The snow had been falling since
late morning. By dusk, the white powder blanketed
the trees, the grass and the pavement. The rush of
rubber wheels against macadam was muted. While people
huddled in the warmth of their homes, I leaned against
the Jeep, lingering in the special silence created
by a snowfall. A group of geese, flying in a "V"
formation, began their untimely trek south. The months
had passed like momentary daydreams. I gathered a
bundle of new toys in my arms for my second son. I
had come to know Robertito with the same intimacy
I knew my own children; perhaps, even more so, since
I continually catalogued his every move, his every
glance, his every smile. And yet, some inner essence
remained illusive. Not I, nor Francisca, nor any of
us could ever know the internal universe he visited
from time to time. But what he did share with us,
the calm, the softness, the lucidity of a developing
mind devoid of fear, bonded us together.
After I climbed the steps onto the
porch of the Soto house, I stacked the boxes beside
the front door and searched for my key. A taxi cab
pulled into the driveway behind the Jeep. The glazed
windows and approaching darkness hid the occupants
from my view. Had Jeannie's car broken down again?
Had Chella returned from an afternoon excursion? A
man, in a long dark coat, exited the back door. He
paid the driver, who pulled a suitcase from the trunk,
and turned toward the house. Our eyes met at the same
moment, bridging a gap that spanned five months. Roby
Soto stood there, a sad-happy smile on his face. He
kept nodding at me, at the house, at the snow. For
a moment, the twenty feet between us did not exist.
He looked beautiful ... my friend, the father of my
second son. I stepped off the porch and embraced him.
We hugged each other like overgrown bears, patting
backs and lifting each other off the ground . And
then in a gesture I usually reserve for my father,
I kissed him on both cheeks. When we separated, we
grinned at each other through wet eyes.
Chella saw him come through the door
first. She whizzed across the living room and jumped
into his arms. Carol embraced him, then began to cry.
Jeannie, whose car had, indeed, not started today,
watched from a distance. When I introduce them, Roby
"Thank you for helping my son,"
he said to her, then he turned to me. He tried to
say something, to squeeze the words from his throat,
but he couldn't. He turned away and held his hands
over his eyes. I put my arm around him. We all stood,
together, in that room, touching each other through
His expected arrival had been four
days off, but his passion to return drove him to the
airport earlier. Carol and Jeannie pointed upstairs
simultaneously. Roby nodded again. As he reached the
second floor landing, he paused, fortifying himself.
The door to the bathroom opened. Francisca, kneeling
on the floor, had just completed helping Robertito
buckle his pants. When the little boy spotted Roby
in the hallway, he cocked his head and peered at the
man curiously. Then his eyes glistened. He pulled
away from his mother, ran down the hall and jumped
into his father's arms. "Papa, Papa," he
said. Francisca screamed, then put the brakes on her
emotions. She didn't want to interrupt this moment
between Roby and his son. As he stroked his little
boy, holding back the flood of tears, this soft and
gentle man stared at his wife kneeling on the bathroom
floor. He kissed her with his eyes.
As I might have anticipated, Roby
insisted on taking the very next session with his
son. Suzi joined me at the side of the room. Though
I wanted to record Robertito's initial responses to
his father, I knew, like Suzi, I was there for another
reason. This little boy had already defied his past.
Today, he demolished old horizons by recognizing his
father after five months, by running to him and displaying,
in a very ordinary way, the natural warmth and affection
of a child. Suzi and I were not only there as therapists,
therapists and family members, we were there for the
joy in Roby's eyes, in Francisca's expression, in
Robertito's quizzical smile.
Robertito kept jumping on his father.
They wrestled together on the floor, laughing and
giggling. Roby tickled his son's feet and thighs.
"I want the ball," Robertito
said in Spanish, pointing to the basketball net on
the wall. He had remembered their favorite game together,
one which Roby taught to him, a discipline which had
required weeks of practice and concentration.
Roby gaped at his son, then looked
at us and his wife, who sat beside the wall on the
other side of the room. "Si, Si," she whispered
enthusiastically. Indeed, he had remembered! As Roby
reached for the ball, he had difficulty absorbing
what he heard. When he left, his son could say only
single words, often poorly pronounced. Now, he not
only knew what he wanted, thought about it in his
mind, but could express that desire in a sentence.
A sentence! How could he be so fortunate, he thought,
to have such an amazing son? The fact that Robertito
had now passed his seventh birthday was of little
consequence to his father. The fact that Robertito
could look at him and say anything was the gift.
He threw the ball to the little player,
who caught it expertly. When Francisca clapped, he
threw it to her. She, in turn, threw it to Suzi. Not
once did Robertito lose track of the ball. After Suzi
dumped it into my lap, I threw it back to him. Robertito
ran toward the basket, stopped at a distance of five
feet from it and then, in a calculated, one-handed
throw, he tossed the ball through the loop. The cheering
and applause stimulated Robertito to grab the ball
again and sink yet another basket.
Unable to contain herself any longer,
Francisca crawled into the center of the room. Her
eyes bulged as she nodded at Roby, then turned to
"Robertito, mira," she
said, pointing at his father. "What is Papa?
What kind of person?" she asked, enunciating
each word clearly in her native tongue.
He stared at his father without answering.
"Wait," Francisca shouted,
holding her hand in the air for everyone's benefit.
Thirty thoughts bombarded her. She pointed at me and
asked the same question. "What is Bears?"
"Bears is a man," he answered
without hesitation, having composed a perfect sentence
Roby gasped, dumbfounded by the sophistication
of Robertito's awareness. Francisca screeched like
a little girl as she watched her husband. She shifted
her focus again and pointed at Suzi. "What is
Suzi? What kind of person?"
Robertito touched his mother's sleeve,
glanced at his father, then said: "Sushi is a
woman." Everyone celebrated his response, especially
Suzi, who had refused adamantly to correct his pronunciation
of her name.
"And Mama? What is Mama?"
"A woman," he answered.
She now directed her son's attention
back to his father. "What is Papa? What kind
of person is your papa?"
The child stared at his father. His
forehead furrowed and his eyes danced in their sockets,
external hints of his thought process. "Papa...
Papa is a man."
Roby grabbed his son and threw him
in the air. He twirled him around until they were
both dizzy, then he collapsed on the floor breathless.
"There's so much to show you,"
Francisca bellowed, "so much." She sat beside
her son and husband on the floor. Roby rubbed his
wife's back as she directed herself toward Robertito.
For the first time in five long months, he felt complete.
"What is this?" Francisca
asked, accenting each syllable of every Spanish word
she spoke, while pulling on Roby's pants.
Her son watched her hand touch the
material, then answered. "It is pants."
Francisca looked again to her husband for his response.
His amazement glittered in his eyes.
She put her hand up in the air and
spread her fingers. "Now, Robertito, think carefully.
How many fingers do I have?"
When he put his index finger up to
count, she withdrew her hand. "Without counting
my fingers ... how many do I have?"
He stared at her hand for several
seconds. "Cinco," he replied. For the next
two minutes following his response, Robertito flapped
his hands. His parents imitated him. Not once did
the child lose eye contact with their faces or limbs.
They became a trio of dancers and mimes sharing their
expression through movement.
As the session continued, we noted
a slight increase in "isms." Robertito had
been engaged for twelve hours already and, perhaps
that, in addition to his father's arrival, had drained
him. Yet, despite any fatigue, he remained lively
and attentive. For Roby Soto, this was not the same
child he had left. The depth of Robertito's contact
had intensified. His verbal ability had blossomed
into completed thoughts and sentences. He demonstrated
a capacity to think beyond anything he had ever dreamed
possible for his son. Even the boy's general demeanor
reflected his burgeoning maturity. For the first six
years of life, Robertito's face never reflected expressions
beyond the primitive ones usually displayed by infants.
Now, the energy of his developing intelligence creased
it with distinctive character. In effect, his face
had come to life.
During the next hour, Roby played
a whole series of games with his son based on those
either Suzi, Francisca or I demonstrated. The man
sat there, awed, as he helped his child do three puzzles
simultaneously, identify a whole series of diverse
items, build small bridges and answer a battery of
rather sophisticated questions. He laughed each time
Robertito pulled a toy from the shelf and initiated
Although Roby knew he could not stay
more than one month, he wanted to be reintegrated
into the program immediately.
"And my sessions, Bears. Will
we have them too?" he asked as we gathered in
the living room that evening.
"You will have it all, my friend,"
He bowed his head slightly and put
out his hand to us. When Roby lifted his head and
turned his blood-shot eyes toward us, he moved his
lips without uttering a sound. Francisca nestled close
to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "You
have given us our son," he said.
"Not us alone," Suzi countered,
grabbing my hand. "We've all done that together."
Roby looked at his wife. "In
six days, Mommy, it will be Christmas. Always, I have
said, since Robertito couldn't appreciate it, we would
not celebrate a Christmas. I think, now, it's time."
Six days later, Francisca, Roby,
Robertito, Suzi, Bryn, Thea, Raun, Carol, Jeannie,
Chella, Laura and I gathered together around a very
large, very well-decorated tree. Carol, with the help
of some friends, had gone to the mountains and cut
the tree down herself. Bryn, Thea, and Raun made decorations
for it as did Robertito, who used his scissors and
thick crayons. With Francisca's and Suzi's guidance,
he made circles, lines and crosses all over the paper
That evening, during dinner, Bryn,
who had recently joined the program as a full teacher,
tapped her glass with a fork theatrically. "Listen,
listen, everyone," she shouted. "Robertito
is going to sing for you ... in English." Everyone
cheered. Under Bryn's guidance, he stood at the front
of the table. He watched her hand, which she raised
like a conductor.
"I wait by the window,"
he sang, "with my only dream." He stopped,
looking at Bryn, who had memorized the "Son-Rise"
television special theme song and, in turn, taught
it to our special friend. Tears came to her eyes as
she looked at her little student proudly and remembered
the time she had once worked with her own brother.
Bryn moved her arms again, signaling him to continue.
"And long for the day there will be," Robertito
intoned, "the sound of your laughter, the gift
of your touch, oh I love you so much ... is there
room in your world for me?"
The time with Roby and his son passed.
In his subsequent absence. Bryn, now thirteen, assumed
an even greater role working with Tito three days
a week. Like Lisa, her smaller size accentuated the
childlike energy she share with her young friend.
When Raun realized that his sister also had separate
Option sessions on the hill as part of the program,
he demanded equal treatment. Doing dialogue sessions
with them reminded me of the sessions Suzi and I had
with Bryn and Thea when they worked with Raun. The
evolution astounded me. Raun himself had now become
Chella, whose support of Francisca
and work with Robertito enriched our extended family,
left several months later, confident and hopeful of
her ability to help her sister and others. The reappearance
of Patti in New York, after her abrupt exit almost
a year before, caused a celebration. Her exuberance
and love injected the program with new sparks. Concurrent
with her arrival, we began to train Ginny Lea, who,
initially, had been Thea's flute teacher. She was
not a stranger to different people and different children.
Her own brother had become a paraplegic as the result
of an accident as a teenager. As he had turned his
energy toward helping others, she, too, wanted to
find a way to share and participate. Music became
her metaphor. In the context of the program, Ginny
infused the sessions with waves of rhythms and melodies.
She taught Robertito many chants and songs. To everyone's
amazement, she showed Robertito how to play the xylophone
with startling expertise. In his first tiny recital,
which she engineered, he played "Mary Had a Little
Lamb" expertly on the instrument.
Our group underwent continual changes,
yet we were tied together, not only by a very special
child, but by an attitude and approach to living that
we had come to share. Lisa visited on her vacations
from school. Laura came often to express her affection.
And Robertito kept us alert with his ability to grasp
new things. Sometimes, when we became beguiled by
his development and skill, I had to reaffirm that
all his accomplishments were secondary to his general
contact. Inconsistencies remained. I reminded myself
that we had only worked with him for fifteen months
since his return to New York. Suzi and I, with another
extended family, had worked with Raun for over three
years. Our son was then one and a half. Robertito
was now past his seventh birthday. We couldn't measure
the time ... we had only to value the moment.
When spring arrived, we used the
park and other outdoor facilities more often, although
most of our teaching took place in the yellow room.
I continued the weekly sessions and feedback conferences.
Suzi, in addition to observing, maintained her role,
innovating new steps through experiments in her own
sessions with Robertito. But both of us began to recede
in terms of directing the program. Francisca assumed
more responsibility over the Wednesday night meets.
She highlighted areas of concentration and decided
on the basic teaching focus each week . Carol also
became more instrumental in guiding the program as
I began to teach her how to do dialogues with others.
A very special incident reinforced her confidence.
As part of a maintenance and check-up
program for her epilepsy, Carol went for a biannual
check-up which included an EEG. The neurologist was
amazed that the readouts approached an almost normal
configuration. Carol had not had a single seizure
in almost six months, a record which defied dramatically
her previous history. In celebration, she increased
her time commitment to the program. Carol wanted to
share everything for she believed, in some profound
way, she had received much more than she had given.
By late spring, our special little
friend began to absorb the initial concepts of mathematics.
His ability to conceptualize and generalize stimulated
an even further sophistication of interaction and
verbal exchanges. After they taught him how to pronounce
the alphabet in Spanish, Francisca suggested they
teach him how to spell the most simple words. We all
Jeannie had the first session the
next morning. After Robertito worked with more advanced
lotto cards, she presented him with a pad and crayon.
He scribbled over the surface of the paper, humming
while he worked.
"A masterpiece. Picasso Soto,"
she giggled, "How about some spelling?"
She wrote the letter "R" on the page. Robertito
pronounced it. "Good boy. That's the first letter
of your name. 'R' in Robertito." She drew a large
"O." He pronounced it. "A boy genius.
Those are the first two letters of your name. Now
say them with me."
Following her cue, Robertito pronounced
each of the two letters written on the drawing paper.
Just as Jeannie was about to write a "B,"
the child continued on his own. "B-E-R-T-I-T-O."
Jeannie gaped at him, impossible? How could he know?
Before she had a chance to applaud or acknowledge
his feat, he spelled: "S-O-T-O." He looked
into her face. The soft, calm expression melted her
That afternoon, Jeannie queried every
member of the program. No one had taught him to spell
his name. Other than having learned the alphabet as
letters written in a certain order, he had no instruction
in spelling, even for the most simple words. He also
had very little opportunity to see his name written
out. Had Tito, in the quiet of his pauses, passed
us in some way? Had he synthesized combinations of
what he had already learned? No easy answers presented
themselves. For the next several weeks, he did not
demonstrate other unexplained knowledge. Even his
ability to spell his own name faded until he relearned
it as part of a general spelling curriculum. Nevertheless,
everything about Robertito's regeneration, even the
pauses, was awesome.
For two weeks in May, Suzi and I
had to withdraw from active participation in the program.
The private screenings of the upcoming network production
of "Son-Rise" had generated such enthusiasm
that we were invited to speak before the Congress.
Acutely aware of the thoughts and feelings of other
parents and professionals who might see the film,
I wrote the following disclaimer, which appeared on
screen as the film began. "The story you are
about to see is true ... it concerns an alternative
created and chosen by one family which in no way is
meant to be a commentary on others who may have found
themselves in similar circumstances. We each do the
best we can and with that awareness, this experience
is an expression of hope and possibility." The
National Education Association endorsed the film as
"highly recommended" as did reviewers around
the country. But one organization, the National Society
for Autistic Children, publicly attacked the film
and suggested in an information packet sent to major
newspapers and networks that viewers send protests
to Suzi and to me. Without having ever witnessed our
work with either adults or children and without having
ever made any request to do so, they condemned and
belittled the notion of acceptance, dismissing the
basis of our work with Raun and, by inference, our
work with other children. Noting the first air date
for the story, one official of that organization wrote:
"It was originally scheduled to be shown on Mother's
Day - God Help Us." Francisca cried when she
read the newspaper quote. She wanted to know how an
act of love could generate so much fear and anger.
During our short absence, Francisca
directed the program, observed and gave the others
feedback. No panics materialized. No need to see her
son surge ahead or even remain in the same position
possessed her. Francisca embraced her child in the
way she had come to embrace herself ... without judgments,
without conditions. In love, she found joy. In acceptance,
she found clarity. She even began to understand how
Robertito himself could be her teacher. One afternoon,
while working with him, she asked: "How can I
help you more?"
Robertito cocked his head in that
silly, beguiling, innocent way. "I want a lot
of love," he answered.
"Yes, I know, papito,"
she said, hugging her child. "We all do."
Francisca, with Roby, who had returned
for a two-month stay, assumed greater responsibility
for the program during that summer. Unlike the previous
one, the attitude not only survived, but flourished
... as did our special little friend. There were many
signs of Robertito's growing awareness and verbal
initiations. One morning, as his father entered the
room, he said spontaneously in Spanish: "Hello,
Papa, how are you?" As he ran through the park
with Jeannie, he said: "I am running. I am smiling.
I am happy." When Carol extended her arms, holding
him at a distance in a swimming pool, Robertito exclaimed:
"Carol, help me." Suzi challenged him to
a very abstract game, asking him to name words that
began with a certain letter. Often, he could list
three to five words. Patti increased his skill with
simple addition. During a session, when I asked him
if he wanted help pulling up his pants, Robertito
replied: "You do it, Bears."
In early fall, Francisca took on
sole responsibility for the program for a short period
while Suzi and I went to South America to adopt an
abandoned child. We worked with the staff at the orphanage,
made a presentation at a major psychiatric clinic
and trained members of individual families who wanted
to work with their special children. We returned with
Tayo Lukanus, a smiling survivor, a gift for everyone
in our family. This tiny ten-month-old orphan had
suffered from the severest form of malnutrition as
a result of poverty and neglect and had to be fed
intravenously in the neck in order to be kept alive.
He could barely hold his head up and he could not
crawl. We instituted a stimulation and exercise program
immediately for our new son, a program not dissimilar
in attitude from the one we had created for Robertito
and other children. Within weeks, little Tayo began
to sit, stand and crawl thirty paces at a time. Francisca
cuddled him possessively, chattering away in Spanish.
Since we had worked with her son, she wanted to work
with ours. She even argued, in a comic dissertation,
that she knew Tayo's language better than any of us.
We declined her offer, counseling her to focus on
her expanding responsibilities in her own child's
One unforgettable morning in early
fall, Francisca and Robertito marched into the living
room. As she prepared food he sat himself in a chair.
Patti, Suzi and I tried to engage him, but he appeared
distant, preoccupied. Then, quite suddenly, while
staring at the wall, he said a Spanish sentence which
required a vocabulary and knowledge of grammar far
"I don 't know," he said,
"but somebody else will know soon."
Patti gawked at him. Francisca peeked
through the doorway and eyed her son. She did not
believe her ears.
"What did you say, Robertito?
He looked at her with an incredibly
vulnerable and soulful expression. "I don't know,"
he repeated, "but somebody else will know soon."
Two weeks later, at the end of a
joint session with Francisca and Roby, I asked Francisca
a question which I had posed many times. "If
you went back to Mexico, do you think you and Roby
could handle the program with Robertito?"
She glanced at her husband seated
beside her. "Yes, Bears," she said. Francisca
did not stick her chin out. She did not throw the
hair off her forehead or adjust her blouse. Her answer
originated in a very deep and quiet spot within her.
"Yes, Bears," she said again. "I can
do it." She kissed her husband and corrected
her statement. "No ... not I ... we can do it."
Roby nodded his agreement.
With that clear response, Francisca
Soto signaled the conclusion of our journey together.
Suzi and I had waited patiently until they had come
to know, in a deep and quiet place, that they no longer
needed us to continue.
The only difference between a teacher
and a student, both of whom draw from the same well,
is that the teacher knows he knows, while the student
has that to discover.
My feet did not seem to touch the
ground, but I knew I was there, alternately holding
and embracing Suzi, kissing and hugging Francisca,
smiling to Jeannie, then Carol, tapping Patti on her
shoulder, touching Thea and Raun, watching Bryn with
her new brother sheltered in her arms, then finally
fixing my attention on Roby Soto, who walked hand
in hand with his son.
Although we had been in the airport
for almost an hour, Robertito never once displayed
a self-stimulating ritual, as if he wanted to leave
all of us with a special gift, as if he knew this
was the last good-by. He pointed to items he had never
seen before and said something about each: "It's
a triangle," "The light is red," "Big
airplane." At the ticket counter, he stood quietly,
like a little gentleman, beside his father. Those
huge, dark eyes followed the dancing fingers of the
airline attendant punching the keys of her computer.
He laughed as the lights flashed on and off. The memory
of his arrival haunted me. He had crossed the threshold
into this very terminal building in little more than
a vegetative state; mute, blank-faced, staring, self-stimulating
and "hopelessly" withdrawn. And now, though
not abreast with other seven-year-olds, he could talk,
love his parents, share his affection, even play basketball
... a responsive, participating and loving human being.
Raun kept looking at his special
friend. He knew we had come to say good-by, but didn't
quite know how to express it. In a playful gesture,
he grabbed Robertito's hand and guided him to a quiet
corner by the window. Silhouetted against a bright
sky, the two boys stared at each other.
"We will always be friends,"
Raun said in English, trusting something other than
his words. When Robertito smiled, Raun giggled. "When
you do that, your cheeks look like suitcases."
He proceeded to touch his friend's face. Robertito,
in turn, lifted his hands and placed them on Raun's
cheeks. As I watched the two boys staring at each
other, I wondered what their eyes were communicating.
Though they originated from different families, in
some way, I knew they were brothers.
The hugging, which followed, seemed
to continue forever. Arms, lips, bodies all touching.
How do say good-by to your family? How do you end
a journey which we all lived, every hour of every
day, for a year and seven months? In the end, we formed
a giant huddle, holding each other arm in arm. All
the tears came with smiles.
"I can't believe it," Francisca
said, stroking Suzi's arms as she cried.
Roby watched Jeannie and Carol say
good-by to his son. He rubbed his wet eyes with his
hands, still holding on. And yet he knew they had
all worked for this day. He and Francisca had come
to New York in the hope of finding their son ... and
they had. Now they were taking him home.
I knelt down beside Robertito and
whispered into his ear. "Your mama and papa love
you just as we all do. If you can, help them help
you. There's more, Robertito, if you want it."
I pulled him close to me. He put his arm over my shoulder
and stroked my back gently. "Oh, Tito, how do
I tell you so you know? We won't be with you tomorrow.
But we still care, we'll always care." I put
his hand in mine and shook it. "By-by Robertito
Soto … my friend," I said.
"By-by, Bears Kaufman,"
When Bryn burst into tears, Suzi
took Tayo, then hugged her.
"I'm sorry, Mommy," Bryn
"There's nothing to be sorry
about," Suzi reassured her.
"I'm happy they're going home,
I really am," she said. "It's... it's just
... just that, well, we won't see each other any more."
"Letting go is part of loving
somebody," Suzi said. "And you can see them
anytime you want to ... you have all the pictures
you need in your head."
Bryn nodded and grinned.
Roby gathered his family around him
as they prepared to enter the boarding area. I put
my hand out to him. He grabbed it and held tightly.
We shared a smile and looked at his son.
Suzi bent down to say one last good-by.
The tears cascaded down her face. Robertito cocked
his head to the side, put his finger into the stream
below her eye and said in a soft and soothing voice:
"Don't cry, Sushi ... don't cry."
"Even if this little boy never
learns another thing," the developmental psychologist
had said, "what you have done here is a miracle."
If the rebirth of a child and the
rebirth of those who loved, accepted and worked with
him is called a miracle ... then miracles will happen
only to those who believe in them.
Miracle To Believe In »»