My teacher has a necklace. It’s gold, and shines in the light. I like to sit in the front of the class so I can see it when the light hits it just right and it sparkles. When it does, I flap my hands, and sometimes I make sounds. Usually, my teacher will keep teaching. Sometimes, she tells me I need quiet hands right now so she can talk. Sometimes, she smiles and comes close and lets me look at her necklace for a few minutes.
I have a necklace, too. It made me so happy when my daddy got it for me. It’s rubber, not gold. It’s supposed to be for when I want to bite, but I don’t want to bite it. I just want to wear it. I like pretty jewelry. Daddy won’t let me wear it, so I was very happy when he let me wear this necklace. I don’t know why it’s different. I don’t know why a lot of things. Like why I can’t wear jewelry or dresses like some other kids do.
I want to ask daddy, or maybe my teacher. My teacher explains a lot, so she could tell me. But I can’t talk. I try sometimes, but it doesn’t come out right. I can type a little, with help, and point to things on my communication board, but that doesn’t work for big things, and I think this is a big thing. I can say ‘I want an apple’ but I can’t say ‘why is the apple red?’
Jewelry and dresses are even harder to talk about because they aren’t on my board. I wish daddy would put them on my board. I tried telling him once, when we were typing, but I’m not a good speller, and he didn’t know what I was saying. Then I got upset and started biting myself. I do that sometimes when I’m really upset. I don’t like it because it makes daddy sad.
I bit my necklace last time, even though I didn’t want to. I didn’t want him to take it away, and I thought maybe it would make him less sad. I think it did, but I still don’t like biting it. It’s too special for that. So I’ll only do it sometimes, if I think he’s really sad. I like my necklace, but not as much as I like my daddy not being sad.
I touch my necklace, feeling for the bite mark. I’m very glad that I don’t feel it. It’s very pretty, purple, my favorite color, and I don’t want to ruin it.
I’m going to try very hard not to bite.
The bell rings, and I cover my ears. I don’t like loud noises. I used to scream every time the bell rang, but I don’t do that anymore. My teacher last year worked with me a lot so I can handle it a little better. I still don’t like it, but I don’t scream anymore.
My teacher takes my class outside so our parents can pick us up. I carry my backpack. It has Power Rangers on it. I like Power Rangers. But my backpack has the red ranger on it. My favorite is the pink ranger. I didn’t see any with pink on it, though, and red is close to pink. I did see a pink ranger shirt, and I pointed to it and flapped my hands and hoped daddy would get it for me. But he just said yes, power rangers, you like power rangers, huh? I like that daddy asks me questions, but I wish I could answer. Then I could tell him the pink ranger is my favorite, and can I please get the shirt? I love my dad but I wish he understood sometimes.
My daddy hugs me, nice and tight like I like it. I don’t like people that hug me just a little. I like them to really squeeze me. I pretty much only like hugs from my daddy because he knows how to do it right.
How was school? he asks me. I want to tell him about my teacher’s pretty necklace, so I point.
Did your teacher teach you a lot? he asks. He doesn’t understand.
Ryden is fiddling with his chewy making cooing sounds in the backseat. He likes the middle backseat. I half suspect it’s because that’s where his car seat always was. My ex scoffs at that notion, but even she can’t deny the possibility. He was there his first car ride, so he’ll still be there for his last.
His hands are on his chewy. He doesn’t use it for biting like I’d hoped, but he seems to enjoy it, and I bought it, so I might as well leave him be.
His teacher, Andrea, said he had a good day. He usually does. He’s quiet and complacent most times, which is lucky. Some kids with his level of autism run away, or throw tantrums. He has his moments, but his default is pretty content. I wonder if those other parents usually can figure out why, though. The kid runs away every time there’s a loud noise, or has a tantrum every time he wears this clothing. I can never figure out Ryden’s. Sometimes it’s just frustration at not being able to talk to me, I can see that, and I always wonder what he needs to say so desperately. But sometimes, I have no clue.
Sometimes I wonder if he’d be better off with my ex. Maybe mother’s intuition would kick in if they were together more. But I doubt it. She didn’t handle his diagnosis well. He stays with her a few weeks a year, and she’s always ready for him to leave. I don’t blame her, it’s challenging, but he’s my kid. I can’t imagine being away from him for as long as she is.
“I guess it’s fathers and sons,” I’d mentioned once to him when I was feeling particularly vicious. I don’t know how much he understands, and it’s clear he still loves his mother, so I try not to speak ill of her, just in case. This time was an exception. “Us boys are alike, she can’t understand, I guess.” He’d gotten upset at that. Not a full tantrum, but he’d put his hands over his ears and moaned in that way that says he’s very unhappy. I assumed he didn’t like what I’d said about her, or maybe the implication that she didn’t like him. Maybe that’s too advanced for him, but I don’t know. I don’t know.
Anyway, I’d changed my tune, rushed to assure him that she loved him, and she couldn’t wait to see him again when she was less busy--it would never be, she worked so much, the stereotypical career person. It hadn’t helped. I’d started singing one of his favorite songs, and he’d quieted for a bit, that intense quiet that says he’s trying to be good, but any wrong move will shatter that, and after several rounds, he was smiling again.
We get home right on time. Ryden bounces in his seat, knowing what’s coming next. I help him unbuckle and he jumps out of the car and runs to the door, waiting for me to grab his backpack and come unlock it. “You forgot something,” I say, lifting his backpack. He ignores me, staring at the door in anticipation. I unlock it, and he goes right to the TV to watch his superhero show. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day, too. Lots of kids his age like superheros. He looks so normal.
I shake my head in amusement as I settle at the kitchen table of our apartment to start my work from home tasks. Taking care of a high needs kid by yourself doesn’t allow for much of a career. I had to quit my law work and settle for a part-time gig in another law office--more receptionist than any kind of law--and I do some other odd jobs from home so I can keep an eye on Ryden. It’s enough to make ends meet, though not much more. My ex’s child support goes right to his therapies.
When I open my computer and it makes it’s humming turning-on sound, Ryden glances at me from the corner of his eye. He enjoys learning to type, with a lot of help, and he has his own computer we use for that, at his speech lessons at school and at home. It’s not enough temptation to pull him from his show, but it would be enough to distract him. But he recognizes my work laptop, not his, and so he immediately returns his attention to his show. The pink ranger is on the TV, and he smiles and coos contently. I joke sometimes that she’s his girlfriend, as he likes seeing her on the screen.
His soft sounds are a soothing background noise as I work. It’s predictable, I can almost follow the episode by the sounds he makes--this sound means the pink ranger is doing something, this sound means the monster is attacking. He likes predictability, so I wonder if he likes his own sounds.
When the show is over, I turn the TV off. He’ll keep watching, even once the show is over, if I don’t, for hours. At first I thought he didn’t know how to work the remote, but he clearly can, since he can turn it on. I think he just gets a little stuck. He does that sometimes, and TV has a special power to that with even the most typical of us.
“Want to work on your typing?” He doesn’t have any real homework, being in second grade and in his special needs classroom for most of the day, but we both like the practice on his best form of communication.
He flaps his hand excitedly and runs to the cupboard where I keep his laptop. I keep it on a higher shelf. It’s an internal war I have regularly--I want him to be able to get to it so he can talk on his own, just like I can just open my mouth and start talking. But he’s broken them before, banging on keys or hitting it in frustration, once throwing it when he was in his tantrum. It’s too valuable, monetarily and sentimentally, to risk. His outbursts aren’t as often as some, but often enough that I can’t dismiss them.
He sits at the computer, rocking slightly while it turns on. His is newer than mine--I figure since this is his way of interacting, and it’s important, he should have something high quality--so it doesn’t take long.
I sit behind him, placing my hand on his elbow loosely. I was skeptical of facilitated communication at first, myself. I still am. But it gets him talking. He’s slowly moving to doing it on his own. We don’t have to do hand over hand anymore, and once in awhile, in a burst of frustration or inspiration, he’ll manage a few letters on his own. It will take us several minutes to figure out what he was trying to say, and sometimes I wonder if the whole problem with typing is just self-consciousness over spelling, so we work on that regularly, too, though it’s challenging because he still can’t read much. But I have hopes that someday he’ll be able to type on his own, and then he can tell us whether we’re all idiots or not. I’ll leave it to him to make the final decision. Until then, if nothing else, he likes doing it. If all it is is fun for him, that’s still just fine with me.
“How was school?” I ask, the usual starting question. I think it helps to have the same question to open every time. It makes it familiar, which is comforting and relaxing to him, which makes it easier for him to respond.
His fingers hover before typing an O then a K.
“It was okay? That’s nice.” He smiles and flaps the hand I’m not holding, excited to be heard. “Anything special happen?”
He pauses, thinking. He slowly types out t-e-e, then frowns, making a hum of discontent.
“Teacher,” I say. He gets stuck on that sometimes, even though he’s spelled it often. The double consonants trip him up, like he doesn’t understand why, if every letter has a sound, why does this sound require two letters? Working with him, you realize how complicated language, and everything, is. “Chuh. C-H, remember?” I don’t correct the mispelling. We’ll focus on that once we get him talking enough to be understandable in the first place. Right now, we just want him typing.
He types the rest of the word carefully, determined to get it right this time. N-E-K-L-I-S.
“Your teacher let you hold her necklace? I know you like doing that. Is it because it’s sparkly?” He doesn’t seem to have a special attraction to sparkly things, some, but not all, not enough to make the generalization, but that’s the only thing we can figure out for his fascination with her jewelry.
He hums and tilts his head back and forth, frowning slightly, like it’s not quite yes but not quite no. I give him a moment, then move on. “Anything hard happen?”
S-- He hesitates and makes a small shriek of frustration, not enough to worry, but enough to make himself known. T-I-P-E-N-G, he tries, a phonetic spelling of ‘typing’. That’s not usually on his list of things that are hard, though. S--
I think a moment myself, then figure it out. “Spelling? Yes, that is hard. I was never a good speller myself.” That calms him a little. His mother has commented on how much he seems to want to be like me, which was probably the nicest thing she ever said to me in our time together. “Were you able to figure it out?”
He shakes his head. He’s usually pretty good with shaking and nodding, though sometimes it takes a couple prompts.
“Oh, bummer. Is it in your backpack?”
“Okay, we’ll look at it when we’re done typing. Do you want to say anything else?”
There’s a lot I want to say. I want to say I want more necklaces like my teacher’s. I want to say that my stomach hurts and my head is confused when my teacher says ‘girls and boys’. I want to say that I really like my red ranger backpack, but I’d really, really like a pink ranger one, if you can find it.
I’m trying to figure out how to say it all, and I must take too long, because my dad starts to pull away. I shout--no words, just a noise, but my dad is good at knowing my noises. It’s like our own language, though it’s not as good as actually talking.
He stops. “Sorry.” I like that he says it like he means it. My teacher last year would say it with a bite to his voice that I didn’t like. “Did you want to say something else?” he asks again.
L-O-T, I type, the closest I can come.
“It’s frustrating, wanting to say so much, but not being able to,” my dad says. “You’ll learn. You couldn’t type this much last year, remember? And now we’re having a whole conversation. You’ll figure it out. You’re smart.”