Actualización V de Nicaragua: Hoy Comienza un Año Mejor (Esperamos)

This is a follow-up to my last post, on Martin’s questions about Otto Warmbier.

More conversations have been happening. Last week, Martin initiated this dialogue with me:

Martin: “Mommy, even though the other kids made fun of me, I still think I had a pretty good year in school last year.”

Me: “You thought there was more good than bad in the school year?”

Martin: “Yes.”

Me: “How about this summer at camp? Did you feel like the kids at camp made fun of you, too?”

Martin: “Sometimes they did, but like less than at school.”

Me: “Was it a good summer at camp?”

Martin: “I think it was a good summer.”

Me: “I remember, when I was little, how sometimes kids made fun of me. I didn’t like that. It hurt my feelings.”

Martin: “When did they stop making fun of you?”

Me: “I would say things changed in high school. That’s when I found new friends, more like me, who had some more interests like mine.”

Martin: “High school?”

Me: “But you never know. It could get better every year. Third grade might be a lot better than second grade. You’ll have new kids in your class.”

Martin: “Yeah. I think third grade is probably going to be pretty good.”

Posted without additional commentary.

Actualización IV de Nicaragua: Korea del Norte

Martin’s new thing is to request “a little chat” before he goes to sleep. “Mommy, can we have our little chat? Then can you send Daddy in for a little chat?” Participating in the little chat requires me to climb into bed and lie next to him as he answers questions about his day, talks about what’s to come, and then requests a nighttime assurance of how much I love him. “Do you see the ceiling fan, how it spins?” I say, or something similar. “Imagine how many times it would spin in a million years. Put that number with every drop of water in the Pacific ocean. You can add in the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, too. Those spiders in the jungle? All the spiders in all the jungles, and all the legs on all the spiders and all the tiny hairs on all the spiders’ legs. Add that all together, and still I love you more.”

The nighttime chat also the time when Martin’s fears and anxieties bubble up—who’s been unkind to him, what he doesn’t want to do. I’m pleased to report that, since we came to Nicaragua, the fears and anxieties have been fewer and farther between.

Since we are living abroad, one topic we discuss frequently, both in our nighttime chats and otherwise, is geography and geopolitical concerns. Martin has memorized the seven nations of Central America by size, both area and population, along with their capitals and order from the Mexican border to the Columbian. He asked if we could make an excursion to Honduras, and I said no because I consider Honduras too dangerous. This got him interested in “dangerous countries.” I tried to explain other nations where I would not travel at this time, and why: South Sudan because of civil war, for example, or Syria because of domestic conflict, Venezuela because of mistaken government policies and newfound resource scarcity, North Korea because of an oppressive regime.

I wasn’t too surprised, therefore, when Martin began one night’s little chat by asking, “Do you know something funny about North Korea?” and then informed me that “a kid at camp” had told him a story about North Korea. I was instantly suspicious. Martin likes to make things up and claim he heard them from someone. Which kid? I asked. A new girl who’s older than he is and whose name he doesn’t know, he replied. Hmmmm. Okay. What was the story?

Martin proceeded to tell me that there was an American boy who tried to take a poster he wasn’t supposed to take in North Korea, and so just because of the poster the North Koreans punched him in the head so hard that he went to sleep for two years, and when he woke up from being asleep for two years, he died and it was very sad.

As Martin rambled, relaying the tale the nameless older girl had given him, I realized that this wasn’t made up at all. He was giving me the basics of the fate of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student arrested January 2016 in North Korea for allegedly stealing a political poster from a restricted floor in his hotel. Plainly, Martin actually had been told this story, and accurately was repeating to me what he’d been told.

Martin concluded by asking me whether this North Korean tale really had happened.

I’ve never before witnessed this level of engagement from Martin. It hasn’t been so long since I was overjoyed when Martin became able to tell me whether his sneakers were at school. This North Korea discussion was so far beyond answering basic questions. Martin must have been talking to this girl at camp, listening to what she said, and comprehending the information. He retained the story basics and sought confirmation at home. He initiated the conversation with me.

I didn’t bother correcting any details, like whether we know punches to the head caused Warmbier’s death, or that he was detained 18 months instead of two years. I said, “That terrible story is true. Those things happened to a young American man who was visiting North Korea.”

“What was his name?” Martin asked.

“Otto Warmbier. He was a student at the University of Virginia.”

“When did he die?”

“I can’t remember. It must have been a couple months ago now.”

“I think he died the first week I had camp.”

“You might be right.”

“It’s very sad.”

I could see Martin becoming anxious, so I said, “It is very sad. North Korea is a dangerous place. But do you know what? Nicaragua is not. You are safe here in your bed. Abuela is sleeping in the same room, and who else is in the house? Samara is here, and I am here, and Daddy is here. And who’s outside? Señor Pedro is outside. You are safe.”

Señor Pedro is our house’s cuidador (the caretaker or nighttime guard), who has a room in the garden. Martin loves Señor Pedro.

Once Martin was reassured and asleep, I went on-line to check when Otto Warmbier died. June 19. Martin started camp Monday, July 17, so no. He was off by a month. I don’t know whether the girl at camp told him Warmbier had died the first week of camp, or whether somewhere in the background of his extraordinary memory was a snippet of news he’d heard/seen and mistaken the date.

But I do know this: I am a closer than ever to knowing how it feels to converse typically with my son.

Conversation, Y’all

In my law practice, we work with an attorney from Texas who likes to throw “y’all” into sentences, even in email. She writes, “Think y’all need to flesh out that argument,” or, “I’m going to that hearing, and y’all should too.” As a literary device, her “y’all” is most effective as a lead-in or closer, like, “Y’all, we cannot take that case,” or, “Think that one through, y’all.” The concluding “y’all” is grandiose. When this attorney ends a sentence with a comma and “y’all,” I think, Did you get that? Did you pay attention? Because she was talking to you.

Being New York born and raised, I’d sound silly if I tossed y’all around the way my co-counsel does. So when I do choose to conclude a statement, especially a mono-word declaration, with a y’all, let’s agree that it’s extra-grandiose.

Conversation. Conversation, y’all.

Finally, we’ve got conversation. The kind of conversation that involves listening and responding to the partner.

Our family employs a housekeeper who comes weekday mornings, usually arriving just before Martin and I leave to catch his school bus. One day she was surprised to find Martin playing in the family room, and me away from home. (I had an errand to run, and by previous arrangement would be returning to retrieve Martin and drop him at school; Adrian was in his home office, working.) Given that Martin has always shied away from speaking with her—until recently, he buried his head in the sofa pillows whenever the housekeeper addressed him—she was even more surprised to have this conversation with him, subsequently relayed to me:

HK: “Martin! Why are you at home? Don’t you have to go to school today?”

Martin: “I am going. My mom is coming home to take me.”

HK: “If you want, I can drive you over now.”

Martin: “No, it isn’t allowed for anyone different to drop me off.”

Martin and I are spending the coming summer in Nicaragua. (Remember this post? More details later.) One morning, over breakfast, Martin asked, “How many days will we be in Nicaragua?”, and I replied, “Sixty days. All of July and August.”

Eight hours later, in the car, without additional prompting, the following conversation ensued:

Martin: “July and August each have 31 days.”

Me: “That’s true.”

Martin: “But you said we will be in Nicaragua only 60 days?”

Me: “Good point. What is 31 plus 31?”

Martin: “Sixty-two.”

Me: “So we will be gone 62 days.”

Martin: “Mommy, is Nicaragua going to be the longest trip you’ve ever taken?”

Me: “No, once I was in India for several months. I was studying there.”

Martin: “Will Nicaragua be the longest trip I’ve ever taken?”

Me: “Yes.”

These are conversations, y’all. They involve give-and-take. They require response to what the conversation partner has said.

I’m excited, of course. And there’s a caveat, of course. Most of Martin’s conversations still revolve around what fascinates him: right now, bridges, geography, and names. So while he’s made progress thinking dynamically enough to add to a conversation, he still needs to reduce his rigidity and apply that dynamism to a variety of topics.

Y’all.

Daily Meatballs

Most school days, I pack meatballs for Martin’s lunch. Specifically, spicy buffalo meatballs, which I make by combining bison chorizo with minced vegetables. I send spicy buffalo meatballs for four reasons. First, Martin finishes them. I don’t have to worry about lunch coming home half-uneaten. Second, they are easy, insofar as one package bison chorizo, plus vegetables, makes a three-day supply, which I prepare in advance, leaving only the cooking for the morning before school. Third, they keep well and are not a food that becomes soggy or unattractive in the hours before lunch break. Fourth, they fit well within the cycle of Martin’s diet. He eats meat no more than once per day; tucking the meat meal into the school day frees me to prepare a vegan dinner for the whole family.

Yesterday evening, I made sweet-potato-and-lentil shepherd’s pie, which was a triumph, unlike last week’s disastrous attempt at vegetable-and-white-potato shepherd’s pie. The triumph went quickly:

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In sum: spicy buffalo meatballs. Lots of spicy buffalo meatballs.

Last night at dinner—the aforementioned shepherd’s pie—Martin said, “Mommy, would you stop sending meatballs to school all the time? Sometimes I want something different.”

Readers, what a moment! How much do I love that my son has the functional language to express his preferences and advocate for himself? How much do I love that he wants variation? Immediately I recalled a news piece I once about a young adult on the spectrum, living independently, who was anxious to date but impeded by, for example, the fact that he refused to eat anything but canned tuna for dinner.

“What would you like instead of meatballs?” I asked Martin.

“Rice,” he answered. Of course. I limit rice in Martin’s diet, and he schemes for any opportunity to get those little grains into his mouth.

I said, “Your point is well-taken. I’ll see what I can do.”

This morning we were late for the school bus. We were late because I needed some extra time to make Martin’s lunch:

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Addendum on the topic of last week’s disastrous attempt at vegetable-and-white-potato shepherd’s pie. That recipe didn’t work at all, turned out bland, and my last-minute efforts were insufficient to inject any pizzazz. Plus, the recipe made too little potato topping and too much inside filling. I was, however, able to salvage a small victory. I removed the extra filling and processed it into a paste. The next morning, I spiced the vegetable paste, combined it with an egg, and fried the batter into savory pancakes. Martin loved the makeshift breakfast.

 

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Del Sur II: ¿Asperger’s?

I read James Joyce for the first time when I was 17. It was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it knocked my socks clean off. With the benefit of maturity, I’m pretty sure that most teenagers who read A Portrait of the Artist end up sockless, but 27 years ago, in high school, I felt singled out and special: James Joyce got me. He wrote the novel for himself and also for me. Stephen Dedalus was an alter ego for Joyce and me both. His stream of consciousness was also the wandering path of my own mind.

Martin speaks constantly nowadays. Constantly. It’s as if, those years when he lacked language to express himself, he built a bank of unsaid thoughts, and now the words gush, unfiltered. He alights the school bus yammering. Dinner is a series of, “Hang on, Martin. How about if the grown-ups get to talk for a minute?” He falls asleep holding court with his stuffed animals. Wednesday morning he materialized in our bedroom at 4:00 am and said something like, “I just woke up. My body woke me up. Maybe I’m not sleepy anymore? It’s still dark outside. Your clock says 3:54. Can I watch television? It’s Wednesday. I have school today. Why do you think I’m awake? Are you getting up now? My covers were tangled.” (I managed to convince him that his body woke him up because he needed to go to the bathroom. He went to the bathroom, I untangled his covers and tucked him back in, and blessed silence fell again.) I have become one with Stephen Dedalus. I’m living a stream-of-consciousness existence, and the consciousness is seven years old.

In South America, with few planned activities and much free time, I experienced just how very much Martin talks these days, and usually to me. He was a running soundtrack of our trip. “This morning I woke up at 7:37. Mommy, were you awake? Did you hear me get up? I looked at the clock, and it said 7:37. I wanted to get up at 7:00. I got up 37 minutes late. It was already light out. Tío was getting ready for work. I looked out the window and saw a balloon in the sky. Mommy, where were you? I found you in the kitchen. What time did you get up? What time did you eat breakfast? I played with my iPad while I was waiting for breakfast. Today my cousins are coming over. They are still in school. What should we do before they come over?” His cousins rang mute by comparison.

I am not complaining, not by any means. If you’ve had a child without functional language, if you once thought “I want you to do that again” was the linguistic apex of beauty and complexity, you understand: I, we, have fought for every sentence that Martin emits, and his chatter is our prize.

That’s what I remind myself when I’m hearing, for the 478th time, that there are three mommies and Martin needs to decide which is the real mommy. (Some episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse evidently had two Goofy characters, only one of which was real, or something like that, and Martin’s been running with the game for weeks.) He’s perseverating. The game is annoying. But the sentences are perfect, the syntax is solid, and every day he picks up new idioms.

So here is a question: Doesn’t this sound a lot like Martin has Asperger’s? Classic hallmarks of Asperger’s are a preference for the company of adults over children; long-winded discourse, regardless of whether anyone is listening; repeated return to one topic; speaking in a fast or “jerky” voice. Martin’s official diagnosis, now, is ADHD. The (mainstream) neurodevelopmental psychologist opined that Martin no longer meets the diagnostic criteria for autism. Asperger’s is a form of autism. What gives?

Good thing I’m not that into behaviorally based diagnoses. I followed Stephen Dedalus. I can follow this kid, wherever he’s taking us.

Exasperation. For a Change, His, Not Mine

Martin’s gaining independence delights me for my own sake as much as his. When he could finally be trusted not to leave the house alone or endanger himself climbing the outside of the staircase railing, I could finally shower even when he and I were home alone. When he learned to swim, I could let him play on the swingset without constant fear of the pool 10 yards away. And when Martin finally started getting himself into our SUV—climbing into his booster chair, putting his drink into the cup holder, buckling his seatbelt—that meant no more straining my back to lift him aboard, no more standing in rain or snow waiting for him to arrange himself so I could push his seatbelt across, no more bypassing coffee shops that didn’t have a drive-thru because getting him in and out was such a PITA. Now he even precedes me into the garage, so that when I finally come out, coffee in hand, he’s already settled.

Last month Martin and I were twenty minutes into a car trip when, stopped at a red light, I turned around to speak to him and realized his seatbelt wasn’t buckled. “Martin!” I said. “What’s going on with your seatbelt? Why aren’t you buckled?”

“I forgot!” Martin sounded alarmed as he seized the seatbelt and buckled himself. “Oh, I forgot to put in on.”

“Be careful, buddy. We’re about to get on the highway. That would have really dangerous.”

I’m pretty sure that was a one-time occurrence. Still, since then, I’ve taken to confirming before we leave home, or asking once we’re underway, whether he’s wearing his seatbelt. I rarely remember to confirm before we leave home, which means I’m doing a lot of asking once we’re underway. “Martin, are you buckled?” “Yes.” “Martin, are you buckled?” “Yes.”

Monday I got a different answer. “Martin, are you buckled?” “Yaaaaaa-esssss!”

Exasperation! Martin, the king of repetition and perseveration, was exasperated with my question. As a bonus, his exasperated, “Yaaaaaa-esssss!” had a determinately snippy tone, almost like a pre-teen might utter.

That’s not the place I’ve heard exasperation. We’re on an airplane, and Martin just asked me whether he could order an orange juice. I said no, because he had a juice box earlier today at BareBurger. When Martin was younger, his response to that disappointment would have been a meltdown. His more common response, these days, is a burst of nonsense: “I’m never going to have juice again, ever! Throw all of the juice away! Mommy, we’re going to give the juice to another family!” His response just now was one that’s emerged within the last week or so: “Awwwww!”, that whining protest that children use when they feel they’ve been unjustly denied a privilege. I also got an “Awwwww!” when he wasn’t allowed to watch television at breakfast and when he couldn’t watch Wheel of Fortune because I had the Rangers game on.

I’m not sure I’m ready for all this neurotypicality.