I’ve written before about a phenomenon I call “slow-motion childhood”: When your kid struggles for what typically developing kids acquire naturally, you notice micro-steps. Maybe you even get more moments for celebration.

I picked Martin up at school this afternoon. I do that on Tuesdays, so that he, assisted by a special-education teacher, can participate in “Kids’ Klub” at our church. (Yes. Spelling “club” with a K just about kills me. But that’s what they call it.) From the backseat, Martin started talking about the satellite-radio music. He fixates on music: “Mommy, do you hear a bass guitar?” “Mommy, are they playing live?” “Mommy, is there clapping in this song?” Lately he’s taken to memorizing which song I like best from every singer or band we hear. “Mommy, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ is a good song, but it’s not your favorite song by Elton John. You’re favorite song by Elton John is ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.”

In sum, Martin talks about the music. From his booster seat, he can lean to the side and read the name of the artist and song, every artist and song, on my SUV’s radio screen. There are times when Martin’s reading skills are not as pleasing as you might think.

Martin’s spoken language is pretty solid these days; he can combine words and concepts, and figure out ways to express layered thoughts. “Mommy, were those two songs both by the BeeGees?” “Mommy, George Harrison used to be in the group The Beatles. This is a solo song from after when he was with the group The Beatles.” Still, and even apart from the perseveration, there can be an awkwardness, and a rote pattern, to Martin’s speech. He recycles phrases. New expressions arise rarely.

This afternoon, our first conversation, while on a familiar topic, had a speech breakthrough.

 “Mommy, this song is by the group called Heart. I don’t like the song.”

“I don’t like this song very much, either. I’m not a big Heart fan.”

“You don’t like this song?”


“So change it.”

There it was. Did you catch it?

Martin used the word “so” as a coordinating conjunction, in a manner in which the precedent construction—my not liking the song—was unstated and implied. What Martin was saying was, “Because you don’t like this song, you should change the station.” What rolled off his tongue was the casual, idiomatic, and perfect, “So change it.”

So … do you even need to ask?

I changed the station.


Are you wondering what Martin said last night?

Last night Martin said, “Otherwise.” He came up with the word. He used it properly and in context.

You’re thrilled? You can’t believe it? Here’s what happened:

Adrian and I put Martin in bed at 8:00 p.m. Martin was all worked up, absolutely could not go to sleep. We are fighting yeast again (Martin versus yeast overgrowth, round IV, get your tickets now) and started nystatin on Friday. Martin’s doctor warned me that we might have a difficult week with yeast die-off; so far, our “difficult week” has entailed diminished attention and focus, fleeting eye contact, and unrelenting hyperactivity. Fabulous.

After an hour of bouncing on his mattress and (needlessly) visiting the potty, Martin started yelling the he wanted to go in “the big bed”—my and Adrian’s bed, where Martin is allowed only in the morning, to wake up. Adrian, exasperated, suggested that we let Martin fall asleep in our bed and then move him back to his room. I agreed but said it had to appear to be Adrian’s idea alone, so Martin wouldn’t start thinking he can bug me for big-bed access.

Adrian called Martin to the family room, where we were watching House of Cards. I hid behind the sofa (Adrian’s idea alone!) and listened. Adrian told Martin that he could take a stuffed animal and climb into our bed, on one condition: that he settle down and go to sleep. Did he understand?

“Yes,” answered Martin. “I will go to sleep. Otherwise I will have to go back to my bed.”

That was it! No prompts, no hearing anyone else say it first, nothing. Martin casually lobbed “otherwise” into the conversation, as if it were an everyday word.

As if he’d never once tested in the bottom third percentile for expressive language skills.

Now, if only he’d settled down and gone to sleep….

Idioms All His Own

We had to wait a few years, and now Martin’s speech skills are finally progressing. He has trouble with more complex formulations, such as asking and answering “why” questions, or narrating a string of events, or using “did” plus the infinitive instead of the past form (“He did went.”). Other than that, he can express almost anything.

On the other hand, when I say Martin can express almost anything, there’s a qualifier: “in his own way.”

Sometimes he’s making up words. I go with it and use the correct term in return:

“Martin, I don’t want you writing on these piano keys.”

“No writing?”


“No marking?” (He means using a marker to write. That’s close.)


“No pencing?”

“Nope, no using a pencil.”

“No craying?”

“Nope, no using a crayon, either.”

Sometimes his formulation leaves me wondering, “What led him to that way of saying it?”:

“Martin, would you stop playing with the telephone?”

He’s in the bedroom, messing around with the bedside phone.


He keeps playing with the phone.

“Hey, get out of the bedroom.”

“Okay. I’m going to go to the room that’s written here.”

He points to the side of the phone, where “family room” is written on the extensions. Then he zooms away to the family room. Most people would have said, “I’m going to the family room,” right? Martin’s choice works just as well.

He likes to make comparisons. Some are natural and make a lot of sense, as when he asked me, “Am I going to have two [Anat Baniel Method] lessons with Miss Sharon today, just like I had two lessons yesterday with Miss Verena?” Or this morning, when he wanted to go to the basement and play the various musical instruments Adrian has relegated there: “I have many instruments in the basement, like a concert.”

Other comparisons—not so natural. Martin likes to drink a kombucha beverage with chia seeds. This morning I asked what he wanted to drink with his (neverending) breakfast. He responded, “I wanted kombucha with a group of seeds in it. Like a singing group.” Chia seeds like a singing group? Does he really think that, or is he experimenting with uses for the word “group”?

I suppose that, as his language continues to improve, Martin will speak more like other people. I’m trying to write down these little Martin-isms now, while we’ve still got them. They represent one more special mile in the recovery marathon.

My Rainbow

Martin and I were riding the subway Saturday morning. We had with us a rainbow that he had made in school out of construction paper and Froot Loops. (Ugh.) The following conversation ensued:

Me: “Martin, do you remember where you got this rainbow?”

Martin: “I made it in school.”

Me: “You know, Martin, rainbows make people happy—which kind of means that you’re my rainbow, because you make me so very happy.”

Martin: “I’m your rainbow.”

Me: “I think you are.”

Martin: “My name is Rainbow.”

Me: “Your name is Rainbow? Really?”

Martin: “No.” [Laughs.] “My name is Martin. I’m being a rainbow.”

Martin said those things, in that order. My kid said those things.

In professional ice hockey there exists an unofficial (and unsanctioned and probably unadvisable; check out The Last Gladiators) player role, known as an enforcer. An enforcer’s job is to keep the opposing team from playing too rough. For example, if an enforcer sees an opponent intentionally late-check a star player, the enforcer might respond by grabbing that opponent by the jersey and punching him several times, as a warning to leave the star player alone.

(Don’t be put off. If you’re not already an ice hockey fan, do please start watching. The combination of grace, strategy, and grit that carries a hockey team to victory resembles the traits needed to recover a child from autism. Honestly.)

Have you heard of the crazy Fred Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas? These are the people who—despite lacking affiliation with any Baptist denomination, and as far as I can tell, despite following none of Jesus’ major teachings—call themselves the “Westboro Baptist Church” and protest at high-profile or military funerals because, they claim, God opposes homosexuality. (I realize that sentence lacks substantive logical foundation. That’s intentional.)

Apparently these Phelps people threatened to show up at the funerals for victims of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. I saw something circulating on Facebook that I should have downloaded, because I can’t find it now. It was a picture of a Boston Bruins enforcer, during a game, on his knees, straddling an opposing player whose back was on the ice. The enforcer had his gloves off, which is dangerous because punches fall softer when the fist is padded by a hockey glove, and he was plainly beating the daylights out of the opposing player, whom he’d rendered defenseless. The caption under the picture said something along the lines of, “This is what we do to hockey teams we don’t like in Boston. Please, come protest a funeral.

When Martin was diagnosed with autism, at 27 months, he could label objects and people and colors, and he could speak in echolalia, but he had no functional language. At 36 months, he had begun developing functional language but could not grasp concepts like first and second person; he said “I” when he meant “you,” and “you” when he meant “I.” By 48 months, he could respond to questions but could not engage in dialogue, i.e., carry a conversation beyond one response.

On Saturday, Martin sustained that rainbow discussion. He maintained consistent eye contact throughout. He ended by drawing a distinction between being called Rainbow and being a rainbow.

Please, come tell me recovery from autism is not possible.

Why? Why? And While We’re at It, What the … ?

Adrian seldom comes home on weeknights before Martin has gone to bed. About a month ago, on an early-January evening, he surprised us by arriving at 5:45 pm, just as Martin was starting dinner.

Happy Martin.

The next afternoon, January 9, as Martin and I were returning from his hippotherapy session in New Jersey, I called Adrian from the car. We chatted for a few minutes by speakerphone. Martin (softly, almost inaudibly, as is his way) called Hi, Daddy! from the backseat.

After I hung up, Martin asked, “My daddy is where?”

“Daddy is at his office working.”

And then…

“My daddy, why he don’t come home?”

The words were jumbled, but the intent was clear: Martin asked his first-ever Why? question.

A week later, January 17, Martin had to have blood drawn at his doctor’s office. When it was over, as a reward, the doctor let Martin pick from a basket of toys. Martin selected a yellow—everything must be yellow right now, even his subway seat—“sticky foot,” a rubbery, goo-coated, miniature foot, with a tail, meant to be hurled at a wall so that it can creep vertically to the floor. (Yes, that description stinks. How to describe a sticky foot?) For the rest of the doctor visit, Martin played with the sticky foot, not hurling it at a wall but stretching it long, plucking the tail like a guitar string, rolling the stickiness betwixt his fingers.

The sticky foot was still in his hand when we left the office. In the parking lot, Martin asked:

“Mommy, what is this?”

Another first! Martin frequently asks, “What do you call this?” or, “Do you know how to call this?” or, “How do you say [whatever] in Spanish?” But he’s never before gone for the gold, i.e., asked what an object is, how it’s used or what purpose it possesses.

I responded: “It’s a sticky foot.”

If autism recovery were perfect, if every step forwarded heralded another step forward, Martin’s next question would have been, “What’s a sticky foot?”

Alas, it was not. But it was still pretty good. He yelled, “A sticky foot! A sticky foot!” and then asked, “Can I bring it on Saturday?”

Saturdays Martin participates in Ready, Set, Play!, a therapeutic playgroup. Every Ready, Set, Play! participant brings a show-and-tell item. Until the sticky-foot incident, I always chose Martin’s show-and-tell for him, packing whatever small toy or token seemed interesting that week. Now Martin was telling me that he wanted to select his own show-and-tell, and that this week it would be the sticky foot.

I didn’t know what he planned to “tell” about the sticky foot, as he evidently had no idea what the hell a sticky foot is for. Nevertheless, we were making progress.

So: “Why?” and “What is?” January 9 and January 17, respectively.

Martin does not yet answer Why? questions. Nor did he immediately pose any other Why? or What is? inquiry. That’s his way. Last Thanksgiving, Martin responded to a question with, “I don’t know.” More than a month passed before I heard “I don’t know” from him again, and then it stormed into common usage. Now he’s comfortable with “I don’t know” in all sorts of contexts.

Four weeks passed from January 9 until today, February 4, a Monday. On Monday evenings Samara stays with Martin while I go out. Monday is my night off. Most weeks I depart by 5:00 pm or so and have dinner with a girlfriend.

Tonight I’m hunkered in a local wine bar, exchanging goofy emails with Adrian and typing my blog, and that meant I left later.

Around 6:45 pm, I was helping Samara finish Martin’s evening supplements. Martin, his mouth full of pre-sprouted mushroom-garlic quinoa, turned to me (!) and asked, “Mommy, why you’re still here?”

Why? question No. 2. Rock and roll. I believe he’ll ask Why? more and more now, and maybe soon, with the understanding the question brings, Martin may even answer a Why? question.

Epilogue: Saturday, January 19, as we were leaving for Ready, Set, Play!, I produced the sticky foot and declared, “Here’s your show-and-tell.” Martin took one look, said no, and went to his toy chest for an accordion instead. It took exactly 44 hours for him to lose interest in the sticky foot and change his mind. I guess that’s being four years old.

I Don’t Know

“Mommy, I don’t know.”

Martin said that this week, in a response to a question about a stuffed panda bear’s nose. The conversation ran like this:

“Martin, what color is Panda’s nose?”


“Silly! It doesn’t seem yellow to me. Look again?”

Martin hesitated, studying the panda’s nose, which had once been black but faded to some flecked gray that apparently defied description, at least for Martin. At last he said, “Mommy, I don’t know.”

Until now, when Martin didn’t have the answer to a question, he would resort to echolalia and repeat the question: “Martin, what are you doing?” “What are you doing?” “Martin, where are we going?” “Where are we going?” For weeks I’ve been trying to get him to say instead, “I don’t know.”

It’s advanced, when you think about it. To say, “I don’t know,” is to (1) comprehend what the question seeks; (2) realize that it is capable of being answered (e.g., the question is not, “What time is that tree?”); (3) understand that, although an answer exists, you do not possess it; and (4) roll those concepts into a response. Saying, “I don’t know,” is a manner of implying absence: Knowledge of this matter exists; it is absent from my body of knowledge.

This week, Martin made that implication. Just once, I’m afraid. Later the same day, he answered a question with, “I don’t know,” when prompted: “Martin, where are your shoes?” “Where are your shoes?” “It’s okay to say if you don’t know, buddy.” “I don’t know.” He has not again admitted unprompted that he doesn’t know an answer.

But he will. That’s the way these new skills come, sometimes. Once, not again, a few times, an avalanche. So he will.

When? Oh, I don’t know.

Developmental Delays

Martin and I are in Texas, visiting my parents. Previous visits here brought Martin unmitigated happiness, as he basked in Grandma and Grandpa’s attention and enjoyed school-free all-day playtime. This trip has been different. Almost as soon as we arrived he became moody and crabby—and asked to go home.

After a few days I realized that Martin has matured, socially. He misses his little friends and interacting with other kids.

I decided to take him to a toddler playgroup sponsored by the church I attend when in Texas.

I didn’t know any of the families attending, so I faced the usual question: What explanation do I give?

I’ve admitted already that I hide Martin’s autism, constantly. My blog is anonymous, and Adrian and I choose not to share Martin’s condition.

The playgroup presented more challenge than usual. We were there specifically to spend time with other toddlers, all of whom were neurotypical (at least as far as I could tell). We were strangers asking to be welcomed. And the differences were bound to show.

What to do, what to do?

Martin, who is about to turn four, was the oldest child there. The next-oldest was a boy almost three, the son of the playgroup’s coordinator. After some brief introductions, I approached that boy’s mother and said:

“Thanks so much for having us. My son has some speech and language delays, so socially, I guess, he is probably right about where your son is.”

That was it.

No hiding, no blaming Martin’s quirks on tiredness, or on speaking Spanish better than English, or on being shy. And no reference to the A-word. I said he has “some speech and language delays” and left it at that.

We spent 90 minutes at the playgroup, and Martin did nothing to indicate that his issues went beyond “some speech and language delays.” He was recalcitrant, to be sure, but neither oblivious to the other kids nor obviously ASD symptomatic. He made eye contact, tried a variety of activities, and spoke to the adults. No tantrums erupted. When I had to leave to visit the restroom, I asked Martin whether he needed to join me. He considered, then responded, “No. I want to stay here.”

Martin’s conduct at the playgroup, along with my choice of introductions, got me pondering a conversation I had weeks ago with his Track Two doctor. The topic was whether the A-word still applies to Martin. Autism, as I understand the condition, is defined by symptoms, not by causes. If a person displays enough of the symptoms, to enough of an extent, then s/he is classified as on the spectrum.

If Martin no longer displays many symptoms, and the ones still present (like repeating words and questions) are infrequent, does he still have autism? Was my statement—“some speech and language delays”—accurate, even if we are still battling the underlying causes of autism?

I don’t know the answer, of course.

But I’m over the moon just to be asking the question.

Tanked. Temporarily.

We’re tanked.

This past week Martin has displayed long-forgotten symptoms: clumsiness, running circles around our apartment, low name responsiveness, even some toe-walking. Toe walking! What’s up with that? His attention has gone MIA, and his daytime sleepiness makes me suspect nighttime restlessness. He is inserting into his mouth anything he can get his hands on. And when he can’t get his hands on anything, he simply inserts his hand.

Times like this used to trigger hopelessness in me. All this work, I would think, and we’ve gone nowhere?

I’m more sanguine these days. So we’re tanked—big deal. Paradoxically, Martin’s language has been stronger than ever, notwithstanding the symptomatic behavior. As to that behavior, maybe the blame lies with the onslaught of pollens and other allergens our early spring has brought. Or else residual dust or cement particulates from our recent mini-renovation (we had some work done in the apartment when I took Martin to visit his grandparents over spring break) could be bothering Martin. Most likely, we need to tweak something in his supplementation protocol.

Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out. I know that we’re tanked only temporarily. I’ve seen what Martin can do and know we’ll get back there, and beyond.

Of course, feeling calm overall, on a general basis, does not translate into rationality every minute. This weekend Martin and I were riding a carousel, on horses side-by-side, when I caught him arching his back and stretching his neck to look at the ceiling and even behind him. That’s a sensory stimulant, one that’s been gone more than a year; it used to be hard to take Martin to restaurants, because he would throw his head back so far from the highchair that he blocked aisles, and I fretted about decapitation by waiter or bathroom-bound patron.

On the carousel I was alarmed and disheartened to see the behavior reemerge.

“Martin,” I said, “sit up like a big boy. No throwing your head back.”

Martin complied and straightened his back, but 10 seconds later he leaned back, hands clutching the horse’s pole, and gazed upward.

“Martin, please. Sit up like a big boy.”

Martin complied again, then said, “There are flowers up there.”

“What?” I asked. “Where?”

“Right there!” He threw back his head and pointing to the carousel’s ceiling.

I looked and saw what had caught his eye: lovely flowers hand-stenciled above us.

False alarm. No sensory stimulation. Just Martin appreciating the world around him.

“Martin, those flowers are lovely.”

Adrian helps Martin with his balance on a weekend stroll.

Update on Questions

Martin doesn’t ask questions yet. Questions are non-linear language, and (as I’ve discovered) they are complex. So far, Martin uses only imperative and declarative speech. For example, if he can’t find his flute, instead of asking, “Where’s the flute?”, he repeats, “I want the flute. I want the flute,” until someone helps him find the flute.

I’ve got some yes/no requests from him, mostly by rote. We have a lot of exchanges like this:

“I want more tea.”

“It would be nice if you would ask me.”

“Can I have more tea?”

I don’t really count those requests as questions, per se, because they are (1) scripted and (2) not seeking information.

In the past week, I’ve witnessed the first glimmers that we might be turning the corner (and I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself). Tuesday, as he and I were walking together, Martin spotted a jet in the sky. “A plane!” he blurted (as usual), pointing (a newer development). I replied, “I see it, too.” Then Martin said, “Where is the plane going?” I’m not certain Martin was really looking for an answer; he seemed almost uninterested even while inquiring. And I wondered whether, “Where is the plane going?” wasn’t a scripted question, repeating part of a school exercise. Nevertheless, I made a big deal of responding. Saying I wished I knew. Observing the size of the plane and guessing the possible destinations. Trying to make Martin feel rewarded for (possibly) asking a question.

Did it work? Maybe. Wednesday afternoon Martin and I were to meet Adrian at the airport, to fly home. (We’d made a family trip to Chicago, where Adrian had some work to complete before coming to O’Hare.) Martin hadn’t slept well the night before and was restless, so I made a big deal about meeting Adrian and how happy we would be. Almost as soon as we entered the airport, before we reached the self-check-in machines, Martin asked, “Where is Daddy?” He did not look directly at me while saying those words, but this time the question seemed authentic. Martin expected his father, and upon not finding him, wondered what the deal was. Immediately I knelt to catch Martin’s eye and said, “Let’s check in and clear security. I bet we’ll find him at the gate.”

I’ll report on more questions as they come. I’m looking forward to a day when Martin asks questions non-stop, at which time I’ll post on the topic How Do I Shut My Kid Up?