As the passengers disembarked from the plane, Francisca Soto struggled to put her son’s jacket on him. Robertito pulled his arm away, thoroughly entranced with the string he flapped in front of his eyes. Roberto Soto gathered the hand luggage into his arms, fully attentive to his wife and son while being jolted by the people passing him. Several businessmen paused in the aisle for a closer look at the strange boy. His actions mesmerized two stewardesses, whose whispering voices easily reached the Sotos. Francisca tried to ignore them, but her growing self-consciousness made her more rigid in her insistence for her son to cooperate. She maneuvered his jacket into place and sighed her relief
“Bueno, mi amor,” Roby said to his son, talking as if the little boy understood every word. He touched Robertito’s head and smiled proudly at his wife. She returned a tentative grin, then whipped a brush through her son’s hair, carefully straightening his jacket.
Charlotte Medina, who had volunteered to accompany the Sotos as their interpreter and to be trained as a teacher, peeked out of the small oval window, trying to catch additional glimpses of New York from the grounded plane. She saw only other planes and glass-walled reflections. Disappointed, she turned and smiled at Roby. He nodded to her, wanting her to feel their excitement, to see the same hope that they saw in this journey.
“Ven,” Francisca said to her husband, tipping her head to include Charlotte. She and her son were ready. She led him into the aisle, then hesitated. Her hand flipped the latch on an overhead compartment. The door sprang open revealing an insertion box game they had taken on the plane with them. She grabbed the toy and rattled it in front of her son, hardly distracting him from his string twirling.
“Mira, Robertito. Esta es especial.” All she wanted was a sign, a tiny recognition she could record and share with us upon her arrival. But her son maintained his aloofness, stimulating himself happily to the exclusion of others. Everything would be okay now, she promised herself. New York meant hope, opportunity, salvation. She had forgotten my caution and my words. “Francisca, I know how much you love him, but we can’t make any promises or predictions. We’ll take one day at a time.” But as she looked at her son, she fantasized about all the possibilities. The memory of their first visit to New York remained vivid. The changes in her son within less than one week had been dazzling. “Imagine three weeks or three months,” she assured herself, ignoring the past two years and discounting the intensity of her son’s present preoccupation’s. Francisca gaped admiringly at those finely chiseled features, held her breath and stoically exited the plane.
Suzi stood on her toes by the railing, searching for a glimpse of at least one familiar fare. Raun sat on my shoulders, scanning the crowd, designating himself as the “lookout.” Bryn and Thea stood beside me and waited.
“I see them, Bears,” Suzi shouted. As she watched them walk up the ramp, her eyes filled with tears. She wanted everything for these people and their only child. At last, she thought, perhaps now, we can all work together and make it happen. Francisca looked exactly the same, spirited, walking tall, a determined expression on her face. The lines around Roby’s eyes had grown deeper, adding to the soft, gentle quality of his appearance. And Robertito, beautiful, enigmatic Robertito. Although significantly bigger and bulkier, the infantile expression remained familiar. Robertito had not aged. He remained pure and untouched like a magnificent porcelain sculpture never weathered by time or daily concerns. His right hand tirelessly flapped a string beside his head. His legs carried him forward a little stiffly, as if he had been programmed to walk. Suzi pressed her hands against the railing like a young colt anxious for the race. To begin! A rapid pulse surged through her limbs. Waste no more time, she counseled herself and the Sotos in a silent dialogue. Then, unwilling to wait any longer, she slipped under the barrier and embraced Francisca.
Roby waved to me, his head bobbing not only in recognition of our presence, but somehow, for the very first time, acknowledging what we were all about to do … or try to do. Francisca’s face tremored when she held Suzi. Thea jumped into Roby’s arms and hugged him. Raun and Bryn waited their turn to be embraced. My arms enveloped Roby and Thea at the same time. When I looked into his eyes, I realized that we had moved closer to each other again. I felt like I had loved them all my life. We patted each other’s backs, grunting and laughing like a couple of silly old ladies.
When I turned to pick up Robertito, Raun had already intercepted him. He stoked the little boy’s cheeks. “You know, Robertito, we’re all going to take care of you. Even me.” Raun smiled at me and tugged at my sleeve. “Maybe he won’t be autistic any more … like me.” I knelt down and pulled my son close to me. Every word from his lips was a gift. “Maybe, Raunchy … only maybe.” He smiled like a seasoned professor, full of thoughts and ideas, all of which significantly outpaced his five years. I put my hand out to Robertito. He pulled away and increased his flapping. His tongue laid lazily over his bottom lip. “Robertito Soto. Hola!, Robertito.” Blank. Expressionless. In the midst of this busy terminal, an unearthly calm permeated his fare. Non-distractible. Self-contained. Spinning on an internal merry-go-round, the mesh of inner optics combined with his willful body motion. I watched him in silence, amazed at the completeness of his withdrawal. Robertito was less available now, at this moment, than during the first minutes when we had encountered him almost two years before.
The tapping on my shoulder distracted my attention from Robertito. A young woman, tall, thin, stylishly dressed in Scottish plaids, smiled at me. She would have to be Charlotte. As I went to embrace her, she moved back, finally extending her cheek for a quick, antiseptic kiss.
“We’re glad you can be with us,’ I said.
“Well, I’ve heard so much about all of you. And I do want to do my best for the child.”
Raun hugged Charlotte without hesitation. She held him awkwardly. “You look just like your picture,” he said to her, “but I didn’t know you’d be so big. You’re big like a man.”
“Not really. Tall like a woman would be more exact,” she corrected him, visibly unbalanced by Raun’s candid little commentary. She spoke with the barest trace of an accent, more European than Mexican. But Charlotte Medina didn’t view herself as Spanish or Mexican-American. She considered those labels an indignity. Her American passport gave her a new birthright, allowing her to pull away from the shadow of her own heritage.
I said a few words of welcome in perfect Spanish to both Francisca and Roby. All eyes opened wide. My fingers located my teacher. Bryn, who had just begun second year Spanish in the sixth grade, had taught Suzi and me some idioms and vocabulary during the past two weeks.
Francisca put her arm over Suzi’s shoulder with great pride and said, in very broken English, “My girl friend.” Everyone applauded except Robertito and Charlotte Medina.
Suzi and I arrived at the house on Thelma Street at eight in the morning. Francisca’s neatly combed hair framed her well-scrubbed face. She had prepared for our arrival. Her modest, but expertly applied, make-up suggested a certain formality. But when I hugged her, she gripped me tightly, neither withholding her warmth nor subduing her sense of urgency. Suzi embraced Roby, then Charlotte, who still withdrew instinctively from the contact. After we exchanged our hellos, Francisca pulled Charlotte deeper into our affectionate huddle, asking her to translate.
“This is a wonderful home,” Francisca exclaimed. “It’s just impossible to think how you did it. Everything’s complete. The furniture, the paintings on the walls, soap in the bathroom and a refrigerator filled with food. I can’t begin to thank you.”
“You don’t have to,” Suzi insisted. “We’re a family now.”
Charlotte looked at Suzi as she converted the words into Spanish. Her pretty face softened with an unexpected smile. The comment had touched her and, for a moment, she relaxed her guard. Her cheeks glowed with a sudden warmth.
Francisca and Roby listened intently and concurred. A family. Yes, a family. That’s what they had both wanted.
“I don’t know if you noticed,” I said to Charlotte, “but all those strange items in the kitchen aren’t poison. The food is all natural, grown organically. And we didn’t buy sugar, salt or any chemically ridden products.”
A groan erupted from the young woman’s throat. She threw her hands over her mouth, then dropped them conspicuously to her side, wanting to minimize her exposure. “Well, I understand all this… for the boy, I mean. But I have to have my coffee in the morning and my coffee has to have sugar in it.”
I laughed, “Sure. We would only want you to do what you wanted to do. Since we’ll monitor everything in Robertito’s environment, including nutrition, we thought you might want to do the same for yourself.”
“No, thank you,” she said, grinning.
Francisca asked for the exchange to be interpreted. Afterward, she reaffirmed her own sensitivity to food, citing concrete changes in her son’s behavior after she modified his intake. He became more relaxed, less hyperactive and irritable when they eliminated sugar and foods with artificial flavoring and coloring. She herself experienced a more even energy since stripping sugar out of her own diet. This had been the legacy from their first visit to New York. Then, with great emphasis, Francisca assured Charlotte that if she wanted sugar, they would definitely provide it for her. The young woman appeared relieved.
Roby ushered us into the living room, where we encountered his son, pacing back and forth across the rug, screeching to himself and gurgling loud infantile sounds. His toe-walking became obvious immediately. I set up my cameras as Suzi opened our notebook. This would be the first of eight volumes. I felt the warmth ooze from Suzi as she observed Robertito. It made me remember, in a fleeting thought, the past few years when we had taught Option together and worked with other children and adults. But my lectures and writing had segmented our activities. This lady had become more than just my wife and the woman who shared my bed. We had walked a path together undressed, without pretensions or barriers. Often, we anticipated each other’s thoughts and feelings. She had become part of the creature I called me. I had become part of the creature she called Suzi. Separate, yet in concert. And now Robertito, like Raun, had brought us even closer.
“He’s a gift,” I whispered to myself. In that second, the jarring words of another writer, also a father of an autistic child, bombarded me. “You’re the kind of person I dislike the most,” the man said without hesitation after reading the book about my son. “You take something that’s ugly and make believe it’s beautiful.” But Raun and his disability had been special, inspiring and, indeed, even a beautiful experience for us. We had allowed him to be our teacher, our guide into his world. We had been enriched by walking beside him.
“You take something that’s ugly and make believe it’s beautiful.” I wondered why those harsh words stayed with me. In some ways, that other father had been correct. We had found beauty in what he experienced as despair and he had found pain in what we experienced as joy. His vision was no more or less accurate or grand than ours. His son, my son, the son of Roberto and Francisca Soto had no inherent, absolute qualities. Our feelings mirrored the judgments we made about them. At some point, we had both wanted the same things for our children; only we took very different paths.
While facing Robertito Soto, deviant, alien, a perplexing enigma, I found the beauty overwhelming again … not only in this child, but in those who journeyed with us; Francisca, scared and hoping beyond hope, yet here to watch, to learn, to find a more effective way to express her love to her son; Roby, jeopardizing twelve years of hard work for an ideal completely foreign to his own childhood – the love of family; Laura, willing to reconnect again and challenge her remaining fears; Charlotte, withheld and guarded, but taking a chance; Bryn and Thea, who wanted to give more at a time when their friends championed the vision of “hurrah for me”; and Raun, deep and endless Raun, the student and the teacher who wanted to help another child climb the mountain. And, of course, Suzi, with her baritone Tallulah Bankhead laugh. She consolidated her strength on her inherently frail frame, never once hesitating when the Sotos asked for more. Unselfish? Sacrificing? No. Nobility seemed the lesser impulse. The last five years had brought her many opportunities to follow herself, plot her own path, listen to her old dreams, despite the doubts, despite the pressures of others. Robertito had given Suzi another chance to be more of Suzi. And what about me? What was my private destiny in being here and confronting the mountain again? Somehow, I knew it had to do with letting go… but of what?
The hiss of the motorized camera filled the room, capturing frozen moments, creating portraits of suspended animation. A busyness pervaded every aspect of the little boy’s activity. His awesome commitment and conscientiousness framed every behavior. Robertito flittered quickly across the floor, ripping pieces of paper into identical lengths and then twirling them at the side of his head as he stared at their contortions from the corners of his eyes. Yet, despite this intense, consuming concentration, he maneuvered easily around the furniture, never once bumping into a chair, a table or a lamp. I off-centered the couch only to watch Robertito circle around it without once diverting his eyes from the twirling paper … like a finely tuned machine let loose on automatic pilot.
We called to him in seventeen different voices. Each reflected a contrasting mood. He didn’t respond. Even his parents failed to attract his attention. Exhausted, they sat on the floor, huddled by the doorway. They strained to digest every moment, trying to understand more about their son’s distinctiveness. Charlotte munched on a vanilla yogurt, alternately watching us and flipping through a magazine.
Several times I blocked his path. He glided around me without any acknowledgment of my presence. When I lifted him, he resisted at first. His muscles tensed, although his face remained placid. Then he went limp, his arms and legs dangling in the air. The smooth, unblemished texture of his skin reminded me of an infant. I stroked his hand, touching each of his fingers, For a moment, he cocked his head and stared at the fluorescent fixture visible through the open doorway. He moved his hand ever so gently against mine. Skin caressed skin. Four seconds passed. Then two more. And still another two more, Suddenly, his body tensed, becoming rigid in my arms as he flapped his fingers in front of his eyes. I set him carefully on the floor. He swayed for a second, turned and then continued his endless march around the room.
Food highlighted his day. Although he never indicated his wants, when Francisca placed food in front of him and put the first morsel in his mouth, he jumped at the remaining portion, consuming it with a fiery passion. Only after the food had been presented did he acknowledge it and show his wanting. At times, he ate with a spoon, but, more often, shoved his meal into his mouth with his hands. He drank juice and milk from a glass, but when he had his fill, he simply released his grip as he had done two years before, letting the cup drop to the floor and, sometimes, splinter into hundreds of pieces.
Laura arrived in the late afternoon. She embraced both Francisca and Roby easily, but hesitated momentarily with Charlotte. Ms. Medina, more accepting of the physical contact she saw freely exchanged, returned the embrace more enthusiastically than in the morning.
Francisca appeared prettier than Laura had imagined. Her erect posture and firmly structured face externalized an unswerving determination. What a tough lady, she thought, complimenting the other woman with the same words she leveled at herself as criticism. To her surprise, Roby had such a gentle quality. These people loomed bigger than life to her … putting their life savings and their business on the line for their son. Laura’s language lesson with Suzi and her first Option session with me gave the program some reality. But, until today, the Sotos had been fictional characters, make-believe people about to enter a make-believe world.
She avoided concentrating on Robertito for a long time, half-expecting some final answer about her feelings in those first glances. Finally Laura forced herself to face him directly. “Oh, God, is he beautiful!” But as she watched his antics, her awe subsided. The project seemed so impossible. He was definitely more bizarre than she had expected. She tried unsuccessfully to imagine a little Raun contained within Robertito’s substantial form.
I watched Laura watching us and the child. She rubbed her fingers together nervously, withdrew a saxophone reed from her pocket and sucked on it, her eyes glued to Robertito. I could hear her breathing from across the room.
As I observed Robertito, I began to see a pattern. By the end of the day, my conviction increased. Ninety per cent of the child’s repetitive movements, including his finger twirling, originated with his right hand, He also tended to shake his right leg when he lay on his back. Did a body function preference reflect a brain function preference?
When we presented food to him, he grabbed it. But if a piece of paper was inserted between the food and his field of vision, he would not pursue. Once out of sight, it no longer existed in his mind. The classic memory dysfunction. Robertito, at almost six years old, lacked the ability to hold things in his mind, a function usually developed in a six-month-old infant. He lacked an ability to catalogue, process and remember information. Everything existed only in the present. His mind was like a huge warehouse of data and complex files, all without indexes and a reference system. No categories. No folders for animals, buildings, toys and people. Each item remained separate, hardly traceable through the maze of his cerebral cortex.
Like an infant, Robertito remained right brain oriented rather than utilizing and developing his left brain capability. Children moving through the earliest developmental and maturation stages, utilize the right hemisphere of their brain. The world is digested as a series of pictures and images, not very sophisticated, but usable on a crude and primitive level. As the child matures, he begins to learn gestures, expressions and words as symbols. The activity moves to the left side of the brain, the seat of thinking, communication and cognition.
The reticular formation, at the base of the brain, acts as the coding computer. Like the monitor in a vast railroad system, it routes information for identification and storage as well as future withdrawal … a complex process that functions with ease in most of us. A car is a car. We can easily think of several different types, sizes and makes without their being within visual range. Our mother’s face is easy to remember. We never confuse her with our neighbor or the smiling matronly face on a cereal box. When we become hungry, we think of food immediately, oftentimes contemplating specific delicacies to suit the whim of our appetite.
For Robertito Soto, hunger was not connected to food. Each time he saw his mother’s face, it was as if it was for the first time. He was not unattached to the woman who bore him; he simply didn’t know her and didn’t know how to know her. People were fleeting images which passed before his lenses. On occasion, he made picture associations for concrete things before his eyes. But more often, he could not make sense of what he saw and heard. His perceptive apparatus was normal. The nerves appeared to be intact. Yet the information from outside never seemed to make a clear and coherent picture. The world remained a confusing, useless muddle.
The process of observing became difficult and unrewarding for this little boy. Therefore, he stopped observing and stopped learning. He remained in a primitive state of readiness; lost, disconnected, adrift, except for the soothing motions and self-stimulating games he played with himself on a closed circuit.
He was the entertainer as well as the entertained.
So when other children made the transition to the left hemisphere, Robertito remained stuck. Cells have developed and grown for the past five and a half years without any exercise. If I tied a child’s legs together for the first five years of his life, the muscles and nerves would shrivel from lack of use. Even when freed to walk, the child might remain crippled or only learn to hobble on limbs which had disintegrated. I kept imagining the cells in Robertito’s left hemisphere. Unoccupied. Without the gift of calisthenics. A literal ghost town in his mind.
Although he flapped with his right hand, he manipulated objects with his left. He tilted his head, illustrating a reliance on his left ear to ingest sounds. His left foot appeared a touch more under control than his right foot. Since body functions are controlled by the opposite side of the brain, his increased skill with the left side of his body would support his greater dependence on the right side of his brain. And what about the encephalograms? Soft and intermittent activity in the left frontal lobes. The physician diagnosed brain damage. Could it have been the result of lack of use? Wouldn’t the children whose legs have been bound show concrete signs of damaged muscles and nerves? The enormity of the passage of time struck me. All those years in disuse. Somehow, Robertito would have to be motivated to jump the circuits and travel into uncharted territory within his brain, to walk the ghost town, to climb a mountain so high, so difficult, so untenable that logic defied making such a journey. This special little boy did not suffer while running back and forth across the living room floor. He did not appear depressed due to any deprivation or neglect. His clear face and blissful expression mirrored the Tibetan monk, who, after years of intense study and discipline, found his oneness with the universe through traveling within. And so Robertito Soto had traveled within, and in spite of the urine and defecation which could barely be contained with his diaper and in spite of the sounds and bizarre antics which frightened the uninitiated observer, this little boy had found his own way to make sense out of the world.
His “isms,” those repetitive motions and ritualistic rocking, twisting and twirling had become more than just self-stimulating behaviors. They had built-in rewards and reinforcements. No different from the hypnotic chants of an Eastern master of the Gregorian chorus in a Western monastery, Robertito’s movements and sounds flooded his brain with alpha waves, soothing him with a hypnotic calm and peace barely achievable by most of us. Then why intrude? For Francisca? For Roby? For Robertito?
I heard no call for help from the little boy. No scream of abandonment. We had wanted to contact him, but still allow him all the choices. Unlike others, we could not condemn him or his sisters or brothers around the world. He did the only things he knew how to do in order to take care of himself. As we had learned to respect ourselves and our own energy, we wanted to respect him and his energies. We would not force him like the behaviorist who would tie a child’s hands or enclose him in a portable closet. Robertito Soto had to regenerate areas of his brain and make new pathways. Like the man downed by a stroke, he had to find an incredible source of motivation to facilitate his own rebirth. We had to create a world so comfortable, so stimulating, so non-threatening that he might choose the more difficult path as Raun had three years before. But it would be Robertito’s choice … not mine, not Suzi’s, not Francisca’s and not Roby’s.
During the second day of observations, we explored his reactions to outside sensations. Suzi banged a drum with a rubber mallet. No response. I dropped a book on the wooden floor behind him. Again, no response. Yet later, when I jingled the keys in my pocket, he turned and looked exactly at the point where the noise originated. He appeared blind to some things, yet visually alert to others. Robertito exhibited another classic characteristic of autism; selective attending to perceptual and auditory stimulus. He could, in fact, shut off his vision or hearing so completely that nothing could penetrate. In quick succession, he would shut off one sense, then another, selectively focusing on a single stimulus at a time. While Francisca spoke to her son, he stared hypnotically at his paper. I remembered a doctor criticizing an autistic child for turning off the world. My awareness indicated that the opposite might have taken place; the child might have turned on a specific part of the world. This little boy had not tuned out his mother; he had simply focused on seeing instead of listening… so the input never reached him. When Roby tried to attract his son with a colorful plastic doll, again the boy was not distractible. The two-note chant emanating from his larynx captured his attention, blinding his eyes while he focused on his hearing. Robertito did not move away from his father; he moved toward one of his many fascinations. I sensed a profound intelligence locked behind the awesome calm on his face.
Perhaps, as a supersensitive child, the trauma of birth resulted in an over-bombardment of sensations. If a pin being dropped sounded like a firecracker and a door being shut sounded like thunder, then, in self-defense against an acutely sensitized system, he might have closed down. In doing so, he could have severed connections that he could no longer easily re-establish, leaving the world of perceptions dangling in disarray. Perhaps, the opposite possibility could also be accurate. Robertito, responding to a low-volume intake system, had heightened his perceptions by learning to cut off one sense in order to focus on another. Or was there a wonderful, internal movie screen playing before his mind’s eye, continually distracting him from attending to the world around him? The reasons were less important than the awareness to deal with the sense to which he attended, by following his lead and his cues. If we could build bridges to his world, it could only be along the roads he made available to us.
Robertito Soto, a classically autistic child, suffered from a basic and profound disorder of cognition and language as well as neurological dysfunction; autism, from the Greek word “autos,” which meant self. More than just an enigma, it set him adrift in another dimension. But why? An act of fate? A microscopic physical mishap in his brain that nobody could detect? Or had he been, in fact, that rare hypersensitive human being who had to cut his own wires in a desperate act of self-protection at birth … or even before that while in the womb?
As we observed Robertito for the third day, we became aware of the absence of anger and discomfort usually apparent with these children. We knew the reason for their absence. Though Francisca and Roby felt incapable of maintaining their own program, and sat in judgment of themselves, they had maintained the Option attitude of love and acceptance toward their son. He remained untouched by all the friction and discomfort that might confront most children. A father may scold or pull his child physically in order to make his point. Most youngsters would not be scared or disoriented by such a gesture. Yet the same energy expended toward an autistic child, who cannot understand or make sense of such actions, becomes a frightening act of hostility from which he withdraws or reacts with his own hostility in his own defense. A child’s anger and discomfort are not the cause of the problem, but can often be two of many possible results.
At this time, Robertito mirrored the peacefulness of many very young autistic children we had seen and worked with. Before the scolding, before the programs which pushed and pulled them, before the disapproval’s, these children did not act aggressively or self-destructively. A special child required a special world … not one born out of hardship, despair or sacrifice, but one which began with a journey through ourselves in order to find our most loving parts and understand how really to accept and embrace another human being.
I recalled a definition I had read recently in a bulletin from the National Society for Autistic Children. It defined autism as “a severely incapacitating lifelong developmental disability which appears during the first three years of life.” The word “lifelong” jabbed at me. A judgment. A belief. Since the problem had been more clearly defined in recent years as physiologically based, they envisioned that as hopeless, unchangeable and irreversible … no different from the prognosis made by many professionals over the last fifty years. Rather than question the techniques for treatment, they pointed to the child as immovable. Rather than review their own attitudes and disappointments, they searched for a magical solution while thousands of these children were being discarded behind the walls of custodial institutions. Did we see Robertito as suffering from a lifelong problem? Defying all predictions of doom, Raun had become a “once-autistic child,” bearing no traces of his early dysfunction. But that was Raun. We started working with him when he was one and a half. Robertito was almost six. The passage of time oftentimes haunted me, but I refused to give it credence. Everything was within the realm of possibility, otherwise why had we chosen this path?
The late afternoon sun bathed my little, one-room, hilltop house with an amber light. Set in a small patch of woods behind our home, the vaulted ceiling and clear expanse of glass allowed me to view treetops and open sky. Forty minutes from midtown Manhattan, yet amid the squirrels, the birds and an occasional rabbit, the setting suggested the seclusion of Vermont. Only the distant roar from a nearby highway during rush hour fractured the spell.
Francisca played with my pen as she sat erect on the couch. Her long fingers, though shapely and tapered, oozed with certain power. The soft light, which punctuated her dark eyes and highlighted her clear skin, did not compromise the physical power evident in her squared shoulders. The side of her lips curled downward under the pressure of a tight seal. Roby sat beside his wife, holding her hand. He leaned on his arm, slouching slightly into the pillow which conformed to big body. A smile radiated from his face. His softness and shyness neither embarrassed him nor diminished his strength.
Charlotte crossed her legs in the chair beside the Sotos. Her leg vibrated impatiently while she waited to interpret.
Charlotte crossed her legs in the chair beside the Sotos. Her leg vibrated impatiently while she waited to interpret.
“Okay, I understand your concern, but let’s talk about why we’re here. This is a very special time, not for me to talk, but if you want, a time for either of you to explore, uncover and, perhaps, discard any unhappiness, confusions or doubts. What we do with Robertito will gradually fall into place. But as you learned back in Mexico, the single most important part of the program is our own personal comfort and attitude … not simply what we do, but how we do it.” I watched their faces closely and continued.
“As long as we’re uncomfortable, even to the smallest extent, we’re distracted. If, for example, Charlotte had a fight with her mother and while she worked with Robertito she kept thinking about the disagreement, feeling angry, then her whole demeanor would change. Her body language would be stiff. Her facial expressions would be strained. All kinds of things would change in her body, hormone and enzyme secretions … even the odor from her skin. Since Robertito doesn’t utilize words and other signs to ingest the outside world, he would probably be even more sensitive than most children to the subtle changes in our attitude. Even though the anger and discomfort might have nothing to do with him, he doesn’t know that. All he knows is that the environment we created is not all-loving, all-accepting, all-inviting. Animals often interpret our fears as hostility. Robertito might do the same.”
As Charlotte finished translating my words, Francisca and Roby nodded emphatically.
“I understand completely what you say,” Roby began. “I considered that to be a major problem for us in Mexico. We were confused and worried, especially near the end. During those times, Robertito was the least responsive and the hardest to handle.”
“Roby, that’s why this time is so important.” I wanted to crawl inside their heads and help them see it. “That’s why we’ve set aside many evenings to talk about observations and share ideas. Everyone will be trained and then observed several times each week… and here, too, we will have feedback sessions. Those are, well, program discussions. Here we try to do something far less predictable, but, perhaps, far more crucial to helping us be good teachers. Somehow, before we can be absolutely comfortable and loving with Robertito or anyone for that matter, we have to first become more comfortable and loving with ourselves.” I touched their hands for a second. “So this is your time. There’s no place to go except where you want to go.”
Roby squinted, then peered thoughtfully out the window. Francisca shared with me one of the softest, most open smiles I had ever seen on her face. Then, almost self-consciously, she withdrew the expression and folded her arms in front of her. Back to business … as if those gentle, naked emotions were separate and distinct rather than an integral part of her search for her son.
“Maybe my being here inhibits them,” Charlotte said softly.
“Perhaps, you could ask them,” I suggested. She questioned the Sotos, but each responded with assurances they felt free to express anything that came into their minds. Two minutes of silence passed.
“Two weeks ago I could have talked about many things,” Francisca began again. “But since I’ve come here, I feel more confident about everything, Oh, I know there is much for me to learn, but we are here to do that, aren’t we?” She nodded in response to her own question, rocking her head enthusiastically. “There is something, Bears, that I do think about. I don’t know if I’m unhappy about it, but I worry about it.”
“What do you worry about?”
“You know we really tried for Robertito. We did everything we could. Maybe we … we should have come before.” She eyed her husband, squeezed his hand and then inhaled a deep breath. “Bears, do you think it’s too late?”
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to help him.”
“If I answered the question, I’d or be telling you about my beliefs. What might be more helpful to you is learning about what you believe. Do you believe it’s too late?”
Francisca bit on the top of the pen. Twice she positioned her mouth to speak. Twice she withheld her words.
“Go ahead, Mommy,” Roby prodded softly, tapping her hand supportively.
Francisca grinned mechanically. Her eyes wanted to cry as her mouth smiled. “I don’t know if it’s too late,” she answered. “I truly don’t know.” Tears filled her eyes. “I want to believe we can still help him. I want to!” The pattern of her breathing became erratic. Roby turned to his wife, then looked at me.
“Francisca, what about this disturbs you so much?” I asked, responding to the physical signs of her discomfort.
She hunched her shoulders uncharacteristically over her chest. Charlotte stared at her, poised to participate. “I know all we can do is try,” Francisca continued. “Remember how you used to ask me how I would feel if Robertito never changed, never progressed. Well, I kept hearing the question over and over again in Mexico. Bears, my answer remained the same. I want him to understand more, but I don’t want to force him to do what he can’t or doesn’t want to do. I learned to accept him, at least most of the time.” She glanced at her husband, searching his eyes for confirmation. Her own exposed vulnerability surprised her. “But you see,” she said, “this is different. Maybe while I waited almost two years … two years to admit that I couldn’t do it … maybe, uh, I…” Francisca fought her impulse to cry. “Maybe … maybe.” She squeezed her husband’s hand, then pulled away and hid her face. Charlotte wiped a tear from her own eye as she translated the choked words. Francisca hid her face for almost a minute, then looked at me with blood-shot eyes. “Maybe, he, he missed his chance because of me!” She hit her chest accusingly.
“No, Mommy, no,” Roby said, grabbing her arm.
“Francisca, what do you mean that he missed his chance because of you?” I asked in a soft voice.
“I see the difference in him. I do! Sometimes, I tell myself he’s only being stubborn today and he’s very preoccupied, but I know. It’s harder now. He’s old, maybe too old. One of the doctors warned us that if Robertito hadn’t talked by five, he would never talk. Never.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe.” She banged the table several times with her open palm.
“What are you angry about?”
“I’m sorry.” She snapped her body erect again like a football lineman bracing himself for a scrimmage.
“Sorry about what?” I asked.
“Acting silly, stupid. What’s done is done,” she declared.
“Although that might be so, what is still relevant is how you feel about it. If you are disturbed about what’s done, you can ask yourself why.’
Roby put his hand forward. “I think I feel some of what my wife feels. We tried to consider everything.” His voice was barely audible. “Now that we’re here, it becomes clear we should have come back much, much sooner.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘should have’?”
“I keep thinking … had I only realized this six months ago, a year ago,” he said.
“But if you didn’t, why do you believe you should have?”
Charlotte translated each word carefully, her voice beginning to mirror the tone and texture of my mood. She smiled at me. I touched her shoulder, then returned my concentration to Roby.
He rubbed his chin. “If I had realized it then, we would have called you much sooner … much, much sooner. We did it only when it became obvious we were lost and we wanted your help.”
“Then if you called as soon as you realized you wanted more help, why do you believe you ‘should have’ called before you had that realization?’
Roby let his lips curl upward and gave an awkward shrug. “It almost felt like we didn’t do everything, but … I guess we did.” Roby threw his head back and exhaled loudly.
Francisca leaned forward again. “But suppose Robertito is too old.”
“Let’s go with that fear. Francisca, how would you feel if Robertito is somehow too old to learn and grow … that somehow, and I’m not suggesting this is so, but let’s suppose somehow he had passed the age of being reached.”
Her face flushed. “I don’t want to think about such a thing.” She looked away. Roby rubbed her arm.
“Francisca, what’s so disturbing about such a thought?”
She cleared her threat and stared at me. “I want him to have more. I want him to be able to play and take care of himself. Not for me, Bears, really, I’ve never regretted one minute with him. I want that for him.”
“I know you want that for him,” I replied. “But wanting something is different than being unhappy about not getting it. Why would you be unhappy if Robertito didn’t learn to do those things?”
Francisca shook her head. She twirled the pencil between her fingers. “I wouldn’t be unhappy about it, not like before.” She swallowed noisily. “I want to accept him the way he is. I really do. I guess what hurts is that, maybe, if we waited too long, we’re responsible. We’ve ruined his chances.”
“Do you believe that?”
“What about what the doctor said?”
“What the doctor said tells you about his belief. What I’m asking you is what you believe.”
A sliver of a smile curled the edges of her lips. She closed her eyes. “We’re here because we know we can do something or, at least, we can try. No, I don’t believe the doctor. But, you know, I still feel guilty.”
“About being responsible.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s back to the situation about coming here, asking for more help. I understand about what Roby said. We came now because we just realized it now. But that doesn’t change the fact we could have done it sooner.”
“Okay,” I said, “knowing what you know right now, right this minute, could you, in fact, have known to come sooner than you did?”
She thought for several moments, then shook her head. “No. We kept trying to work with him. We built the special compartment in the bathroom. We tried to teach volunteers.” She sighed. “We even went to that hospital in the Southwest.” Francisca relaxed her face. “I guess we did the best we could. I’ve read that in all your books, Bears, but I have to keep reminding myself it’s true. Only when we go over things, like now, does it become clear.” She sighed again, “Gracias.”
“You can thank me for anything you want to,” I said, “but not for good feelings you’re experiencing inside. I only asked questions. You supplied the answers. You freed yourself.”
“It seems so easy,” Charlotte voiced skeptically. “How do you know what questions to ask?”
“Ah,” I smiled. “When you learn to listen without judgments, you begin to hear the questions in other people’s statements. In effect, you follow them. They become your guide and their own guide simultaneously. On another level, that’s exactly what we’re going to do with our little friend Robertito.”
“But what does that have to do with being accepting and loving, the words you guys talk about all the time.” She translated her question quickly for the Sotos.
“If we discard the beliefs and fears we trip over, like Roby and Francisca have done in some measure right here, we begin to suspend judgments, become more accepting, loving and trusting of ourselves. Once we do, our attitude toward others changes as well.”
I turned to the Sotos. “Francisca, Roby … what else do you want to work on?”
The exchanges flowed more freely. Roby discussed his concern about asking relatives to help in the store during his absence. He never wanted to use people as his father once had. As he explored his discomfort, he reaffirmed his own intent and willingness to trade so that all parties got something of value. Francisca, still slightly hesitant, treaded softly into the area of her limited teaching skill. She had expected, when she returned to Mexico, to be capable of doing Option with others and guiding them. In some way, it was that very expectation that had blinded her. She thought she was supposed to have known everything. During the next hour, Francisca confronted a major source of her unhappiness: expectations. Often she created images in her mind about people and future events and if reality did not mirror her fantasy, she experienced disappointment, sometimes even great sadness. Francisca began to see how she created improbable, if not impossible, visions to fulfill continually.