A Whole Different Animal

Adrian was supervising bath time this weekend when Martin, from the tub, started describing the stuffed animals in his bed: Curious George the monkey, Maisie the tiger, Mitt Romney the elephant, Boo the dog, Godiva the bear and—an aye-be’el.

“An aye-be’el?” Adrian asked. “You have an aye-be’el?”

“Yes,” Martin answered. “An aye-be’el.”

I happened to be passing through the bathroom. Adrian looked at me, as if I should know what Martin was talking about.

So I asked, “What’s an aye-be’el, Martin? Is that an animal?”

“Yes. An aye-be’el is a whole different animal.”

Martin’s kindergarten teachers have said that he often surprises them by being completely on top of a lesson even when he doesn’t seem to be paying attention. Where Martin appears to be directing his focus, in other words, can be deceptive.

The answer came to Adrian suddenly. “Martin, is that something you heard Daddy say? Did you hear Daddy say that an aye-be’el is a whole different animal?”

“Yes.”

“He means an ABL,” Adrian explained to me. “An ABL is a whole different animal. He was playing on the floor when I was making calls earlier.”

Aha! The puzzle came together. ABL stands for asset-based lending. It describes a specific type of credit agreement—a whole different animal when it comes to credit agreements. Adrian, who is a corporate lawyer, had been on the phone all afternoon, negotiating. Martin had entered periodically to stack his blocks on the big rug in Adrian’s home office. He’d probably heard his father say something like, “They want to talk about an ABL? Oh, no. An ABL is a whole different animal.”

Months ago, on a recovery site, I read a father’s post asking how much ASD children, before they recover, are “with it,” i.e., how much the children absorb and will later recall from the time before they are fully communicative. Martin may not be the best example on this, at least not anymore, because these days he’s reasonably far along in his communication skills. Nonetheless, think about the ABL, and then about this: Martin possesses astounding recall of events that transpired years ago. We sometimes have conversations along these lines:

Martin: “We were on this bridge before.”

Me: “I don’t think so, Martin. Maybe this bridge looks like another one we drive over?”

Martin: “We were on this bridge when we went to the lighthouse.”

Me: “Holy cow, you’re right. We went to the lighthouse where you were two years old. Do you remember that?”

Martin: “The lighthouse is red and white.”

We might have been to that lighthouse shortly after Martin’s diagnosis, before biomed, when he still drifted the perimeter of rooms and ignored his own name. But he remembers. It’s all in that head of his.

A close friend of mine was in an elevator with her five-year-old ASD son, who is making wonderful progress but still mostly pre-verbal. (I’ll call him Jason.) They’d had a horrible morning; because of a snowstorm, Jason’s school bus was delayed, they’d had to return to their apartment to call the bus company, Jason had become too warm in his jacket, and finally they were on their way back down to wait again for the bus. Frustrated, Jason acted out in the elevator.

Jason’s mom, my friend, immediately restrained him and prevented the situation from escalating.

The reaction of any decent person who saw this would have been, “Good catch, Jason’s mom! Way to anticipate and be on top of his behavior!”

The reaction of the one man who was in the elevator with them was to look my friend in the eyes, point to Jason, and say, “You need to get that thing under control.”

There are, of course, a thousand tidbits that gall me about what happened to my friend and her son in that elevator.

The most galling is this: Did the ignoramus who made that comment assume that, because Jason has limited speech, he can’t hear and comprehend? Did he think that an intelligent and creative boy doesn’t know what’s being said about him?

(“Ignoramus” was not the first word that came to my mind. You know that.)

Jason probably didn’t look like he was listening, or understanding. Martin probably didn’t look like he was eavesdropping on Adrian’s phone calls, either.

But they were. They always are.