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.

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.