When Emma was a year old, in a moment of impatience we bought her a baby doll for Christmas. Despite the fact she showed no interest in dolls of any kind, despite the fact she showed little interest in any of the toys we tried to entice her with. Emma was much more of a doer than a child who sat happily playing with a toy. This was a kid who liked to move. Take her to the playground and she made the other kids look lethargic. I admit, I took a certain degree of pride in her rejection of all toys and her desire to move and run and slide instead. Emma’s disinterest reminded me of my father who shunned all holidays, grousing that they no longer celebrated what they were intended to, but instead fed the insatiable Hallmark Greeting Card’s appetite for cheap sentimentality and had become a financial boon for ad agencies. His grumpiness about it all, increased with his age. Emma’s resolute rejection of all toys, her disinterest in videos, movies, and anything else that required her to sit still, would have made my father proud.
The baby doll we purchased was pudgy, with blonde pigtails, and came with a little toilet, hairbrush, mirror, bathrobe and towel. All that was missing was a mani/pedi kit and perhaps some massage oil. I bought a couple of little playsuits for the doll and wrapped everything up in pretty paper with a big satin ribbon. We had to help Emma as she showed no enthusiasm in her gifts piled under the Christmas tree. She begrudgingly humored us by tearing open the present, but showed no excitement, it was as though it were a chore, something that was expected of her. When she saw the baby doll, securely fastened in it’s box with a clear window so that she could see it, but not actually reach it, she lost all interest and wandered off. “Emma, look! It’s your very own baby doll!” I exclaimed. “What are you going to call her?” Being ignored during those early years was something we had grown used to. Still, I persisted, carrying the baby doll over to her, I said, “What’s her name?” Emma refused to look at me or the baby doll.
Years later, during out DIR (Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based Model, also known as floortime) phase, the baby doll, now joined by a number of other baby dolls, groovy girls, Jessy and Woody from the Toy Story, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, each one evidence of our ignorance and dogged determination to engage her in the world of make believe, lay untouched in a pink plastic bin near her bed. In a moment of inspiration I yanked the baby doll from its bin and thrusting it in Emma’s face, asked, “Oh look Em! What’s her name?” Emma said nothing, but I persisted. “What do you call her, Em?” And then Emma spoke. “Doll,” she said. “Yes, but what will you call her?” I was nothing, if not determined. “Is her name, Tabitha or Katherine, Anastasia, Cynthia? What’s her name, Em?” The idea that naming something was not a concept Emma fully grasped, never occurred to me. When Emma then repeated the names I was throwing out, I eventually gave up and as I was leaving, Emma said, simply, “Doll.”
And of course, she was right. It was a doll. To Emma that was all she was. A doll. For a child with little or no ability to understand the world of make believe, the idea of naming a doll, must have seemed bizarre. Why would one do that?
Last weekend, at Barnes & Noble, I showed Emma a book called Biscuit, a beginning reader book. Emma took the book from me, sat down on the carpet and pointed to the first word. “Biscuit, that word says Biscuit. That’s the dog’s name,” I said. Emma nodded and continued to read the book, stumbling over a couple of unknown words, but for the most part being able to get through it with little help from me. As I sat with her I remembered her baby doll and it occurred to me, she does not fully understand the concept of naming. It is something I will attempt to teach her this weekend.
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to: Emma’s Hope Book.com