fall asleep. But for the next several hours, we heard him clap his hands, hum and sing in English a refrain from a Billy Joel song which we often danced to called “I Like You Just the Way You Are.” He babbled a host of different words, disconnected and disjointed … but words. Perhaps, he verbalized a fantasy in his head. Perhaps, he simply reviewed the file system developing in his brain. In any case, instead of whining or cooing or grunting unintelligible sounds, Robertito now exercised his intellect by taking his own excursions into the left side of his brain. In the darkness of a room and in the privacy of a bed, he chose to play with the language symbols he had learned; symbols which gave him his only chance of ever grasping and utilizing our world.
As I listened, I wondered whether in some intrinsic, cosmic and, perhaps, unknowable way, we had, in fact, done him a favor.
When Suzi and I went to sleep, our little friend was still busy with his movements, words and “isms.” We kept him between us in the bed. Within seconds, Suzi fell asleep, exhausted from the rigors of our schedule. Unfortunately, his clapping kept me awake. He lay on his back and, with his arms extended, hit his hands together. Finally, in an attempt to find a creative solution to my dilemma, I tucked one of his arms under my body. Since he did not resist and seemed perfectly content with my solution, I proceeded to try to sleep. The repetitious motion emanating from his body continually distracted me. When I opened my eyes, I saw his single arm still extended, making the same clapping motion but without a companion hand. I couldn’t help but consider an old Zen riddle which asked … what was the sound of one hand clapping?
At the beginning of the following week, Robertito became physically ill, a rarity since his move to New York. Rather than simply rest, he withdrew dramatically, retreating into himself and escalating his “isms,” a response typical for a child whose internal systems draw much of his attention. Our little friend became totally unreachable. His only interest focused on food. Jeannie, after working with him for three hours, left the room visibly drained. She smiled at me as I passed her in the hall and said: “I wish I had the charisma of tuna fish and toast.” Carol kept calling him her little space cadet. Several times, I heard her say: “Hey, handsome, you’re on Mars, aren’t you?” Suzi whistled and laughed at him, nicknaming him “mush-face” during this period. Despite his unavailability, Francisca flowed with it, not once exhibiting anxiousness. Slowly, the idea of trusting herself and her son became a working premise. She understood the lack of equilibrium in his body and accepted his response to it. She maintained her conviction even as his withdrawal persisted into the end of the week and through the following one as well.
Unlike the summer, this major “pause” did not evolve into the anger of hitting. After the symptoms of a mild flu passed, Robertito vacillated between lethargy and self-stimulating rituals. Often, he laughed and giggled without any apparent reason. His infectious smile bathed everyone in his strange, timeless and surrealistic mood. He could sit quietly for hours with a soft, blissed-out grin on his face. Although most of us solicited him for more contact, no one panicked or disapproved, even implicitly, of Robertito’s passivity. An accepting attitude prevailed.
On the thirteenth day since the beginning of his happy inertia, Francisca dressed him and fed him as usual, almost expecting the current state of affairs to continue. Nevertheless, consistent with her attempts to engage her son, she began to build an irregular tower of blocks in front of him on the table. He side-glanced at it, then raced around the room, balancing on his toes. When he touched the wall, he giggled.
“Come, my love. Build a tower like Mommy.” Surprisingly, the child turned, walked to the table and sat down attentively. Francisca furrowed her forehead. “Robertito … are you ready?” No response. She could feel a wave of excitement bubble within her. His eyes were different. More alert. Less glazed. “Build a tower like Mama.” His first effort to lift the block reflected the same lethargy evident all week. But then, he quickened his pace, finally duplicating the exact tower his mother had built.
He learned over, flapped his hands for a moment and said: “Lo mismo [the same].”
Francisca could not believe her ears. He had never used that word before and as he said it now, he used it in the correct context. “Yes. The same. Mama and Robertito made the same tower. The same.” She showered her child with affection, then fed him some food. “Okay, Robertito Soto,” she bellowed, priming herself for the first real teaching session in two weeks. “I think you are wiser than all of us. I think so.” She set a small blackboard in front of him and handed him a piece of chalk. Guiding his wrist, she had him draw a circle, a straight line and a cross. Within ten minutes, he made the marks on his own.
“Look at my hand, papito. How many fingers on my hand?” she asked.
“Using his index finger, he touched each finger tip and counted. “Uno. Dos. Tres. Cuatro. Cinco.”
“Bueno, mi amor,” she said, beaming at his achievement She held up her other hand and asked the same question” Again, he counted each finger. Then she raised the first hand again, but this time she pulled her hand away from him, thwarting his attempt to touch and count.
“Look carefully. How many fingers?” she asked.
Robertito made a clicking sound and turned away.
“Ah, my child. You don’t have to answer. We will find something else to do.” She left the table, crossed the room and rummaged through the piles of toys on the shelves.
Robertito, still sitting in his seat, said: “Cinco.”
Francisca whipped around and screamed, “You understood. You did.” She grabbed her son out of the chair and hugged him. He continued to perform a series of minor miracles for her. Her attitude and quality of teaching motivated him to try harder and harder for both her and himself. Francisca was wonderful to watch.
When she took him to the toilet, he pulled her close to him as he sat on the bowl. Robertito played with her hair, then he flapped his hands. She admired her son, learning each day from his softness. Robertito flapped his hands even more, but Francisca, so taken by the communion of this day, forgot to imitate him. He finally took her hands and physically motioned for her to join him. They did that for a minute while looking in to each other’s eyes. He stopped, rested his head on her shoulder and refused to leave that position for over an hour. Francisca took a ride on a cloud with the child who used to frighten and frustrate her.
Carol introduced him to the flannel board and taught him to assemble faces and bodies on it, which he did with a rather lopsided expertise. She built an obstacle course in the room using old cartons, pieces of lumber, the chairs, the table, rubber tubes and a slant board. Once she demonstrated how to move through it, her student followed. She supported his every step. This day proved something special for Carol. Despite Robertito’s cooperation and concentration, she loved him no more now than during the past two weeks when he had been distinctly unavailable. She knew she no longer needed him to grow. Robertito worked for Carol. As I watched them together, I suspected he knew and trusted her wanting. For some, she might have seemed like a tough taskmaster, but she remained flexible, loving and acutely responsive to his every cue.
As she left her session, she stopped at my squatted form by the door. Carol flashed a wild grin, bent over and whispered: “Today’s my anniversary. One month without any seizures.”
“How do you feel about that?” I asked in a hushed voice, not wanting to interrupt Chella, whose session with Robertito had just begun.
She inhaled like an athlete ready to sprint, then hugged me aggressively. “I feel like I just took my first step off the planet.”
The implications of Carol’s willingness to take responsibility for her illness were awesome. It took me almost a half an hour to focus my attention back into the room after her dramatic exit. Chella worked the lotto cards with Robertito, who not only identified almost all the images she verbalized, but, for the first time, used words like hot, cold, day and night in response to seeing corresponding scenes. Suddenly, Chella put the cards away and did something which surprised me. She threw about twelve different objects into a carton, placed it in front of Robertito and closed her eyes. Ten seconds passed. Robertito dipped into the box, grabbed a tennis ball and handed it to her. As she cheered her student, she turned and looked at me. We both smiled. She repeated the exercise four times with the same results. On the fifth try, Robertito picked something she had not visualized. The spell seemed broken. Chella reverted back to voice requests for a short period, then attempted to use her thought patterns for communication again. This time he completed five out of the next six simple tasks correctly, an average better than his response to verbal cues, yet by no means infallible. As she tried to get him to insert pegs by using an image held in her mind, he left the table and went to the window. I knew Chella was relieved. In effect, Robertito’s responses confirmed what she had come to understand in exploring her fears during our dialogue sessions. She didn’t control this little boy … nobody did. She had found another bridge to cross by opening a new route through which they could touch each other.
Though others in the program tried the same technique, only Chella seemed to have the ability to relate to Robertito in this manner. When she thought of a word, he usually never responded. But when she made a picture in her mind, he always reacted in some form, though not necessarily correctly. Again, his dependence on the right side of the brain, the picture-making side, and the probability of his developing an alternative internal radar system during those years of silence and isolation seemed confirmed by his reactions to Chella’s picture-thoughts. We tried to maximize his skill by coordinating our words with something he could also see.
For the last part of the session, she brought him outside, capitalizing on our recent decision to take short breaks from the ritual of teaching and the sameness of the room. We believed his development had surged ahead to such a point that such sensory bombardment would not overload his circuits. As Chella and her young student walked together on the sidewalk, a man, dressed in a gray sweatsuit, jogged by them. Robertito shouted the word “run” in Spanish, turned and immediately ran behind the jogger. Chella burst into laughter, calling to her little friend. She chased them down the street. Finally, on his own initiative, Robertito stopped. About four minutes later, when the man passed again, Robertito said “run” again. But rather than join in, he watched the man intently, ultimately laughing at him as he passed.
Suzi and I sensed Robertito’s readiness to climb to even more sophisticated plateaus. During her session, she taught him spatial concepts, such as over and under, in front of and behind. Slowly, very slowly, he began to grasp each idea as he placed objects on top of the table and under it. Suzi clapped and laughed. “What a smart mush-face,” she exclaimed. They danced, lifted weights together and counted birds, flowers and toes. When Robertito disengaged from participating, Suzi placed Angelina in his chair.
“Okay, Angelina, are you ready?”
Robertito walked directly to the table, pushed the doll out of his seat and sat down.
“Ah, my sweet boy, you want to play,” she said to him in a low, supportive voice. His moment of lucidity suggested all the untapped intelligence lurking behind those huge, dark brown eyes. In spite of the incredible, mind-boggling progress, he still kept a foot planted in each world… his own and ours. Unlike Raun, who discovered he loved to talk, Robertito had yet to develop a passion which would swing the pendulum to one side.
While I observed, he came over to me often, though I tried to be unobtrusive. One time, he stood in front of me and “ismed” in my face, an action I quickly imitated. In another instance, he stood beside me and leaned on my shoulder in an old Charlie Chaplin pose. I rubbed his arm gently and told him what a special person I thought he was. He pulled on my beard and watched my jaw flex up and down. Finally, he flopped into my lap and buried his head in my chest. I rocked him like an infant, trying to find the most loving part in myself to share with him.
Before I left, I put my hand out to him, which he took. “By-by, Robertito,” I said.
“By-by, Bears,” he grunted, demonstrating his new proficiency in using two words. Suzi giggled and furrowed her eyebrows. She repeated his good-by in exact tone and quality. I kissed them both and left.
“Okay, big boy,” she said, acknowledging his scratching of his genital area. “Off to the bathroom we go.” Since the summer, the number of “accidents” in his pants had decreased sharply, making him almost completely toilet trained.
Suzi kissed his nose as he stood in the doorway beside the tub. “Now you know how to do it… at least you can help. Together, they pulled his pants down. Since he had been so willful today, Suzi decided on furthering his ability to take care of himself and get what he wanted. She sat on top of the toilet seat, crossed her arms and waited. Robertito looked at her without moving. She would wait until he pushed her aside as he had done with Angelina. The little boy stared at her, then approached her seated form. She smiled at him. Suzi prided herself in helping Robertito break new ground. When he stood directly in front of her and squinted his eyes, she realized suddenly what he was about to do. Before she could move, Robertito urinated right in her lap.
As Jeannie pulled the car into the parking space, she marveled at her own ingenuity. She had thought of the idea all by herself. As we began to explore other experiences for Robertito, we now ventured out of the room several times a week for periods of almost an hour. Jeannie wanted that experience with him, so she suggested the local library. She took Robertito’s hand and led him through the front entrance. He seemed slightly more agitated than usual, yet he stood quietly, like a gentleman, as they rode the elevator downstairs to the children’s section.
Jeannie guided Robertito into a large room occupied by other children and their parents. Taking the initiative, Robertito grabbed a book from the shelf. Jeannie helped him set it on the table. Since she spoke to him in Spanish, she attracted attention immediately. She suspected the other mothers thought she was Robertito’s mother, an illusion she enjoyed. Jeannie could not have loved her own son any more than this little boy.
The noise in the room seemed to unnerve Robertito slightly as his attention drifted from the book. He finger-twirled and hand-flapped, but without his usual intensity. Jeannie joined him until he worked through the self-stimulating rituals. When she tried to concentrate on the book again, she felt a heaviness as if the air had become thick and burdensome. As she looked up, a woman holding a baby in her lap turned away. Several other people avoided her glance. Two women, standing by the book shelves, whispered as they stole glances at Robertito. Yet the children in the room didn’t seem to notice anything unusual.
Jeannie tried to ignore the obvious sentiment developing in the room. As she flipped a page in the book, Robertito bolted from the chair and circled the tables. He said “blue,” indicating the painted walls, and “green,” indicating the painted floor. He approached a mother with an infant near the corner. As he watched the child and smiled softly, the woman pressed her baby to her and turned her back to Robertito. Jeannie wanted to confront her, but suppressed her impulse to protest, not wanting to destroy her own calm and connection with her special student. Perhaps, the noise, the light and the people were too much for him. When she tried to take his hand, he moved away. He ran to the desk and “ismed” at the lady on the telephone. She laughed, waved to him and proceeded with her call.
Now the other children began to note the difference between them and this little boy. Taking their cues from the parents, they avoided him when he came near them. Jeannie tried to smile at the mothers, but they turned away from her as well. She felt like she was losing control of the situation. Again, she tried to take Robertito’s hand. She could see him withdrawing, the exact impulse she felt herself while in the room with these people. Instead of venting her own feelings, she focused on her little friend. “C’mon, Robertito,” she said softly in Spanish. Everyone watched them like they were freaks.
As Robertito jogged around the room, he paused in front of a chubby little girl chewing gum. Her enormous cheeks flopped in and out like a giant expanding and contracting bubble. She smiled at him. He flapped at her as if saying hello. She giggled. Then wonderful, open, silly and loving Robertito Soto hugged the other child spontaneously and kissed her. The mother, who had been one of he women whispering by the bookcases, grabbed her daughter’s arm. Frightened by her mother’s response, she began to cry. Jeannie wanted to scream as she lifted Robertito off his feet and carried him up a flight of stairs and out the front entrance of the building.
“You’re a beautiful boy, she told him as she knelt in front of his small form in the parking lot. She wanted to dispel whatever he might have absorbed in the library. “You did right. You loved that little girl better than anyone else in the room.” Robertito threw his head from side to side, inattentive to her words. Jeannie realized that somewhere, somehow, he had felt the assault of their disdain and disapproving glances. She led him back to her car as the tears began to flow. Her initial anger at those people had dissipated, but she wondered how she could ever explain to this child what made absolutely no sense to her.
Robertito recuperated from the experience within the hour and continued his surge forward. The discomfort lingered with Jeannie for the remainder of the week. She asked me for an additional Option session to deal with her unresolved feelings. Eventually, she freed herself from her anger when she realized that by holding those people in contempt, she did to them exactly what they had done to Robertito.