A Miracle To Believe In

Chapter 24

Francisca flipped the pages in the magazine for Robertito, who consumed the splashes of colors, shapes and forms with eager eyes. Spontaneously, he pointed to a car and identified it verbally, then he stared at a smiling face and said the word "happy." Both Suzi and I joined Francisca in cheering him as we sat together in the waiting room outside of Carl Yorke's offices. Almost four months had elapsed since the last developmental work-up.

The door to the other office finally opened. Dr. Yorke, sporting a reserved grin, motioned to us. Suzi, who would again act as translator, invited Robertito to follow her into the other room. He trailed after her without hesitation. The doctor asked me to join them so he could review with us certain questions and the battery of tests he planned to-administer.

In spite of Robertito's intimacy with both Suzi and me, he approached the psychologist first. Carl, noting our little friend's initiative, tapped his own legs in an affectionate gesture. To his surprise and ours, Robertito jumped into his lap. "Hola!, Robertito," Yorke blurted.

"Hola!," the child replied. "Yo quiero agua."

"Water?" Carl asked, glancing at us for verification.

"Si, si," Suzi nodded. "Mas tarde, Robertito."

"You people are unbelievable. You mean this boy is not only saying words, but he talks in sentences?"

"Not big ones," I assured him.

Carl smiled. "How do you do it? It's been less than four months. Last time I saw him he could only say the first syllable of a few words." He looked back at the child and smiled.

Robertito took his hand and stared into the man's eyes. "Cafe ojos," he said, identifying Carl's brown eyes.

"Fantastic," the psychologist said boisterously, registering his own delight as well as responding to his own natural impulse to congratulate the boy. He still found himself amazingly attracted to Robertito. Yorke shook his head, peered at Suzi and me, then pointed skyward. "I'm telling you, they already have your places reserved up there."

After the completed examination and a short conference with us, Carl stood at his door and watched Francisca help her son put his coat on.

"Mrs. Soto's a very lucky lady," he said.

"Lucky?" I questioned. "She helped make this happen ... every step of the way."

"We make our own luck," Suzi offered.

The psychologist grinned his affirmation. His attention focused back on Robertito. "I've never seen it before," he said. "Really, folks, if this little boy never learns one more thing, what you've done here is still a miracle."

Francisca sat beside her son in the back seat of the car. Suzi leaned over the front seat and played with Robertito. I rattled off all the quick statistics the psychologist had accumulated during the testing. Her son's I.Q., a factor which supposedly remains fairly constant throughout a person's life, had jumped dramatically again ... from 14 to 30 and, now, to over 45. His total language capability, initially on a one- to two-month level, had soared. His expressive vocabulary had reached a three-year-old level and his ability to understand approached a four-year level. Even Carl, in relating the figures before submitting the written report, found the comparisons startling.

As I completed my enthusiastic monologue, I noticed Francisca's rather sedate expression. "Hey, aren't you excited? Listen to the man's findings."

"The doctor's report is not important," she said with unusual calm. "I used to think it meant everything, but not now. I know my son better than anyone. I can see he has changed. I can see how much he has learned. That's what is important.

Suzi and I glanced fleetingly at each other. In that instant as she spoke, in that recognition of what she knew, she had affirmed her own power and her own authority. Although she valued the caring and expertise of Dr. Yorke, she realized that she could correctly assess and understand her own child's ability and situation. She knew the test scores and data gave us an additional way to plot growth, but her excitement and appreciation would no longer be tied to figures or intelligence quotients. Francisca prized, unconditionally, the flesh-and-blood child next to her. I wanted to stop the car, leap over the seat and hug her. I considered shouting as a lesser celebration, but the peacefulness in her face aborted my impulse.

"You are a very special lady, Senora Soto," I said.

Francisca smiled self-consciously. She did not feel special or even different. But then, as she turned to her son, she sensed a new kind of strength, one more secure, more reliable, begin to blossom within her.

*****

Yorke's report confirmed the various areas and stages of Robertito's recent development.

"This boy had been worked with continuously by Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman and their staff since he was last seen about four months ago. He can now say about fifty words in Spanish, can say short sentences, has improved his weight-lifting ability, recalls names of people and says them and apparently he's more socially competent, more socially assertive and more affectionate.

"Robertito was tested while Mr. Kaufman's wife, Suzi, was in the room. Mrs. Kaufman constantly spoke to the boy in Spanish after receiving instructions from the psychologist.

She would very frequently hug and kiss the boy if he did things correctly. She encouraged him constantly without giving him answers or leading him. The psychologist is somewhat knowledgeable of Spanish and could readily understand the direction she was giving to him and would stop her if, in any way, she was directing the boy or inadvertently leading him to answer.

"Robertito's behavior during testing can be characterized as much better than it has ever been before. He was more cooperative, he followed instructions better and his attention span had improved. He expressed his ideas more clearly. Most impressive was the fact that he no longer flapped his arms; he no longer ran around the room; he came over to the psychologist and talked to the psychologist. He did not stand on the desk as he had done during the first examination and his ability to focus attention on the tasks at hand was infinitely better than when he had been tested on previous occasions.

"From a social point of view, it was noted that the boy now focuses in, his behavior is more appropriate, he looks at people, talks to them, touches them and listens. He does not withdraw and seems much less restless. He certainly is less autistic than he had been. Occasionally, he will flap his arm around but at no time did he withdraw or spin around or do something that was totally inappropriate; i.e., like standing on a desk. The boy appears more confident of himself, is certainly much more conforming and he relates better. He shows his intelligence more now because he is more interested in the environment. His frustration tolerance has improved and he now attacks tasks more efficiently in a less disorderly way than he had previously.

"In terms of gross motor coordination, it was noted that now the boy can catch a ball, whereas he was unable to do this before. In terms of fine motor coordination, he is now able to copy a circle, imitate a bridge using blocks and hold a pencil more adequately. He can now get a drink by himself, dry himself and he tends to avoid simple hazards. He is now going to the toilet by himself, but is unable to wipe himself.

"It was noted that he now talks in very short phrases of two and three words. He could do such things as tell you his full name, repeat three digits, name colors, respond to simple commands and recognize common objects. It was noted that Robertito is now able to understand prepositions, he can name body parts, he can sing rhymes and songs and is beginning to act more verbally appropriate.

"There has been an infinite improvement in the boy's overall behavior in all areas since he was last seen.

"When Robertito was first seen, seven months ago, he showed symptoms that were rather classical of an autistic child. At that time, during the initial testing, he spent most of his time running around the room, he tore papers, he never said any words, he showed inappropriate behavior and would run around in circles. At that time, he made only random sounds, never looked at the psychologist, would show inappropriate motor behavior such as jumping up and down or running without provocation or would merely spin around. At that time, he did not listen to requests and did not respond to either auditory or visual stimuli. At that time, he did not relate, did not say any recognizable words, look at or listen to people. At that time, he was occupied with objects, was restless and never uttered an understandable word. When first seen, his receptive and expressive language was on about a 1 or 2 month level and his I.Q., at that time, was on about a 7 month level despite his chronological age of over five-and-a-half. He did not show any indications of being able to do anything of a fine or gross motor nature and was socially inept.

"Now, he was able to understand words on a four-year-old level and his expressive vocabulary was on a three-year-old level. His I.Q. had increased from under 14 to over 45. The boy's progress has been remarkable in all areas."

*****

I couldn't help but think about all the hospitals, clinics and physicians that had dismissed this special little boy as hopeless. They assured the Sotos he would not be able to think and talk, that even their "clinical" evidence supported the conclusion that he would live out his life in little more than a vegetative state. When I tried to conjure up the image of that ghost town in the left frontal lobes of his brain, I imagined only activity and sparks of energy. My thoughts drifted to Roby and Francisca. I wondered who, indeed, had learned more ... they or their son?

Several days later, the bearded Paul Goodman arrived to do his follow-up psychiatric evaluation. When I offered him herbal tea, he answered affirmatively this time. Francisca, who had become openly skeptical of all tests and evaluations, greeted the psychiatrist enthusiastically. Despite her point of view, she felt indebted to this man. He had offered his time graciously, a fact among many which had helped change her perspective about people since her arrival in New York.

While I waited in the living room of the Soto house, I remained acutely sensitive that today had been the downside swing of the seesaw. Sometimes, the intense energy required by this little boy in order to learn sapped all his reserves. He had to rest, to pause, to regenerate. Robertito balanced himself between our world and his, not as a statement about us, but, perhaps, as a way to ensure his own survival. Every new word, new concept and new activity required more than his utmost attention; he had to push himself to the limits, pulling his cargo along rusty tracks. Yet, despite the inconsistencies and the back-and-forth wavering, the curve of learning still soared upward. We had hooked him with our joy, enthusiasm and love, but I wondered, even now, whether he had found his own compelling reasons to be with us.

After the examination. Dr. Goodman lingered on the staircase.

"So?" I asked.

"Sometimes, he holds onto the autism," Goodman observed.

"We always allow him that," I answered.

"I know you do. And obviously, there's something to it. When I first heard him talk, I couldn't believe my ears. How? In such a short period of time, or in any period of time, how'd you do it?"

"We didn't do it," I assured him. "Robertito did it for himself."

Paul nodded his head and smiled as he began to descend the stairs.

"Robertito has now been worked with on an intensive daily basis for seven months," Dr. Goodman summarized in his report. "He spends virtually all of his waking hours involved in his treatment program. He has continued to make dramatic progress, although presently his behavior is characterized by frequent shifts in levels of functioning. For example, he has periods of seemingly 'almost normal' periods followed by regression to his old state of being very unrelated.

"Toilet training has progressed to a point where Robertito is almost totally bowel trained. He is mostly trained for the bladder during the day, but still wears diapers at night.

"At the onset of the program, it was discovered that Robertito had diminished touch and pain sensation on the right side of his body, especially his right hand. Also at that time, he was unable to support the weight of his body with his hands. Exercises were then developed to strengthen these weaknesses. Robertito is now able to support is weight with his hands and can be lifted up and down while holding onto a bar.

"Language ability has been steadily increasing. In comparison to the total lack of language and pre-linguistic ability at the onset of the program seven months ago and the approximately ten word monosyllabic vocabulary noted four months ago, Robertito's spontaneous vocabulary now is at least fifty words. He is able to form a sentence when he wants something. He is now learning concepts such as 'same-different,' 'up-down,' and other pairs of opposites. He knew the sounds animals make. He sings songs. He is learning to distinguish geometric shapes. He mumbles words to himself even when not being directly stimulated.

"In comparison to the totally unrelated, self-absorbed and self-stimulating activities when seen initially, Robertito's relatedness to other people has not only developed, but continues to expand. He pays more attention to what other people are doing in the room even when they are not trying to involve him. He will approach people spontaneously to join in what they are doing. Robertito will hug and show affection spontaneously.

"Compared to the baseline observation seven months ago, Robertito is now quite a different child. He has lost none of the gains noted at four months into the program and has made substantial progress since then. At present, there is a greater unevenness to his functioning, he can change abruptly from a state of attentive learning to one of autistic withdrawal. When he is paying attention and involved with the therapist, he gives the impression of a neurologically-impaired child who must make a great effort to receive and decode what is being presented to him and then to organize and produce the correct response. Robertito must experience a great deal of fatigue, which I think is one of the reasons for the greater degree of restlessness and more frequent periods of withdrawal. It is tempting also to compare this to the irritability and mildly-regressive behaviors often seen in normal six-year-old boys.

"In contrast to the initial examination, when he did not talk, and to four months ago, by which time he had developed the ability to say the first syllable of approximately eight words, he now demonstrates the ability to communicate and verbalize his wants and interest by spontaneously saying complete words - and, in some instances, short sentences. As a rough approximation, his abilities range to a thirty-six-month level. This is quite a significant and impressive movement from when first observed, just seven months ago, when his general behavior had not developed beyond the first few months of life."

In effect, both the psychological-developmental and psychiatric examinations recorded a developmental surge of three-to-four years in a seven-month time period.

*****

"Why are the walls painted green?" Carol mumbled to herself as she waited in the reception area of the school. They must reserve all the green paint for hospitals, schools and institutions. She wiggled her foot as she itemized the varied achievements with Robertito during the morning session. His ability to cut with the scissors had shown a dramatic improvement. They had played memory games together. Each time she rattled off three or four objects or unrelated words, he would repeat them easily. Once, he actually managed to remember five words in a row. Carol felt a certain pride in having introduced the concept of first, middle and last. In only two days, her young student had mastered the notion with about 80 per cent accuracy. Robertito also demonstrated his ability to count up to twenty. In the month since the tests, he had already outstripped the new base lines.

A man in his early forties, impeccably dressed in a tan suit, appeared at the door and beckoned to her. Mr. Sharp had been assigned by the director to give Carol a brief orientation before introducing her to the other teachers and their program. As part of a seminar course and her student teaching responsibilities, she had to observe and research various special education programs. This particular facility had been noted for its work with all kinds of handicapped and developmentally disabled children, having a section specializing in autistic and autistic-like youngsters. Mr. Sharp queried her about her own experiences. When she talked about our program with Robertito and the previous one with Raun, the man smiled indulgently. He assured her that any child worked twelve hours a day-would improve. Carol tried to explain to him about the summer, how they all had worked those same long hours with, unfortunately, unproductive and, potentially, disastrous results. She tried to talk about attitude, but Mr. Sharp discontinued the conversation politely. He directed her down a long corridor and into a huge classroom in which she met three teachers.

Carol spent the remainder of the day observing and, at times, trying to participate. Six teachers worked with a population of thirty-five autistic children, ranging from nine years to fifteen years old. Most of the students had a glazed, drugged appearance, although one of the teachers insisted that despite the fact that some of the children had been placed on medication by their private physicians, the school neither prescribed nor administered any drugs.

"Come with me," Mrs. Doren said, guiding Carol into a second classroom, smaller than the first. The woman smiled. "We call this the wing-ding ward."

A group of students stood in a long line. Some rocked in place, others stared at their hands or the floor, still others made distinctively peculiar gestures, often repetitive in their occurrence. The first child in line, a little boy, walked toward the far wall holding a green hanger out in front of him.

"Jimmy, do we have to do this a thousand times until you'll finally understand? Not against the wall. The hanger goes in the box. In the box! Do you understand?" The teacher, obviously exasperated, crossed his arms in front of his chest. He squinted his disapproval.

The little boy turned to him nervously and grinned in confusion. His feet appeared cemented to the floor.

"We don't have all day," the man barked. "Jimmy, put the damn hanger in the box."

A young woman, perhaps only a few years older than Carol, paraded into the center of the room and knelt in front of the child. "Either you do it on your own steam or I'm going to have to bring you there." Jimmy began to rub his hands and hum. "Okay ... have it your way," She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the wall. At first he resisted, but then he stopped his ten-second tug-of-war. When he arrived at the carton, he dropped the hanger into it.

"Now you can wait at the wall." The boy did not move. The young teacher sighed noisily, took the child's arm and pulled him to the side of the room.

"Next," the man chimed like a drill sergeant. Mrs. Doren excused herself in order to deliver another green plastic hanger to the next child in line. "Okay, Sharon, in the box it goes." She inched toward the carton as if approaching a bomb. Finally, about four feet from it, Sharon tossed the hanger without looking and ran to the wall. It missed its mark. A fourth teacher, who, had been sitting at the desk, rose to her feet and promenaded into the center of the room. She flipped the hanger expertly into the box.

Carol couldn't close her mouth, nor could she neutralize the acid taste burning in her throat. The class taskmaster joined her. "My name's Foley, Jack Foley." He eyed her parentally. "Listen, you get used to it. Have you ever seen autistic children before?"

"I work with one," she whispered.

"Ah, then you know,' the teacher grinned. "It's sad, but this is a wasteland. You need a firm hand to keep them in line."

She tried to ignore his comment. For a moment, she couldn't believe her own thoughts ... she actually considered physically attacking the man. "Why the hangers in the box? What do you hope to teach them?"

"Nothing," he replied casually. "We've long since given up trying to teach them. The goal, young lady, is to keep them busy." He strutted back into the arena, belching out his orders to the inattentive youngsters.

Carol peered at a little boy with sandy brown hair and piercing dark eyes. That could be Raun. She watched another youngster, a beautiful, slightly pudgy child with jet black hair. That could be Robertito. And what about the blond-haired girl with bangs? And the handsome black child twirling his hands gracefully in front of the windows?

She felt lighthearted. For a second, Carol thought she might lose her balance. She refused to recognize these sensations as signs of an oncoming seizure. Almost three whole months had passed since her last one; an amazing record, especially since she had not taken any medication in that time period. They're doing the best they can, she thought to herself. They are! Based on what they know and believe. Stay with it, she counseled herself. Stop judging them ... just be here now. The anger dissipated as she refocused on the activity in the room.

Mrs. Doren returned to her side. "There's so much you can do," Carol offered.

The older woman nodded. "That's what I said when I graduated school. But you get used to it. There's really nothing much you can do. Trying to teach these kids is like banging your head against the wall."

"But why do you believe that?" Carol protested. "Have you ever taken one, just one, and tried?"

The woman gaped at her. "What's this ... an inquisition? Listen, Carol, you're our guest. If you want to start a crusade, you've got the wrong place."

Carol followed the teachers and the class into the cafeteria. Most of the children seated themselves at four tables, but some were pulled, pushed and, literally, shoved down onto the benches.

One little boy sat on the floor by the side wall and twirled a piece of paper. Relieved to be able to concentrate her attention, Carol slipped between the rows of benches and chairs, pulled a soiled napkin from the garbage pail and sat beside the child. She ripped her paper to duplicate his and imitated his motion. Within seconds, the boy stopped and looked at her. A tiny smile wrinkled his face as he now continued his "ism." Carol followed him, finally feeling connected. "Wow," she said, "you sure are good at it." She touched the little boy's leg with her hand. He stared at her fingers as he twirled the paper.

"Bobby," Jack Foley shouted, "what the hell do you think you're doing?" He directed his question to Carol as much as to the boy. The man slapped Bobby's hand down, then pulled him to his feet. "Let's go. I'm putting you at table four today." As they walked away, the child turned back to steal a glance at Carol. She ground her teeth. Her body felt stiff and brittle.

Later, as she sat at a table, trying to engage some of the children, a boy knocked over a container of milk by accident. The avalanche of white liquid hitting the floor attracted everyone's attention. In a fury, a teacher Carol had not seen before, approached the table. She pulled the child out of his chair. The boy went limp and slid to the floor. Frightened, he tried to curl himself into a ball. The teacher grabbed him by the hair and jerked him off the floor, then forced him to sit in a comer of the cafeteria.

"That kid's always doing things like that," one teacher muttered.

"You can't leave them alone for a minute or all you'll have left is a zoo," another added.

Carol forced herself to approach the other teachers. "Have you ever thought of going with these children, doing what they do, instead of stopping them?"

"Ah ha!" the younger teacher remarked. "I see you've been doing your reading. I've heard about a book, about some family who did that with their own son. If you believe it, then you probably also believe in Santa Claus."

"Have you ever read it?" Carol asked.

"I don't have to," she answered, then turned away.

As she walked through the lunchroom, Carol tried to remember each child's face. She didn't know why it mattered, but it did. Each face was a life ... a Raun, a Robertito, maybe even a Francisca, a Roby, a Jeannie, maybe even herself. She knew that what she did with Robertito had been right. Carol also knew that what she had done with herself had also been right. At the door, she paused. She turned and saw a room full of anger, fear and unhappiness. She wanted to do so much, but felt so helpless. And then she remembered a saying she had read on a poster. "If you save one person, one child, it is as if you have saved the whole world."

Carol ran down the empty corridor. She did not go home that night, but returned to the Soto house ... to Robertito.

Chapter 25