What Comes Last

A couple years ago—hard to believe how long we’ve been at this—I lamented to Martin’s (then) biomed doctor that, while Martin’s behavior, sleep, and overall health had improved, I had not seen as much progress in his language. The doctor told me not to worry. “Language,” she said, “often comes last.”

I carried that mantra for a long time: Language comes last. When it took Martin so long to start asking questions, or to use the command form, or to pick up nuances and idioms, I thought, well, language is going to come last.

Or will it?

This year, Martin’s language is much improved. As I’ve written, his speech is not perfect. It often sounds scripted, or rote. Sometimes it seems like he’s exploring a foreign language: Unable to find the easiest or most direct way to express himself, he searches his capabilities and comes up with an unusual (original?) formulation. And his receptive language, his processing delays, still poses challenges; I might be explaining to Martin that we’re going out after lunch, only to have him melt down because he wants lunch, and the “going out” part has registered but not the “first, lunch” part. At his time, he still very much needs the intensive-language-based school program he attends.

That fact notwithstanding, Martin can speak. He speaks in sentences. He asks questions. He orders me around. When he’s not frustrated and mixing up his words, he can express himself, in a manner understood by most anyone who listens with care.

To that extent, language has come.

Language has come, and it did not come last.

Martin’s recovery has two additional, gigantic roadblocks that are not language, though language-related.

First, Martin still can’t “attend.” He doesn’t pay attention. He doesn’t listen. He talks when others are mid-sentence. Unless an activity is one he enjoys (music, eating, drawing), he shows little interest in what others are doing. And even when something does catch his attention, he doesn’t stay with it for long, except for example to stim by hitting one music key repeatedly, or to read his favorite book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, over and over.

Martin’s teachers have identified attending as his most significant challenge in the classroom; even with a 3:1 student-teacher ratio, he has trouble following. At home, the nanosecond attention span means it might take Martin 20 minutes to change clothes, because he gets distracted, or succumbs to boredom and starts complaining instead of dressing. It also keeps us from sharing experiences. If I say, “Oh, wow! Look at that bird!”, Martin might glance out the window, then jog away before I can comment on the bird’s color or size, or he might not look at all.

So language didn’t come last, because language has developed more than attention.

Second, Martin still has a lot of trouble socializing.

When we were in Austin around Easter, I arranged a playdate with “Stewie,” the six-year-old, typically developing son of a college friend. Martin and Stewie had never met, and Stewie was not informed in advance that Martin has challenges. We met at a crowded playground. The playdate went remarkably well. Although Martin was less interactive than an NT child would have been, he didn’t spend the playdate in his own world. Several times (some with prompting) he went to find and engage Stewie. He and Stewie stood together and gazed at an inchworm hanging on Stewie’s finger. When one family at the playground brought out a bubble pumper, Martin joined the other children, clapping his hands and chasing the bubbles. Stewie never even shot his mom that quizzical look that means, “Is there something different about this kid?”

The experience with Stewie gave me a sort of high. I texted Adrian: “Martin is having a playdate with a typically developing boy, and he’s doing FANTASTIC!”

But of course, in autism recovery, disappointments find a way to deflate any high, and four days after Martin played with Stewie, we had a much less successful playdate back in New York, with four classmates from Martin’s kindergarten. Martin attends a school for children with speech and language delays. About half the kids in his class also have autism or some other social impairment. By coincidence, none of the four boys other than Martin who attended this playdate had any social impairment. They are the social kids.

What happened was typical of what we experience when Martin attempts to play with more than one child at a time: Martin was left out. In a one-on-one situation, a playmate has few options other than to engage Martin. In a multi-kid situation, those without social impairments gravitate to each other, and away from the awkward boy.

Martin’s classmates, at the playground where we met, decided to fight dragons. They scampered about as a group, swinging imaginary axes, wielding nonexistent swords, screaming with excitement at the game they’d created.

Martin climbed on rocks and monkey bars. He went down the slide and wandered across the playground’s bridges. When I suggested that he join his classmates’ game, he approached the crowd and, using the social skills he’s been taught, ask shyly, “What are you doing?”

But the other boys were too boisterous and engaged to hear, and they ignored him.

Martin sat down, alone.

As he and I were walking to the car to return home, I asked, “How was the playdate? Did you have fun?”

My son responded, “No. I would like to do a playdate with only grown-ups.”

The next morning, Martin said he did not want to return to school. Thinking that he was experiencing end-of-spring-vacation blues, I tried cajoling him with his favorite subjects—“Do you think maybe you will have computer class today? What will you make in art class?”—and enumerating his classmates. “Do you think Christopher will be there? Are you looking forward to seeing Jack, and Quinn?”

When I finished my song-and-dance, Martin shook his head and said, “No. My friends at school don’t like me.”

Some defeats just crush your soul, don’t they?

So language didn’t come last, because language has developed more than socialization.

Which begs the question: What’s going to come last?

How will I know when we’ve reached our destination?

Martin, in the blue and white stripes, joins in bubble fun during his playdate with Stewie.

Martin, in the blue and white stripes, joins in bubble fun during his playdate with Stewie.

All Dressed Up

“Martin, why don’t you go get yourself dressed like a big boy? Want to pick out your own clothes and get dressed?” I asked at nine o’clock yesterday morning. We had all slept late, and Martin was running around the house in jungle-print pajamas.

I didn’t believe that he’d actually get himself dressed. Six months ago, I laid pajamas out on his bed and spent 20 minutes trying to get him to take off his clothes and put on the pajamas. I went away to let him concentrate, returned every two minutes to beg or threaten or cajole, even lost patience (not my finest parenting). Martin continually forgot his task. He rambled about nothing, jumped on the bed, played with Curious George. I absolutely could not get him to focus enough even to remove his clothes.

Not too much has changed since then, except that for the last two weeks Martin has responded to every suggestion, however benign, with a resolute “No!”

Nevertheless, this morning I mentioned getting dressed only once before Martin said, “Okay!” and scampered down the hall to his room.

I went to the kitchen, where Adrian was eating breakfast. “I told him to get dressed,” I said. “I’m not hopeful.”

Barely a minute had passed before I heard Martin running down the hall from the bedrooms, yelling, “Mommy! Mommmmm-meeee!

I found him standing in the living room, buck naked except for the blue socks he’d worn to bed. He looked straight at me (score!) and asked, “Mommy, am I still five years old?”

“Yes, you’re still five years old. Now don’t forget to change your socks.”

Martin ran back to his bedroom.

I returned to the kitchen. From afar, I heard a familiar sound. Martin’s bedroom dresser has thick metal handles attached to the drawers with leather loops, and when the handles are dropped, they clunk against the wood. The dresser is the last piece of a heavy German bedroom set that my older brothers once shared. As a kid, from my bed at night, I would hear that clunk and know Rudy and Eddie were getting ready to sleep. Now the sound ties Martin to his uncles.

“He opened the dresser,” I reported to Adrian. “I think he’s getting out clothes.”

After another minute Martin came running down the hall again. I met him in the living room. He was wearing clothes.

“You got dressed!” I exclaimed. “You got dressed! Good work! Go show your daddy!”

Martin went to the kitchen through the family room. I went through the dining room and got there first, which gave me a second to throw my fists in the air, jump up and down, and whisper to Adrian, “First time. First time dressed by himself without a reminder.”

Martin arrived. As Adrian picked him up for a hug, I surveyed Martin’s choices. Navy blue sweatpants with CHICAGO printed on one leg. A white sweatshirt with blue stripes. Adrian set Martin down, then snapped the sweatpants waistband to make a confirmation. “You’ve got underwear,” he said.

“Oh dear,” I added. “Martin, you’re doing so well. But you did forget to change the socks. Go change your socks?”

Back down the hall went Martin.

“Am I pushing my luck?” I asked Adrian.

Moments later Martin sauntered back into the kitchen and said, “Actually,”—that’s a favored word right now, the snarky actually—“I’ve decided to wear my sandals today.”

On his feet were Velcro beach sandals, without socks.

It was 34 degrees out.

“Sure, Martin,” I said, content. “Why don’t you wear those sandals until it’s time for church, and then you can put socks and shoes on at the same time.”

I was happy. Adrian was happy. Martin was happy.

Autism, of course, has its ways of changing any day. At church, after the service but still in the sanctuary, I told Martin that he had enough time to run around in the gymnasium but would have to eat his snack in the car. (We had to get to an Anat Baniel Method therapy appointment.) Martin responded by screaming, repeatedly, interrupting the postlude and eliciting annoyance from fellow parishioners. I picked him up and carried him outside. A complete meltdown ensued.

Last night Adrian tucked Martin into bed at 8:00 pm. Martin, who has recently discovered the joy of exiting his bed and running to the living room, went to sleep at 10:45 pm. Unlike Adrian, I cannot fall asleep while Martin is up and chatting. I got to bed after 11:00 pm and was one unhappy camper when 5:00 am rolled around.

Fortunately, as I may have mentioned, yesterday Martin dressed himself without prompts.

Which reinforces this truth: With every new morning comes fresh hope.

Martin plays this weekend in Bedford-Stuyvesent, Brooklyn. I told him he was too big for these baby swings. He responded by putting his "little brother Curious George" in for a ride.

Martin plays this weekend in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I told him he was too big for these baby swings. He responded by putting his “little brother Curious George” in for a ride.


Breakfast is challenging. Morning is challenging.

I know, I know: Most families with young children probably find it difficult to get them fed, groomed, and out to the school bus on time. Breakfast with Martin presents certain additional factors:

1. Martin doesn’t like his breakfast food options. I’ve given him as many choices as I can, subject to the parameters of what fits his current diet and what I can manage in a smaller window of time. His enthusiasm peaks at “meh.” Certainly nothing gets put in his mouth voluntarily.

2. Martin also needs to take supplements and medications and homeopathic drops (lots of them), which I assemble and administer during the meal, dividing my attention.

3. Mornings, for whatever reason, are Martin’s most distracted time. Often, despite the plate sitting in front of him, he seems to forget even that he’s supposed to be eating. I lob hints and suggestions. (“What’s 9+3, you ask? Try some turkey bacon and we can talk about it.” “Hey Martin, guess what you can use that fork for?”) Occasionally I resort to spooning the food into his mouth. Okay, fine. Often I resort to spooning the food into his mouth.

In order to be ready for the school bus on time, Martin needs to leave the breakfast table and go to the bathroom by 7:25 a.m. He knows this. While asking questions, drawing pictures, and dropping food on his school clothes instead of eating, he counts down the minutes until 7:25. The instant the clock turns, he springs from his chair, remaining food be damned.

If by some miracle Martin finishes his breakfast—or if he manages to bargain me down to some reduced food portion that he’s willing to cram into his mouth in order to escape the table—before 7:25, he’s allowed to go into the family room and play for whatever minutes remain.

One recent morning Martin was drinking a smoothie: coconut kefir, avocado, kiwi, papaya seeds, and strawberries. By 7:18 (the dance is precise) we had finished morning supplements. I headed to the bedrooms for my three minutes of “me time” (pull on jeans, straighten hair, add enough layers to hide pajama top so I can escort him to the school bus). Martin remained at the table, his smoothie glass still half-full.

Typically I would return to the kitchen at 7:21 and devote four minutes to cajoling him to finish breakfast. That morning, however, I returned to the kitchen to find the glass, empty, in the sink waiting to be washed.

“Martin!” I exclaimed. “What happened?”

“I finished my smoothie. I’m playing,” Martin responded from the family room.

I’m no Pollyanna. Quickly I scanned the sink and garbage for evidence that Martin had dumped the smoothie. Nothing. The kid was for real. He’d actually decided just to finish breakfast and go play. I swooned.

And lest you think that’s the only victory of recent days, allow me to say that, this very day, February 21, I asked Martin to get dressed “within five minutes.” After some debate about where he would agree to get dressed—he insisted on standing on my and Adrian’s bed, which apparently offers the best view of our digital clock—Martin completed the task in three minutes flat. Except for his socks. Socks are hard. Also, his underwear and shirt were on backwards, which I considered an improvement, because yesterday his pants were on backwards.

Victories are everywhere.

Martin, assisted by his partner-in-crime, George the Cat, plays in our family room.

Martin, assisted by his partner-in-crime, George the Cat, plays in our family room.