Emerack Bitter

Last week Martin opened a restaurant.

He woke one morning and said that he was launching a restaurant and that in fact the grand opening would be that very evening, in his bedroom. I thought he might forget about this plan over the course of the day, but nope. After school and homework and taekwondo practice, and without even asking for his iPad (his usual request when the obligations are done), Martin scampered to his bedroom and shut the door. Half an hour later, when Adrian arrived from work, Martin reappeared in the kitchen and asked whether we’d like to attend the big event.

“Welcome to Emerack Bitter!” he said as we entered his room. Indeed, a handmade paper sign, propped against the hallway molding just outside the door, read “Emerack Bitter.” What a name!, I thought. Sounds like Brooklyn’s trendy new bourbon bar. “Panda is the host,” Martin continued, gesturing toward a stuffed panda bear perched on a cabinet. “Would you like to request a table? And here’s Bob, the owner. Maybe shake his hand and congratulate him?”

Adrian and I played along as Martin showed us the great turnout. Emerack Bitter’s eight tables were all occupied, with stuffed animals seated in groups, including its largest table, where six animals were eating. Opening night had entertainment, too: A mechanical bear in an Elvis costume, with a guitar. Beside Elvis Bear was a handmade sign instructing guests to “follow him on-line at http://www.ElvisBear.com.”

I ordered a smoothie, to Martin’s delight. He asked which fruits I would like, then pretended to load them into a blender, pretended to place the top on the blender, pretended to pulse the blender button, pretended to pour the mixture into a cup, pretended to add a straw, and finally pretended to hand me my smoothie before taking Adrian’s order.

If perhaps I am harping too much on the pretending aspect, it’s because Martin has never really engaged in this type of pretend play, never invited others to join him in an imaginary setting. I realized quickly that Martin was combining experiences he’d had in Nicaragua. We attended the grand opening of a friend’s restaurant, where we complimented the owner on the full house and enjoyed live entertainment, a signer/guitarist with (you guessed it?) a sign telling us to follow him on-line. Separately, every afternoon we purchased smoothies at a roadside stand, where Martin watched the proprietor write orders and load fruits into a blender.

Seven years ago, after we realized something was different about Martin, I filled out various questionnaires designed to help determine whether he was on the autism spectrum. Each one asked whether Martin engaged in pretend play or acted out imaginary scenarios. “Never,” I circled, time and again.

I understand that a child recovering from autism may “go back” and meet, on a delayed basis, typical developmental milestones that he missed along the way. I was excited to tell Martin’s psychologist about Emerack Bitter. She seemed pleased, too—although when I said, “I know that pretending like that is characteristic of a kindergartner, not a nine-year-old” she took some wind from my sails by replying, “More like a three-year-old.” She added that, in her office, Martin had recently created a scene of soldiers, including one lying belly-down and aiming a gun. Martin had said the gun was actually a camera, and that the soldier was using it to take a picture of another soldier he placed on a castle balcony. (Quite an assemblage of toys in the psychologist’s office!) This was new, the psychologist said, this ability to see from the soldier’s perspective and understand where his camera would be aimed.

Last weekend, at a softball game, I had a beautiful hit that cleared the centerfielder and sent her chasing the ball deep into the outfield. Unfortunately, as I rounded toward second, I missed touching first base. I had to go back to touch first base and continue from there. The fiasco converted my probable homerun into a triple instead. But in the end, it didn’t make any difference that I had to return to touch first base. The very next batter hit a solid line drive, and I crossed home plate, just a little later than I would have otherwise. No one cared. A run is a run.

After the grand opening of Martin’s restaurant (upon additional consideration?), he announced that the owners actually were Don Emerack and Dawn Bitter, and that they thought it was so funny that their first names were almost homonyms that they decided to combine their last names for the restaurant.

I think it’s a pretty cool name. Look for the next Emerack Bitter near you.

Notes on a Wednesday

Wednesdays, of late, are exhausting days for me and Martin. He plays hooky from school. We start the morning by driving more than 50 miles to Wilton, Connecticut to visit Martin’s new homeopath and, if it’s an appointment week, his biomedical doctor.

(Note to careful readers: We switched biomedical doctors five months ago, because Martin’s former practitioner moved to the West Coast.)

From Wilton, when our appointments are through, we get back in the car and drive more than 60 miles, back into New York State, across Westchester County and across the Tappen Zee Bridge and Rockland County, at last dropping into New Jersey at Ringwood, where Martin participates in hippotherapy. We eat lunch in the car: a sandwich for me, and Dr. Cow tree nut cheese with rice crackers for Martin. Then, while Martin spends an hour riding horses, I hike to a tiny farm and buy eggs.

Around 3:15 pm Martin and I get back into the car to drive 45 miles home. (Are you keeping track of all these miles?) Although it is the shortest leg of our journey, this takes the longest, anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes, depending on traffic getting back into and through the City.

Last Wednesday, on the morning drive to Wilton, I spent 20 minutes on the phone—hands-free Bluetooth, of course! I respect all traffic laws—trying to negotiate a good deal on the purchase of an infrared sauna. (More on that in a future post.) Martin was supposed to be practicing “being quiet while Mommy’s on the phone.” Instead, he grew increasingly agitated until he was sobbing while repeating, “You’re going to get off the phone! No more phone! You’re done with the phone.” I apologized to the sauna representative and finally, when I could barely hear him over Martin’s shrieking, aborted the call. Meltdown.

So that sucked. But three very cool things that did not suck at all also happened last Wednesday:

The update for Daddy: At the office of the homeopath—“Miss Lauren,” as Martin calls her—is a pile of toys. I was talking with Lauren when Martin appeared with a toy mobile phone in this hand and said, “Mommy, I’ve got a phone.” I replied, “Oh? Would you please call Daddy and let him know we got here okay?” Without further prompting, Martin nodded, hit a few buttons on the toy phone, held it to his ear and said, “Hello, Adrian? But because we’re at Miss Lauren’s. Okay. ’Bye.” (Martin is in a phase wherein he calls Adrian by his first name instead of Daddy or Papá. “But because” is a verbal tic that Martin has.) Comprehending my request? Pretending? Following a direction? Yes, yes, and yes, thank you.

The hippotherapy superstar: Martin does hippotherapy with a speech-language pathologist. Hippotherapy requires body awareness, multisensory activity, and concentration. Martin’s performance varies widely from week to week. (Martin’s performance on just about anything can vary widely from week to week, day to day, or even hour to hour. That’s the nature of the biomedical beast.) Last Wednesday, when I came to claim Martin after his riding lesson, his speech pathologist said, “He was awesome today. Awesome. Can you bring this version of the kid every week?”

The gesture of support: Do you remember my post from last Tuesday, about the best ways to be supportive of a family wading through autism recovery? It ended with these lines:

That’s all we really want, any of us, right?

A little faith, and a cookie.

When Martin and I arrived home from our three-state extravaganza last Wednesday—one day after I posted about how to be supportive—I found a package waiting for me. Inside was a card quoting those two lines. Under them, handwritten by the friend who sent this card, were the words: “Some of us need a whole box of cookies. Prayers to you and your family. Always.” Enclosed with the card? Yep. A box of cookies.

I’ve been reading the Thinking Moms’ Revolution new book of essays. In one piece, the mother of a boy on the spectrum is asking, “Why did this happen to my baby? What did I do wrong? Is God mad at me?” Her mother, the boy’s grandmother, intervenes and points out that, if things had been different, she would not be asking, “Why did God give me a healthy child?”, so she doesn’t get to ask “Why?” now.

Sage advice, right? What happened to my son—the Pitocin, the C-section, the antibiotics, the vaccines, whatever combination caused this autism—happened. But it doesn’t mean my life doesn’t rock steady.

It doesn’t mean I don’t live in a world of blessings.

The Wanaque Resevoir in Ringwood, New Jersey, where I hike while Martin rides horses. I took this picture with my iPhone a couple weeks ago. Life is good.

The Monksville Resevoir in Ringwood, New Jersey, where I hike while Martin rides horses. I took this picture with my iPhone a couple weeks ago. Life is good.

Update on Imagination

Yesterday’s post—the update on questions—begs a follow-up: an update on imagination.

Before Martin was diagnosed, when we were investigating local preschools, Adrian and I spent twenty minutes in a Montessori classroom for three-through-five-year-olds. There I observed one boy, probably a three-year-old, engaging in several minutes of independent pretend play. He found a cloth square and an empty bottle and employed both to “clean” a mirror, swishing back-and-forth, examining his work and checking (I assume) for smudges, then re-polishing the spots he’d “missed.” It impressed me, to see him working so hard at an imaginary task. I recall thinking, Gosh, Martin doesn’t play like that, and then telling myself, Give him time.

Almost 18 months have passed since we visited that Montessori classroom, and Martin still doesn’t play like that. (And now, of course, I believe that the answer lies with intervention, more so than with time.) Imaginative play, it seems to me, does not emerge spontaneously from the linear thinking of an ASD kid. At least, imaginative play in the traditional, “creative” sense does not emerge spontaneously; on the other hand, I’ve seen many examples of quasi-imagination in ASD kids and adults, in terms of viewing problems or issues in unexpected ways.

Martin may be turning a corner in this arena, too. Over the past four days, I have jotted down four instances of Martin apparently using his imagination.

1. At his cranio-sacral therapist’s office, Martin picked up a bunny toy that makes a bell-like sound when jostled. Martin shook the bunny repeatedly, heard the sound, and said, “The bunny is playing the xylophone.” Then he moved the bunny to another area, shook it again, and said, “The bunny is playing the xylophone outside.”

2.  Martin was playing with a favorite toy, a pirate ship that he calls a “sail boat.” He rearranged the positions of the wooden pirate figures, then told me, “The pirates are sleeping in the boat.”

3. Martin loves guitars and often has one in hand, anything from a three-inch Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a guitar to a near full-size instrument. Yesterday, walking around with a guitar, he encountered an old stuffed bunny. He paired the toys and announced, “The bunny is going to play the guitar.”

4. On his Thomas & Friends train set, sitting alongside Thomas and Molly and Henry and Rosie and the others, Martin keeps a couple of miniature NYC Transit subway cars. One from the 6 line and one from the C line, to be exact. I noticed him playing with those two cars and asked what he was doing. Martin responded, “The C train is holding hands.” (The C train, I assume, was holding hands with the 6 train. Martin did not specify.)

If someone had told me, two years ago, that I would grab a sheet of paper to make a note every time my son shows imagination, I would have scoffed.

No scoffing today. Neural repair happens brick by brick by brick by brick, and it’s important to keep track of what’s being laid where.

Or so I imagine.

Martin, checking out some videos with his cousin and Adrian.