Category Archives: Speech

Thanksgiving With Emma

Yesterday we hosted Thanksgiving at our place.  It makes it easier for us in many ways to be home, as I love to cook and Emma can race around on her scooter while the rest of us enjoy each other’s company and later sit down to a thanksgiving feast.  Whenever we have a large celebratory gathering at our house, I put out a place setting for Emma, even though we know she won’t sit and eat any of the food I’ve prepared.  As I set the table yesterday afternoon, I allowed myself to imagine for a minute what it would be like to have all of us gathered for a meal, something I looked forward to with almost frenzied excitement as a child.  Not so with Emma.  Unless birthday cake is being served and then only if it’s vanilla cake with vanilla frosting, Emma can be counted on to forgo the meal.  Since she also cannot communicate in any substantial way, there is absolutely no allure for her to sit with us and we’ve given up insisting that she try.

So it was yesterday as our guests began to arrive, Emma in her “pretty dress” which actually was a taffeta skirt with tulle and a black turtleneck.  Emma insisted on yanking the skirt down around her hips so the gap between where the turtleneck ended and the waistband of the skirt began was substantial, giving the whole ensemble a kind of weird, grungy chic.  She shot around the living room on her scooter, while Nic joined us for conversation and hors d’oeuvres.

“Edie bring Toni books?” Emma asked as I was pulling the turkey out of the oven, checking on the nearly burned roasted vegetables and wondering whether I had ruined the meal, while the mashed potatoes warmed in the oven and the brussel sprouts were being sauted on the stove.

“What?” I asked.

“Edie bring Toni books?” Emma repeated.

“Who’s Edie?” one of our guests inquired.

“He delivers UPS packages.”

“Edie come?” Emma asked.

“Yes, Em, let’s order some books tomorrow and Edie can deliver them.  But you have to tell me what books you want,” I said.

“Edie come?  Edie bring Toni books?”

It’s not clear why Emma has equated my sister or someone else with the name Toni, with getting books.  The last book Edie delivered for Emma was a book we couldn’t find at Barnes & Noble, so ordered online a few months ago.   Ever since, but recently with increasing excitement Emma has been requesting that Edie deliver books to her.  We have asked her numerous times to specify what book she is hoping to receive, with little success.

Eventually Emma gave up and contented herself with listening to music on her ipod only reappearing at the end of the meal.  “Dinner is all done,” Emma announced.

We had retired to the living room so no one was offended and thankfully she did not start bringing people their coats.  “Yes, Em.  That’s right.  Dinner is over now,” I said.

“Emma blow out the candles?”  Emma said as she leaned over the dining room table and blew a candle out.

“Yes, Em.  Go ahead.”  After which, Emma could be heard singing loudly to various music videos in her bedroom.

“Wow!  She really has a great sense of rhythm,” one of our guests noted.

This morning I went online with Emma and she chose several books, which I ordered and expect will be delivered in another week or so.  “Edie bring Emma books?”  Emma said when we finished the checkout process.

“Yes!” I said.  “You should get them in another week.”

“Next week,” Emma said, nodding her head.


“Go to gymnastics?”  Emma said.

The School Bus

We received a call yesterday from Emma’s school saying the bus driver had yelled at Emma in front of the other children when she was getting off the bus. The driver claimed Emma had spit in her face. Richard and I were incredulous as neither of us have ever seen Emma spit nor did I think Emma was physically capable of projecting a pool of saliva from her mouth at a target, human or otherwise.
When we asked Emma what happened on the bus, she replied, “Emma so sad. You make Emma cry. Emma want to get off the bus.”
“Why did you want to get off the bus, Em?”
“Lady. You have to ask the lady. Lady, can I get off the bus?” Emma said while wrapping a strand of hair around and around her finger.
“What did the lady say?”
“NO! Emma sad.”
“But Em, what happened?”
“Emma go to gymnastics?” She looked at me and nodded her head.
“Yes, Sweetie. You’re going to gymnastics this afternoon,” I said.
By the time the bus arrived, Richard and I were no clearer on the actual events than before. As with many autistic children, their (in)ability to speak is much more than a language delay. The language they have is often garbled, confused and the thinking difficult, if impossible to follow. Emma’s reference to gymnastics in answer to my request for clarification as to the events on the bus suggested she feared she wouldn’t be able to go to gymnastics as a result. She had done something wrong, someone was angry, her beloved gymnastics would be taken away. Even after I reassured her she would be attending gymnastics, she continued to ask several more times.
Last night Emma woke me at 1:47AM screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy come!”
When I went into her room I told her if she continued to scream we would not let her go to gymnastics, something she’s been looking forward to for several days. It does make sense how she might conclude gymnastics was up for grabs, given the upset on the bus.
When the bus arrived we asked what happened.
The driver leaned forward and said, “She spit in my face. I told her that wasn’t okay.”
“She spit in your face?” I repeated.
“Yeah. In my face. She sits there spitting on the floor and then blames another kid, but it’s not him that’s doing it, it’s her. She’s the one who’s spitting,” the driver said.
“It’s hard for us to believe this, as we’ve never seen her spit at anyone,” Richard replied.
“Yeah, well I think she picked it up from the other kid, cause he use to spit, but now she does more than him and blames him.”
“Okay. Then what happened?”
“I told her – it’s not okay. You can’t do that,” the driver said. “She went like this,” the driver took her hand put it to her mouth and flicked out with her fingers. “She spit at me and I told her you can’t do that.”
“Okay, do you mind if I get on the bus to talk to her?” I asked.
The bus driver nodded her head.
“Em, you can’t spit. Do you know what that means?” I asked.
Emma stared at me and said, “You have to ask Mommy.”
“No Em. You just can’t spit. You have to keep your fingers out of your mouth. You have to keep your gum in your mouth. Okay?”
“Okay,” Emma answered.
“She doesn’t listen,” the bus matron said.
“It’s not that she doesn’t listen, it’s that she doesn’t understand what’s being said to her,” I began.
“Yeah, but she doesn’t listen,” the matron said, shaking her head and staring at Emma who was now seated directly behind the driver with her seat belt buckled.
“She doesn’t understand what’s being said to her, it’s different than not listening,” I said.
“No I know. I understand these kid’s situation. I’ve been driving kids like this for a long time,” the driver said. The matron stood by shaking her head. As all of this was going on one of the children kept getting up from her seat and standing in the aisle.
“Logan! Sit back down!” the driver said, loudly.
“Logan! Sit down!” Emma parroted.
“She doesn’t understand why you’re angry with her. She doesn’t understand what it means to spit at someone,” I said. “Yelling at her won’t make her understand any better.”
“Oh no. I don’t yell. I never yelled at her,” the driver said. “I just told her like this,” she then spoke in a kind voice, “You can’t do that, it’s not okay.”
Richard and I looked at one another. “Okay, well please tell us if anything like this happens again.”
“She’ll have a new driver after the holiday,” the driver informed us. “But I know her, she’s a friend of mine, I’ll tell her what’s going on.”
By the time the bus left with Emma inside it, Richard and I stood together and watched it go. I felt a familiar constriction in my chest. How can we know what really happened? Our daughter is incapable of telling us her version of what occurred, the school wasn’t on the bus until after the “incident” happened, though they did witness the driver shouting at Emma. The accounts from the driver and the bus matron, who appear to have little if any knowledge of autism and certainly no training in autism, are all we have.

Milestones and Miracles

As we sat at the dinner table last night celebrating our dear friend Claudie’s birthday, I saw Emma ride up to Nic on her scooter and stand in front of him as he sat on the couch listening to music on his iPod.

“Hey Nic!” she said.

It was very unusual for Emma to go up to Nic and speak to him so directly so I nudged Ariane who was sitting next to me, and pointed in their direction.

“Hey Nic!” Emma repeated. “Will you come to mommy’s room with me and watch Elmo?”

We were absolutely floored. Ecstatic. Choking up with emotion. Not only was this one of the longest and most articulate sentences Emma has ever spoken, it was also directed at Nic, asking him to do something together with her.

For any parent of two normal children, this would be something you take totally for granted — something you would have witnessed twenty million times by the time your children were 10 and 8 years old. For us it was first, a true milestone, as significant as when Nic and Emma took their first steps or spoke their first words. More than that, it was something we had hoped and prayed would happen for such a very long time. Something we feared might never happen.

It was a miracle.

We looked at our guests with our mouths hanging open in shock and wonder, then began hugging and kissing each other in joy and gratitude. It was such a special moment, made even more special by the great good fortune of being able to share that wondrous milestone with such special friends. Claudie said it was the best birthday present she ever had. Elaine knew exactly what we were feeling and how significant it was, having experienced parental challenges so much more arduous and painful than anything we have weathered.

I went with Emma and Nic into our bedroom and helped her put the Elmo DVD on, then spied on them from around the corner, my ears perked up for any more dialog that might be forthcoming. They just sat together silently, watching Elmo, Nic barely able to tolerate it, but being such a great sport, Emma looking so happy in his company.

Eyes were teary as we put the candles on Claudie’s cake, then called for Nic and Emma to join us. Emma came running in like a freight train, since two of her favorite activities in the world are singing Happy Birthday and blowing out candles. True to form, Emma led the chorus, singing as loudly and cheerfully as always. When the song finished, Claudie started to blow out the candles but Emma leaned across the table and blew out most of them first.

“Emma, those are Claudie’s candles,” Ariane admonished, then asked Claudie if she wanted us to re-light them.

“No,” Claudie said, “I already made my wish.”

And we had one of ours granted.

Societal Subtleties

Emmy, I’m leaving.  Have a good day with Joe,” I said, as I was getting ready to go.  I went over to where Emma lay under the duvet in our bed with her earphones on listening to one of her favorite songs, The Beatles – Happy Birthday.  “I love you, Em.” I said as I bent down to kiss her.  She turned her head, as she almost always does, so that I kissed her forehead.

“So much,” Came Emma’s muffled answer.

“I love you so much,” I said, kissing her cheeks.  Emma said nothing in response.  I waited for a few seconds, “Em, you say – I love you Mommy.”

“I love you…” Emma looked at me as I pointed to myself.  “Emma,” she added smiling.

“Not Emma!” I said, kissing her again.  “I love…” I pointed to myself.

“Mommy!”  Emma finished.

“That’s right Em. I say – I love you Emma and you say – I love you Mommy!”

“I love you Mommy!” Emma echoed, before ducking her head down under the covers.

I went out to the living room.  “Bye Nic.  I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom,” Nic said without hesitation.

Just another morning in the Zurcher-Long household, such simple things we so easily take for granted, are stumbling blocks for Emma.  It’s not only pronouns that trip her up.  It’s the simple human niceties we do and say to one another that mystify her too.

After months of prompting, Emma now will say, “I’m fine” in answer to, “How are you?”  She understands the rote answer is what is expected and what will suffice.

“Most people really don’t want to know how you really are,” a friend of mine said to me once.  “They’re just asking because it’s expected and they don’t want to seem rude.  But can you imagine if you answered them honestly.  You know, by saying something like:  Not so well.  I’m struggling with some thorny issues I’d like your advice on.”

I interjected,  “Or – let’s sit down, this may take a few minutes.”

“Exactly, I mean that’s why everyone goes to a shrink,” my friend said matter-of-factly.

A Cry For Help

“Mommy!  I need help!” Emma said last night at 3:30AM.  Her cheeks damp with tears, her face conveyed the discomfort she felt.

“Here Em, try to yawn.  Go like this,” I said opening my mouth wide and moving my lower jaw from side to side.  We’ve been over this, countless times in the past week.  It was the same dialogue, just a different day, different hour of the night.  I became aware of the pressure in my own head, making my ears pop.  The air pressure outside must have changed during the night I thought.

Emma has become hypersensitive to any slight change in air pressure.  She tries to pop her ears by holding her nose and blowing, turning her face red until the pressure is alleviated.  Sometimes her method seems to even work.  One of us taught her to do this on an airplane once, I can no longer remember when or which one of us.  But it served its purpose and now she’s convinced it will help any time she feels any pressure.  The problem is, it also appears to cause the uncomfortable sensation and exacerbates the pressure when we are firmly on land and not flying in an airplane.  Explaining this to Emma has not proven helpful.  She cannot understand the subtleties of the situation.  When in an airplane hold your nose and blow out, when on land try to yawn.

“Mommy!  Mommy!”  Emma cried.  Her eyes searched mine, panic rising.

“I know baby, come here,” I said.  I tried to massage her ears by pulling gently on the lobes.  I pretended to yawn hoping this would produce a yawn from her.  It did not.  Emma does not yawn in response to seeing someone else yawn the way most of us neuro-typicals do.  When I yawn, Emma watches me and continues doing whatever it is she was doing before I yawned.  I found my mind going off on a tangent about what this means, mirror neurons and the like.

“Mommy!  I need help?” Emma said this last as though it were a question.  As though she were asking – Do you need help?  Instead of what she means, a demand for some assistance, a plea to have her mother make the pain go away.  Except I cannot make the pain go away, I can only try to get her to yawn.  I tried again.

“Do this Em,” I pretended to yawn, only this time I actually did yawn.

Emma watched me intently.  She opened her mouth and breathed out.  She could not make the connection.  She wasn’t able to make her ears pop, she was unable to reduce the pressure even if only momentarily.  Emma held her nose and breath, pushing her cheeks out, like a trumpet player.

“There.  That’s better,” she said.  A second later she was at it again, crying and requesting help.

I stroked her head and tried to talk in a soothing tone.  “It’ll be okay, Em,” I said, unsure what else to say or do.

Emma nodded her head.  “You have to yawn,” she said.

“That’s right Em.  Try to yawn,” I agreed.  I waited a few seconds then asked, “Is it better now?”

“Yes.  Better,” she said.  “Time to go to sleep.  It’s okay,” she said, snuggling down under the sheets.

“Yes.  Good idea.  Try to sleep,” I said.

As I write this I am aware of the continued pressure in my head.  I wonder if I have this feeling all the time, but just shut it out.  Now I too am hyper aware of the sensation.  Not painful exactly, but uncomfortable.  I imagine what it would feel like if I didn’t know it was due to the changing weather, the fluctuating air pressure.  I do not panic when I feel it because I know it will go away of its own accord and it’s not intolerable.  But what if I couldn’t understand what it was?  What if I couldn’t understand the explanations given to me?  What if it was just something that happened, seemingly arbitrarily, with no remedy?

Would I panic?  Would I cry out for help?

Yes.  I would.

Jessie & “Dolls”

Autistic children are known for their inability to engage in imaginary play.  A defining moment for my husband, Richard and me was when it was pointed out Emma did not seem interested in any form of pretend play.  Until then I had reasoned:  she was too much of a tomboy, she didn’t like dolls, she was like my sister, it ran in the family.  But the truth was; not only did Emma lack any interest in dolls, she showed no interest in stuffed animals or toys of any kind including horses, a favorite of my sister’s when she was small.

When Emma began playing with her monster, Muzzy, we were elated.  Despite the comments other children, especially little girls who saw Emma, made.  “Mommy, why does she have a monster in her stroller?” One such child asked in puzzled wonder this summer.

“I don’t know honey,” the mother said, looking from me to Emma with a speculative glance as she grabbed her child’s hand and hurried away.

Comments aside, we were ecstatic.  Muzzy was the first toy Emma had shown any sustained interest in.  Granted she played with Muzzy in an odd way – tossing him in the air while laughing, throwing him on the ground so he would, “hurt his head” – it was play however unusual, which suggested tremendous progress.  See Em & Muzzy, Emma’s Pal Muzzy & The Porkmepine and Panama – Day 3.

Last night when Emma disappeared into her bedroom only to emerge moments later carrying not one, but two of her dolls, I was again ecstatic.

“Richard!” I whispered.  “Look!”

Emma sat on the couch holding Jessie who had on a fabulous green coat over her chaps and another doll I’d forgotten we even had.  Granted the doll’s hair looked like a “bad hair day” poster child, but Emma seemed unaware and proceeded to hold each in one hand making them bop up and down.

“It’s Jessie,” Emma said, surveying her red cowboy hat with a discerning eye.

“And what about her?  What’s her name?” I asked gesturing to the other doll.

“Dolls”, Emma said.

“But what’s her name?” I asked again.

“Her name Dolls,” Emma said, turning her back to me.

Emma with Jessie and “Dolls”

Emma did not engage in much language as she played and rebuffed our attempts to “play act”.   But she said hi to Jessie and observed Jessie was hot and needed to take her hat and coat off.  She repeated this with “Dolls”.

Emma Taking Off Jessie’s Hat

At a certain point she looked over at Richard with an impish grin and said, “Dolls fall down?”

“Is the doll falling down?” I said.

“Uh!  Uh!  Uh! Uh!” Emma laughed before flinging the doll to the floor.  Then she pretended to cry and said, “Doll crying, doll hurt.  Doll hurt her head.”

“Oh no!  Did she fall?  Is she alright?”

“Down, down, down!  Help you up, help you up!” Emma said in a sing songy voice.

“Who’s going to help her up, Em?” I asked.

“Help you up,” Emma said again.

“Are you going to help her?” I asked.

“Doll, Doll, come!” Emma said.   Emma leaned down and made the doll pat her head while saying, “Doll hurt her head.”

Emma became stuck in a verbal loop with the above dialogue, repeating it over and over again.

Richard and I suggested she be the one to help Doll up, which she finally did.

“Thank you!” Emma said as she lifted Doll up and gently placed her on the couch.  “Doll crying, Doll see Mommy, Doll hurt her head,” Emma said.

“Oh, no!  Let me see,” I said.

“Hi Mommy, time to go home,” Emma said without giving me Doll.

“Can I hold her, Em?” I asked.

“Time to go home,” Emma repeated, ignoring me.  Then she put Doll’s coat back on and laid her carefully on the ground.  “Good night,” she said, pretending to be the doll.

“Good night Dolls,” Emma said, in response.

Hey it’s play, no matter how bizarre.  It is imaginary play.  Each tiny step of progress, no matter how small, is progress.

“But She Looks So Normal!”

Is what someone said to me the other day when I mentioned the reason Emma wasn’t responding immediately was because she’s autistic.  And when Emma finally did respond, it was with a reply which had no application to the question asked.

If we went on looks alone, we would all be in trouble.  However in Emma’s case it both serves her as well as complicates things.  People look at Emma and assume she’s “normal”.  They see an athletic, cheerful child.  It is difficult for people to believe she cannot communicate as other children her age do.

I have had the experience of being told on more occasions than I can count, “Oh my toddler does that too!”  or “She sounds just like my son!” and then they go on to tell me stories about their impish child’s antics which remind them of Emma.  Except that Emma is not an extremely tall two-year old who is acting out.  She is an autistic eight-year old who’s verbal skills continue to progress at a snail’s pace.  When people comment she is like a two-year old, they are right in some ways, but in most ways it is an incorrect assumption.  Emma is not “delayed”, she’s autistic and there is a vast difference between the two.

Explaining Emma to our son Nic, has forced me to become aware of just how complicated it is to describe her.  To say that she is doing something – biting herself, for example – as a way to get attention, would be incorrect.  Emma is not seeking attention.  I believe she is trying to gain control around a situation, which is uncontrollable.  The pain she causes herself is more tolerable than the pain she feels from a situation she has no power over.

When I look at her brain scans and see the lack of symmetry, the bright colors, which should be dark, like a strange Rorschach test gone wildly awry, I try to detect patterns.  I try to make sense of what I’m seeing, but cannot.

“Emma’s brain is not like ours,” I tell my son and myself in times of upset.  She does not think, feel, see or hear as we do.  She is decidedly “other”.

But how to explain this to the family on the airplane we recently took when asked if they wouldn’t mind sitting across the aisle from their grown children so that we might sit next to Emma?

When they refused, the father added, “I don’t see what the big deal is, you’re sitting near her, just the aisle’s between you.”

How does one then explain how agitated Emma will become?  How can one really make people understand, who have little or no contact with autistic children or if they have, one unlike Emma?  Of course Emma did become agitated and eventually we found two kind souls many rows back who were happy to take our seats so we could sit next to Emma, disaster narrowly averted.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like to parent an autistic child,” a friend of mine said a few weeks ago.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have two neuro-typical children,” I responded.  Afterwards, I thought about our conversation.  I really cannot imagine.  Emma informs every aspect of our lives.  When Emma says or does something new we record it.   Every milestone, each new word uttered is met with astonished elation.

I remember when Richard and I were planning our wedding.  A friend of Richard’s told us to take a few moments to absorb everything that was happening because it would go by so quickly.  We took his advice and to this day I can remember the beautiful floral wreath arrangements hanging from each lighting fixture, the candles casting their golden shadows across the room, Richard’s handsome face as I walked down the aisle toward him.  I remember because I stopped for a moment and took the time to take it all in.

Emma has provided us with something similar.  Her progress is so slow.  We celebrate each and every tiny step forward.  Of course we are also forced to spend much more time than we’d like, being present for the steps not taken, the fumbles, the excruciating process of growing up in a world where people do not understand, who judge Emma and us, assume she’s a “normal” child who is just being obstinate, difficult or “spoiled”.

The trick is to savor it all, I suppose.  A trick I continue to work on.

A Conundrum

We are often baffled by words Emma says which we do not understand the context or meaning of.  See Emma’s Language and Sunday Morning’s Conversation for more.   A few weeks ago we were dumbfounded by the utterance, “cheese-solos” which Emma requested over and over again.  Prior to that it was something that sounded like, “atta-tah”.  It turned out the first was cheese doodles, evidently given to her as a snack at her school, but since we never bought them, it took a moment of sheer genius on Joe’s part to make the connection.  The latter turned out to be, “go to town” as in “No we’re not going to go to town.”  Except Emma would say, “No, we’re not going atta-tah.”  Even as a baby, Emma’s first words were, “All done!” though it sounded more like “ah-dah”.  As she has grown older the words continue to confound us, but even when they are intelligible they often do not make sense to any of us.  For the past few weeks in answer to the question – what would you like to do today? – Emma has responded with, “Go to downtown Aspen, push the button game?”

One day last week Joe, determined to get to the bottom of this, spent some two hours in town with Emma trying to figure out what she meant.  He came home as perplexed as when he’d left.

So when Emma said to me, “Downtown Aspen?  Push the button game?”

I inwardly groaned as I knew we would be spending a great deal of time wandering around town trying to find a game which I no longer was convinced she even knew what or where it was played.  But Nic was at the skateboard park with my friend Claudia, so I figured I would go wherever Emma pointed me and see where our adventure took us.

“Go this way,” Emma said from the back seat of the car, pointing in the direction leading toward Independence Pass.

“But Em, that will take us out of town,” I said.

Emma nodded her head.  “Go downtown?” she said with the inflection making it sound like she was posing a question.

“If I turn left Em, we will be heading out of town,” I said, hoping this would clarify things.

“Yes,” Emma said.

“Okay,” I said, taking the next left leading us out of town.  “Is this the right way?” I asked after a few minutes.

“Yes?” Emma said.

“Okay, Em.  You want to go out of town.  This is not downtown, this is leaving town,” I said.

“Leave town?” Emma repeated.

“Where should I go now?” I asked as we passed the turn off to the Aspen Club.

“Go this way?” Emma said.

“Which way, Em.  You have to point,” I said looking at her in the rear view mirror.

“Go this way?” Emma said pointing to the turn off for the cemetery where both my grandparents are buried as well as my father and a number of family pets.

“Oh, do you want to go to the cemetery?” I asked.

“Cemetery?” Emma repeated.  “Push the button game?”

“Okay, Em,” I said as we neared the padlocked gates.  I stopped the car.  “Is this where you play push the button game?”

“No!  Downtown Aspen!” Emma cried.

“But Em, I’ve been asking you where you want to go and you told me to come here. I’ve gone exactly where you wanted, I just can’t understand where it is you want to go,” I said, exasperation and exhaustion crept into my voice.

“Go downtown Aspen?”  Emma managed to say in between tears.

“But Em we just were downtown, remember?  We spent at least 45 minutes downtown with Muzzy in the stroller,” I said.

“Go downtown, push the button?”  Emma repeated sobbing.

“Em.  I give up.  I don’t know where you want to go.  Should we go back to Granma’s?”

“Push the button,” Emma, now inconsolable, cried.

As I turned the ignition on, Richard called asking how things were going and where we were.  He agreed to come meet us at the skateboard park and said he’d take Emma.

The entire way back into town, Emma cried in the back seat, “Push the button!”  Then she paused and said, “Shhhh!  You have to be quiet.  Stop screaming.”  Listening to her I could hear the echo of other people in her life, speaking to her.  Not only was she repeating what had been said to her, she was also adopting the tone and inflection of the many people in her life who have cared for her over the years.

Hours later, while Nic, Claudia and I sat outside the fountain in the middle of town, Richard and Emma appeared.

“Hey!  How did it go?” I asked.

“Well, my theory regarding the push the button game was correct,” Richard said triumphant.

“What theory?” I asked.

“I told you the other day,” Richard said.

“You did not!” I said.

“I did.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s a water sculpture and fountain on the other side of the mall.  If you look at it from a certain angle it kind of looks like a hot tub and she pretends to push a button to make the water jets come on.”  Richard looked at us.

“I cannot believe it,” I said, looking at Emma who was happily sitting on the chair across from me.  “You’re a genius,” I said to Richard.

“The only problem with being a genius is no one recognizes it,” Richard said.

Emma & Our Barbeque

Last night we walked up to our cabin for a barbeque.  I posted once before about our cabin –  “Zurcher’s Folly” dated July 5th, 2010 – it’s a one room, rustic cabin with no electricity, only cold running water and an outhouse just far enough away to make you reconsider the urgency, particularly if it’s in the middle of the night and you’re female.

A group of us made our way down the hill and over the stream that each summer the beaver dam up, and then up a little way until we rounded the bend and caught a glimpse of the cabin’s red roof.  Emma was ahead of us riding on the four-wheeler with my nephew, Bridger.

Em & Bridger Heading Out on the Four-Wheeler

Colter, my other nephew was leading the way in a piece of machinery I actually do not have a name for, but it looks formidable, with much of our food in the back.  It was a procession and Emma was ecstatic riding along with Bridger as the rest of us trudged behind bringing up the rear.

Briger & Em Lead the Way

The Rest of Us on Foot


The dogs frolicked and fought over various sticks, pushing and shoving like small children, very nearly toppling my mother over on a few occasions.  As the cabin came into view everyone picked up the pace, dashing up the log steps and throwing themselves onto the now bare mattresses (they were once covered in quilts my mother and I meticulously made, but the mice got to them and now they are without) which serve as beds, sleeping two or three each.
“Have dinner?”  Emma asked, wasting no time in getting down to the essentials.

“You have to wait.  We’re going to eat together,” Richard said.

“Snack?” Emma asked.  It was good to see her father’s negotiating skills had not passed her by.

Then when none of us responded immediately she said, “Muzzy have snack?”  It was her killer instincts at work, going straight for the jugular.  What parent in their right mind could veto that?   Particularly as this was displaying everything we have dreamed of, attachment to a toy, pretend play…

Smart kid, I thought.

“Sure Em.  What does Muzzy want?”

“Yogurt!” Emma said.

“What kind?” Joe asked, never one to pass up an opportunity to get more language from her.

“I want yogurt,” Emma said.

“Yes, but what kind of yogurt?  Do you want peach yogurt?  Blueberry yogurt?” Joe continued.

“I want vanilla yogurt!” Emma said.

“Got it,” Joe said, rummaging around in his pack.

As Joe produced the vanilla yogurt, Emma sat down on the bench at the table, which occupies most of the floor space in the cabin.

“Here you are,” Joe said, setting it down in front of her.  “What do you need?”

“A spoon!” Emma answered.

She peeled open the foil cover and said to Muzzy, “Open wide!”

Muzzy’s Snack

“Mmmmm…  all done.  Now it’s Emma’s turn,” she said, after pretending to spoon the yogurt into Muzzy’s mouth.

“It’s my turn,” Richard said.

Emma looked at him.

“You say – it’s my turn,” Richard said.

“It’s my turn,” Emma repeated.

By the time the coals were ready and the burgers and hot dogs grilled, Emma had eaten her entire dinner.  She sat with us as we ate, serenading us with her favorite songs.  At times she became caught in a favorite refrain and needed to be reminded she had already sung that part several times and it was time to sing something else.

Emma Singing

“Go back to Granma’s?”  Emma said after awhile.

“No Em.  We aren’t going back until it’s dark,” Joe explained.

A little while later after we’d roasted marshmellows for our s’mores, Emma said, It’s getting dark!  Time to go back to Granma’s house!”

“You’re right Em.  It is getting dark.”

And with that she charged off as we gathered up our things.

Emma Waiting To Return To Granma’s House

When we were back at the house, Emma looked at Bridger, waved her hand goodbye and said, “Bye Bridger!  Thank you for the ride in the four-wheeler!”

Emma waving Goodbye and Thanking Bridger

Richard, Joe and I stared at each other in astonishment, literally with our mouths open.  This was unprecedented.  In the past we would have prompted Emma to say exactly what she said.  That she did it without anyone reminding her, entirely on her own, with terrific eye contact and waving her hand…

It was nothing short of amazing!

May I just comment on the incredible eye contact in almost all of these photos?  Have any of you who loyally follow this blog seen such great eye contact?!

It’s unbelievable!

Emma’s Pal Muzzy and the Porkmepine

While Ariane was taking a break, I took Emma for a ride on the ‘four-wheeler’, a small ATV that’s good on the unpaved roads here and the big fields beyond. We like to go early in the morning and late in the afternoon after a long day of swimming, walking, bowling, bungee cord jumping — in other words, all things physical and fun.

On our 4-wheeling adventures, it’s not uncommon to spot a variety of wildlife; deer, foxes, a family of coyotes (with four baby cubs!) and unexpected surprises, like today’s sighting of a large, chubby porcupine who was wobbling around behind the barn. Like most of the animals here, he/she? was fairly inured to human contact, but when we approached within fifteen feet I cut the engine, to see if he might stick around long enough for a good visit.

“Look Emma, see that? That’s a porcupine!”

No response.

He started wobbling in the opposite direction, crawling beneath the barn, which I assumed was his new living quarters from the practiced ease with which he hid away. Before he vanished I pointed to him again and said, “Emma, can you say porcupine?”

“Morepickpine,” she said, or something to that effect.

“No Emma, PORC-U-PINE,” I slowly enunciated.

“Porkmepine,” she replied.

“No Emma, not porkmepine, porc-ya-pine!” I smiled, shaking my head, changing my pronunciation of the second syllable so she didn’t think I was somehow talking about her (“you”) when identifying the animal.

“Porkapine,” she said.

“That’s right Emma,” I said, starting up the engine.

It was pretty funny, a little frustrating and a little encouraging. Frustrating because she still has such a hard time making distinctions in simple labeling. Encouraging because she was at least grasping the distinction between the words “you” and “me” when it came to identifying herself. Most of the time, she still talks like Elmo when she speaks of herself.

“Emma go on four wheeler?”

Sometimes I’ll just nod and answer, “sure Emma, let’s go for a ride.” But it’s better if I remember to correct her and suggest a more appropriate response:

“Emma, you can say, ‘Daddy, I want to go on the four-wheeler.'”

She will usually echo that response and occasionally (very occasionally) remember to phrase a question correctly. She has the same trouble with “you, I, me, she, he.” So we will often correct her when she says “you” when she means “me”, or “he” when she’s talking about a girl, etc.

Later in the afternoon, Joe took her out to play. She insisted on bringing her stuffed animal Muzzy along. See the attached photos Joe took after Emma buckled Muzzy’s seat belt in the car and then strapped him into a jogger, pushing him down one of the local bike paths. This new affectionate attachment to her stuffed monster-animal pal is another very encouraging sign. Muzzy recently accompanied her in a hospital bed, and now that he seems to have fully recuperated, she’s taken him for an outing in the countryside.

Emma may not care much about prickly porkmepines, but she sure does love her fuzzy Muzzy. And that’s just fine with you.

A Gift

Last night we all settled into the family room to watch Groundhog Day, a family favorite and movie some of us have seen more than a few times.  Toward the end of the movie there is a scene where Bill Murray’s character climbs up onto a stage to be auctioned off to the highest bidder during a party.  Emma, who was sitting to my right with her legs folded, torso leaning against me suddenly said, “It went up, up, up high into the air.  I said I can’t reach, it’s too high,” she reached her arm up as though trying to grab something.  “You have to pull on Mommy’s shirt and ask for help,” as she said this she pulled on my robe.  “Mommy – I need help!  You have to get it down.  Daddy go up the stairs to get it.  Uh-oh it’s up on the ceiling.  We cannot reach it.  You have to reach!  Reach high up.   Jump!  Daddy gets it!  It comes down, down, down, then bump!  Now we have to hold on.  You cannot let go or it goes up, up, up to the ceiling, up into the sky.” Emma looked from Richard to me.  The depth of her eye contact took my breath away.  Her face, filled with sadness, her eyes steady seeking out mine showed understanding.

“This is incredible,” Richard said watching her.  “Do you remember this?”

I nodded my head.  “Oh Em.  Were you sad?” I asked.

“It was a long time ago.  It was a long, long time ago,” She said.

After the movie ended we sat in the living room and Emma continued, repeating the first part of the story and now adding, “You have to hold on, you cannot let go.  If you let go it will fly away.  You have to tie the string,” she gestured with her hands tying a string around her wrist.  “You go to Gaby’s house.  It’s Lili’s birthday party!  We cannot get another balloon.  You cannot let go.  If you let go, it’s all gone.  Emma so upset.”  Emma touched the outer corners of her eyes to show she had once cried over this.  It was absolutely astonishing to witness.  The scene Emma was describing took place either last year or the year before.  Her cousin Lili, who was spending the summer just down the road, was celebrating her birthday, which falls on August 15th.

There is so much to say about Emma’s words last night I hardly know where to begin.  The sheer length of her sentences and the way in which she was relating and putting together a series of events was something I have never seen before, not to this degree.  There was the recognition that it happened around the same time of year as now, and the comment “It was a long time ago”, both of which suggest a depth to her thinking we have rarely if ever seen as well as the understanding of something so abstract as time.  I just posted two days ago regarding Emma’s inability to understand time, and yet here she was referring to an event, which occurred over a year ago and she clearly understood it was “a long time ago”.  I could not imagine these were words she understood much less knew to use in a sentence within an appropriate context had I not heard her last night.

Joe, Richard and I looked at each other in astonishment as Emma continued to talk about Lili’s party and how she had once lost a helium balloon, once there at their house and a couple of times here at ours.  The events were conflated, but the meaning, the emotional weight she felt as a result of loosing the balloons and how she lost them were all correct and factual.

As we climbed the stairs to our bedrooms Richard said, “Hey Emma!  Do you know what tomorrow is?!”

Without turning around or with any hesitation Emma shouted, “It’s Mommy’s birthday!”

This too is noteworthy as Emma is just as likely to have said it was Folgen’s (one of my mother’s two German Shepherds) birthday or Nic’s or hers or Granma’s or my brother Victor’s or his wife Susan’s, who in fact just celebrated her birthday or any number of people who currently occupy the house.  That she has been hearing about the birthday celebrations and activities surrounding today are not so unusual.  What is unusual is the fact she was able to answer Richard’s question without hesitation, demonstrating she has heard us discussing the birthday planning and knew for whom they were for.

Today is my birthday.  I am celebrating half a century.

Emma’s monologue last night was a gift surpassing my wildest dreams.


Yesterday Richard, Emma, Nic and I went to a post wedding party for Joe, Emma’s therapist and Joe’s wife, Angelica.  It is always interesting going to a function together as we never know how Emma will behave.   Will she have a meltdown?  Will she insist on leaving right away?  Will she be so utterly unmanageable that we spend the entire party racing around after her?  When it is a dressy affair, one with speeches and food, which she will have no interest in, it becomes all the more worrisome.  We knew we had a better chance things would go well by the very fact that this was a party for Joe and Emma adores Joe.

Still, we did our best to prepare her before we left.

“We are going to get dressed up, then take a taxi and see Joe!” We told her.

“See Joe!” Emma repeated, nodding her head and twirling in place.

“That’s right Joe and Angelica,” I said.

“It’s a birthday party,” Emma concluded.

“No.  It’s Joe and Angelica’s party celebrating their marriage,” I said, not sure how else to describe a post wedding brunch.

“A wedding-birthday party,” Emma said.

“Well, sort of.  But it’s to celebrate their getting married,” I explained.

“Okay,” Emma said.

“There’s going to be food there and lots of people…” I said.

“And Joe and Angelica!” Emma interrupted me.

“That’s right.  Joe and Angelica will be there.”

“Angelica!  Angelica!”  Emma sang as she twirled in place.

“And there will be a few speeches and we will see a video and then we will come home and change,” I continued.

“Go to Chelsea gym bowling,” Emma said.

“Yeah.  Okay.  We can go bowling at Chelsea Piers afterward,” I said.

“Go with Mommy and Nickey and Daddy,” Emma said.

“Exactly,” I said.

“Okay!  Emma put on a party dress,” Emma said.

“Yes,” I said.

The party was lovely and Emma was terrific, on her best behavior.  Joe’s niece was there, an adorable two-year old in a party dress similar to Emma’s.   They ran around together, though in truth it was Victoria’s exuberant friendliness, undeterred by Emma’s less than attentive response to her, which kept their interactions going.  If Emma sat down, Victoria sat down next to her.  When Emma took her shoes off, off came Victoria’s shoes.  When Emma ran around the room waving her arms, Victoria followed waving her arms as well.  It reminded me of how neuro-typical children behave.  They follow the older child and often mimic them.  Emma never did that.

People ate and chatted with one another.  Both Nic and Emma ran around with the two other children there.  Then Joe stood up to give his speech.  Emma sat down and remained quiet as he spoke.  It was a heart felt speech, incredibly moving and left many of us in tears.

When it was my turn to give a speech, I pulled out my notes.  I had decided, when considering what to say, that perhaps I would use at least some of my time explaining exactly what it is Joe does.  I think it’s easy for people who know nothing about autism to assume he is a glorified babysitter.  Someone who hangs out with Emma and takes her to the park.  This could not be farther from the truth.

When Richard and I went to Bethesda to train in the DIR/floortime method with Stanley Greenspan, who invented it and his son Jake, we were exhausted before the day had ended.  Attempting to engage and evoke language from an essentially non-verbal child who is uninterested in any form of interaction is like nothing I have ever done.  It is physically and emotionally exhausting.  It requires a creativity, quick-thinking, concentration, focus and patience most people simply do not have.  Richard and I have met hundreds of therapists over the years, some have it and many more who do not.  The idea that anyone can effectively work with autistic children is just not true.

Joe is the ninja master, the autism whisperer.  He has a talent for it, an intuitive sense, which I have had the pleasure of observing many, many times.  Joe is not just a gifted floortime therapist, he is also a well trained one.  It is a formidable pairing.

And yet, what I have witnessed time and time again is how Joe and others like him are undermined, their work is seen as little more than babysitting, their profession consistently undervalued.  Devoting ones life to helping children with special needs is a noble calling.  Joe is royalty among the noble.

It was with these sentiments that I rose to give my speech.  I cannot say I got through it flawlessly because I did not.  I stumbled and I had to refer to my notes, I choked up several times and at one point had to stop speaking, as I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.  But mostly I wanted others to understand the importance of what Joe does everyday.   Joe has transformed Emma’s life in untold ways.  His commitment to her, his dedication to her has formed who she is and who she will become.

One story I forgot to mention yesterday was when we were having a hearing with the Board of Education.   Joe had testified as to what he does with Emma.  Richard and I had also testified regarding Joe’s contribution.  During the final cross-examination by our attorney of the attorney for the Board of Education regarding some of her arguments, she looked up from her notes and said, “Well I don’t know.  I’m not a Joe Kennedy.”

When I am with Emma during one of her legendary meltdowns I am fortunate if I have a momentary reprieve when I am able to ask myself – what would Joe say or do in this situation?  The times when I am able to emulate Joe are the times I know I’ve done the right thing.

The Washing Machine

“Should we put Emma in the washing machine?!” Emma asked, while pointing to the washing machine filled with clothing.  Then before I could answer, she shouted gleefully, “NO!!   We cannot put Emma in the washing machine!”  At which point Emma began to laugh hysterically.  “Should we put Mommy in the washing machine?” Emma asked, still laughing and pointing at me.

“Good idea, Em.  But will I fit?” I asked.

“NO!”  Emma shrieked with laughter.  “You cannot fit in the washing machine.  Mommy’s too big!”

“But maybe I could squeeze inside if I scrunched down into a teeny little ball,” I said, sucking my cheeks in and curling my arms up next to my sides.

“NO!”  Emma shouted.  “You cannot fit inside the washing machine.  Emma’s too big!”

“Emma’s too big?  Or Mommy’s too big?”  I asked, laughing along with her.

“Emma AND Mommy too big!  We cannot put Emma in the washing machine,” Emma said.

This went on for quite some time, with me asking if we should put a whole variety of people in the washing machine:  Daddy, Nic, Granma, Uncle Andy, Uncle Victor, Aunt Toni, Uncle Chris…  the list went on.

Each time Emma would answer, “NO!  We cannot put  Nic in the washing machine. Nic is too big!” or “NO!  We cannot put Daddy in the washing machine.  Daddy’s too big!”

“What about Merlin?  Should we put Merlin in the washing machine?” I asked, expecting the same answer from her.

But Emma surprised me by saying, “Yes.”

Taken aback I didn’t say anything for a second.  Then I repeated, “We should put Merlin in the washing machine?”

“Yes!”  Emma said.

“Are you sure?” I asked buying for time and trying to figure out how to save poor Merlin from such a murky fate.

“YES!”  Emma shouted.  “We can put Merlin in the washing machine!”

“Nooooooo!  We cannot put Merlin in the washing machine,” I said.

Emma threw her head back and laughed and laughed.  I don’t know that I have seen her derive so much joy from anything in days.

Poor Merlin.


Autism is nothing without theories.  Specialists, doctors, scientists, geneticists, parents, everyone has a theory when it comes to autism.

Richard claims I have more theories regarding autism than the most versed specialist.  And he’s right, I do.  The only difference is, I freely admit 95% of them turn out to be wrong and the remaining 5% have no validity because while they may prove right for Emma on any given day, they do not hold up long term or within the larger autism population.

Richard and I have a running joke about my desire, my need for theories.  When we are confronted with any new behavior from Emma, Richard will look at me and say, ”And your theory is?”

The beauty of having theories is, autism remains an enormous question mark and so the most impractical of theories hold weight if for no other reason than because they are difficult to prove wrong.  There is so much more we do not know than we do.  The other thing about theories is they give us  (me anyway) hope.  Hope that we’re moving forward.  Hope that maybe this line of thinking is going in the right direction.  Hope that the theory will lead to another theory, which in turn will prove to be true, leading us to a cure, a cause, something, anything…  No matter how crazy, the theory stands until proven otherwise and with autism that may be for a long time.  It’s something, anything, to go on amidst the great expanse of unknown.

Richard usually leaves the theorizing to me, so I was surprised when he said to me last night, “I have a theory.’

“Really?” I said looking at him to be sure he wasn’t making fun of me.

“Yes,” he said.

“Great!  Tell me more.” I said.

“Emma is doing great. “

“And your theory is?” I prodded.

“That is my theory.  She’s doing great.  The other day she and I were walking down the street.  I passed her and stepped off the curb to hail a taxi, but she didn’t see me.  She looked around, her eyes got really big and then she said something, I can’t remember what.  But she was scared and didn’t know where I was.  I called out to her – Emma!  I’m right here!  When she saw me, she cried out – There’s Daddy!  There’s Daddy!  I found you!  That’s never happened before,” Richard paused.  “She was really frightened when she thought I wasn’t there,” he said.

Suddenly I remembered when Emma was three and we went to New Paltz for the weekend.  We stayed at a huge rambling hotel right out of The Shining.  Richard and I in one room, the children with Joe in an adjoining room.  At around 2:00AM I heard a door slam, thinking nothing of it I started to go back to sleep.  Five minutes later our door opened and Joe said, “Is Emma with you guys?”  In a panic all of us threw on clothes and began searching the labryinthian hallways calling for Emma.  We split up hoping we might cover more ground that way, I ran to the front desk and reported her missing to the hotel staff.  It was the dead of winter, snow drifts piled up around the hotel, I was terrified Emma might open one of the self locking doors to the outside and not be able to get back in.  She was bare foot with just her nightgown on.  After about 20 minutes when panic had turned to ice – when your body no longer feels it is your own – one of us found her.  It was either Joe or Richard, I can no longer remember, but I know I began to cry in relief.  She was holding hands with some man who worked for the hotel.  He was quietly talking to her – at that time she had almost no language – and leading her back to the front desk.   I was in tears, thinking of all the horrible things that might have happened to her.  But Emma acted as though nothing unusual had occurred.

Richard continued, “Her sentences are becoming more complex, she’s become much more engaged, she talks all the time now and it’s not just because she wants something.  She’s talking to connect with us.  She wants to connect with us.  And except for the other night, she hasn’t wet the bed in almost a month now.”  He looked at me and then added, “She’s doing great.”

I remember when Emma turned four we had a big birthday party for her, hired a musician to come and play the guitar and sing kid friendly songs.  Emma was dressed up in one of her “party” dresses with a tiara on.  She spent most of the party trying to lie down inside of the musician’s guitar case, ignoring all the other children and the music.  I remember plastering on a smile for our guests, at one point I excused myself and wept in the back, giving myself two minutes to cry before returning to the party and pretending everything was fine.  I didn’t fully understand her sensory issues; I hadn’t developed any theories at that point.  I was still in the process of reading everyone else’s theories regarding autism.

“It’s a good theory,” I said to Richard.

“Yup.  I like it,” he said.

Zurcher’s Folly

Yesterday I asked Emma, “Do you want to go to the indoor pool?”

To my surprise she answered, “No.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked.

She said nothing, which could mean she wanted to or it also might mean she didn’t.  It could go either way.

I needed to be more specific.  “Do you want to go to the cabin?”

“Yes!” She replied.  She ran into the mudroom and grabbed a leash, which she attached to my shorts.  There is a history (as there is with almost everything she does) to the leash.  When she was a toddler, she became absolutely terrified of dogs, all dogs.  We would explain to her that the dogs wouldn’t hurt her and anyway they would be on a leash.  The only way she could be convinced to go on a hike was if she could hold the leash.  Over time that led to putting me on a leash and now it is a given that the dogs run freely, but I am on a leash that Emma holds and occasionally tugs on if I am not going quickly enough or conversely, am going too quickly to force me to slow down.  In any event, it works.

Off to the cabin we went, the dogs racing around fighting over various sticks they found along the way and Emma and I leashed together.

The cabin, one room, no hot water, no electricity, a wood burning stove and fireplace, was nick named “Zurcher’s Folly”.  My immediate family built it log by log and at the time, my father, in particular wondered if it would sit unused.   In the 1970’s the ranch had no houses on it, just fields, shrub, irrigation ditches some beaver dams, herds of elk roamed through each winter, bears and coyote took over in the summer.   The only structures were a barn and the ranch house at the edge of the property where a revolving door of people lived in return for taking care of the irrigation ditches, sometimes boarding horses on the land.

Since the cabin was built various family members have slept in it.  During a brief break between colleges I even lived in it for four months, packing my food and water in, sitting out on the deck looking out onto the Rockies and contemplated life.  The cabin has always held a special place in my heart, a place my family built with their own hands and hard work, a place of solitude, removed from everything else.  Unless an airplane flew overhead one would not know what year it was.  We go out to the cabin at least once every time we come to Aspen.  A pilgrimage of sorts, it is a reminder of what is important in life and what we all love about being in this part of the world.

My two children have been going out to the cabin ever since they were born.  So it was with a certain degree of excitement that Emma and I made our way through the grass and fallen trees before rounding the bend and caught our first glimpse of the cabin’s roof.

Emma immediately began to run.  After I’d unlocked the door, she dropped the leash and fell onto a mouse dung covered platform, which serves as one of two beds.  We stayed there for a few hours, me rereading the journal we keep where everyone who has visited the cabin over the past thirty plus years is encouraged to make an entry, and Emma singing and dancing.

On the way home Emma grabbed the leash once again and tugged on it.

“What?” I asked.

“Go to the indoor pool,” Emma said.

“But it’s too late now, Emma.  We have to go home and get dressed for the picnic we’re going to,” I said.

Emma pretended to cry with an exaggerated facial expression.  Sometimes this leads to Emma actually crying, what begins as a kind of joke can soon turn into the real thing.

I began to sing, “We can’t go to the indoor pool.  We’re going to a picnic.”

Emma picked up where I left off, “I want to go to the indoor pool,” she sang, then looked at me.

“We can’t, we can’t, we can’t,” I sang back.

Then Emma sang, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”

We went on like this making up verses and melodies, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes stopping mid “verse” until the other picked it up.

“I could hear you two singing all the way up the trail,” Richard said when we eventually returned to the house.

“Wasn’t that great?” I asked.

“She’s doing great, Ariane,” Richard replied.

And he’s right.

She is.