If Only I Had Decent Answers

Is Martin curious?

When Martin was a toddler, when his autism had emerged but Adrian and I did not yet recognize it, I thought he was curious about mechanics. He spent hours staring at mechanical devices. I don’t mean that as hyperbole; unless someone intervened, Martin would stare without stopping, for however long we left him. If I wanted to make dinner, I could push the upright vacuum into the middle of the living room and count on Martin to remain, indefinitely, within 36 inches of the appliance, circling to see from different angles, lying down with his head by the wheels. On the street, the only time I could be confident that he wouldn’t bolt was when we had an excavator or backhoe or other piece of heavy equipment to look at. Then he would stare. Stare. Stare.

You ask, How did we not recognize autism? I answer, First-time parents. Give us a break.

After we started autism recovery, Martin stopped gazing at mechanics, and his echolalia (which had been his lone form of spoken language) eased into perseveration. At that time, I probably would not have called Martin curious. His mind got into ruts, and he asked the same question repeatedly. He seemed uninterested in what was new. How could a boy who stuck to one topic, for weeks, be called curious?

Still, we were grateful for what we’d got. At least he put together the sentences, and later questions, on which he perseverated. That’s a step up from echolalia.

Martin still perseverates today, though less. He cycles through topics of interest. We’ve spent the last couple months on street signs. He wants to know everything about street signs. Why does the sign for “playground ahead” have only a see-saw on it? What is a shoulder? Why can’t you drive on it? Mommy, slow down! There’s a speed zone ahead. Before street signs, Martin was into phases of the moon, and facts about the moon. Before that, musical instruments.

Despite the perseveration, Martin’s real, natural curiosity is starting to make itself known, through his ever-increasing language skills. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard questions like these:

In the car, as “Fire and Rain” comes on the radio: “Mommy, what is James Brown signing about?”

Upon finding out that I would be gone for four days to attend a conference (A1!) in Chicago: “What is the conference about?”

Looking around my home office, and realizing that I have portraits of three deceased cats on the wall, when in fact I’ve had not three but four pet cats who’ve died: “Why don’t you have a picture of Tiny Rachel on the wall?”

On a lazy weekend morning, after he climbed into bed with me and Adrian: “Mommy, why did you decide to marry Daddy?”

I’ve been ecstatic about each such question. I do, however, need to add a caveat: Sometimes Martin doesn’t really listen to the answer I give him. Sometimes he poses the question, then interrupts my answer to ask another question or introduce a new topic. When that happens, I wonder whether he’s actually being curious, or whether he’s just trying to control the situation (this happens) by having me answer his choice of question. Ah, well. It is what it is.

Hey, are you wondering why I don’t have a portrait of Tiny Rachel in my home office? Tiny Rachel was my first cat. I adopted her, all five pounds of her, just after I graduated college. She saw me through my first master’s degree, law school, a total of 13 apartments, work, cohabitation, marriage, my second graduate degree, and finally, pregnancy. Tiny Rachel was whip-smart, and full of piss and vinegar. She hated everyone but me. She died three months before Martin was born, and I think she surrendered some of her spirit to him. I’ve never really been able to admit that Tiny Rachel is gone. It’s been seven years. I need a few more before I can hang her portrait.

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.

Update on Update on Questions

Remember last week’s update on questions? Specifically, my update on the fact that Martin doesn’t yet ask questions?

Time for an update on the update on questions. Martin has added to his repertoire three new requests for information.

The first two are rote questions. When we’re on the subway and stop at any station he doesn’t recognize, he says, “What street is this?” Our conversations shuffle along with the train:

Martin: “What street is this?”

Me: “Spring Street.”

Martin: “It’s Spring Street!”

Me: “Sure is.”

Martin, as the train leaves the station: “Bye-bye, Spring Street.”

Me: “That’s it for Spring Street.”

Martin: “What street is this?”

Me: “It’s Canal Street.”

Martin: “It’s Canal Street!”

Me: “Looks that way to me.”

You get the idea.

Also, Martin is routinely asking, “Where is _____?” This morning at breakfast he inquired, “Where is the flute?” Which would have been really great, if I’d had any idea where the &*$@ the toy flute was. As it was, I had only disappointment to offer.

The third type of request is meant to be a question, but Martin doesn’t have the form correct yet. When he wants to know the initial letter of a word, we have an exchange along these lines:

Martin: “Bowl starts with a . . . .” (His voice trails off. He doesn’t get the inflection correct for a question, neither the Spanish inflection nor the English.)

Me: “Oh! Do you mean to ask me, ‘What letter does bowl start with?’?”

Martin: “What letter starts with bowl?”

Me: “‘What letter does bowl start with?’ Bowl starts with a b.”

Martin: “Bowl starts with a b!”

In summary, we have experienced progress since my update on questions. Maybe all I need to do for progress is to post an update? In that case, more updates coming. Soon.

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?