For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we rented a condominium in a Florida Keys resort. (That’s the way our family rolls, with Martin’s dietary restrictions—vacationing only where we have a fully equipped kitchen to use and organic groceries nearby.) Martin was allowed to bring two stuffed animals. He chose (1) “Boo,” a preposterous Santa-hat-wearing dog he received for Christmas, and (2) a brown bear that had arrived in a lovely gift basket for the family.
“Martin,” I asked as we drove to LaGuardia, “what is the bear’s name?” Martin sat in his booster seat, clutching both stuffed animals. I figured he should get first crack at naming the bear.
To my surprise, Martin had an immediate response. “Goadie Va,” he said, or something similar. Goat Eva? Go, Diva? Was he talking to me? Am I a diva?
“Goadie Va?” Adrian asked, from the driver’s seat.
“Goadie Va,” Martin replied, with certainty.
Adrian and I looked at each other. I made a who-the-hell-knows kind of shrug and said, “Okay, the bear’s name is Goadie Va.” No further discussion on the name was had, as our family, Boo and Goadie Va in tow, headed south.
Behavioral therapy for autism often stresses acting neurotypical and giving a child the tools for participating, even marginally, in a neurotypical-dominant world. Certainly that was my experience with ABA, a technique that only frustrated Martin. Although Martin spent only a couple months in ABA—I found the therapy almost useless (for us), and we abandoned it for RDI—I may have internalized too much of the message that Martin should be instructed to act a certain way. To this day, I find myself saying, “Let’s try that again,” until Martin evinces a satisfactorily neurotypical effort.
“Martin, that man said hi to you. How should you respond? I’m sorry? Let’s try that again.”
“Martin, you walk through the doorway. You don’t flop through it. Let’s stand up and try that again.”
“Martin, you sit at the dinner table. No leaving your seat to jump up and down or touch the clock. Let’s try that again.”
There are approaches to treating ASD premised on the idea of joining an autistic child in his own worldview. The best-known among these approaches is probably The Son-Rise Program®. Son-Rise is not a therapy we’ve tried, so what I know comes from reading and from communicating with families who do participate in the program.
According to the Son-Rise website, “Joining in a child’s repetitive and ritualistic behaviors supplies the key to unlocking the mystery of these behaviors and facilitates eye contact, social development and the inclusion of others in play.” In the midst of my over-used “Let’s try that again” orders, I ponder the Son-Rise argument. Take, for instance, my telling Martin not to run from the family room to the front hall, touch the front door, run back to the family room, fall onto the sofa, and then start over again. Would Martin and I better enjoy our time together if, instead, I ran with him from the family room to the front hall, and touched the front door, and ran back to the family room, and fell onto the sofa, and then started over again, all by his side? Would he trust me more? Would I be more his ally, and less a monotonous dictator?
Martin hauled Boo and Goadie Va all over the Florida Keys, from the Hemingway House to parasailing in Islamorada. He slept with them every night, and provided regular updates on their preferences, such as, “Goadie Va wants to wait in the car. Boo will come in the store.” Never once did he call the bear anything other than Goadie Va. I chalked it up to Martin finding a quirky sound (“Goadie Va. Go, diva!”) and fixating on the sound.
Near the end of our trip, for the first time, I noticed Goadie Va’s right paw. Stitched on the paw pad, clearly and adorably, was the name “Godiva.” Of course, Godiva. Goadie Va had arrived in a Godiva gift basket at Christmas. Martin can read. If a bear has a name stitched on his paw, obviously—duh!—that’s the bear’s name.
I almost never spend time in Martin’s world, almost never try to adopt his black-and-white Weltanschauung. I wonder: In my relentless advocacy for neurotypical behavior, how much am I missing?