Tag Archives: children special needs

Preventative Measures

The New York Times published a piece in August of this year about the role the environment plays in the rise of autism.  It begins with the question asked by many people who are hoping to become parents  – What can we do to decrease the risk?

I have often thought about what I would have done differently, knowing what I now know.  There are a number of things, things I didn’t know to do or not do when I was pregnant with Emma.  There are a few things that appear to have some scientific basis to them, such as taking prenatal vitamins at least three months before getting pregnant and continuing to take them for the duration of the pregnancy.  I began taking them when I learned I was pregnant with Nic, though interestingly, with Emma I was taking them before I became pregnant with her and continued throughout the duration of my pregnancy.  I would not have eaten any fish of any kind during any part of my pregnancy.  I ate grilled swordfish a couple of times in my second trimester with Emma.  I also used fingernail polish remover a couple of times and had my hair highlighted once during my third trimester.   I would have stopped using all artificial sweeteners and I would have been more careful after the 9/11 attacks by not going downtown to Richard’s office in Soho to work.  Beyond those incidences, I did not take any drugs of any kind, not even aspirin, I didn’t consume caffeine or alcohol, I did not have an amniocentesis, avoided all and any invasive procedures, had two sonograms and gave birth naturally in a birthing center.  It seems unlikely that anything I did while pregnant contributed to her autism, but who knows?

After giving birth I would have done a number of things differently.  From the moment she took her first breath I would have eliminated all onion, garlic, dairy and wheat from my diet while I was breast feeding.  During those first few months when she was so uncomfortable and “colicky” I would have kept a food journal to see if there were other foods I was consuming that upset her and then eliminated those.  Since Emma seemed so uncomfortable when I breast fed and much preferred drinking breast milk from the bottle, I would have tried different techniques in swaddling her or having some sort of soft cloth between us so our skin to skin contact wasn’t so uncomfortable for her.  I would have started brushing therapy (click link for more detailed information on brushing) with joint compressions (see link for a detailed description of joint compression exercises) during this period as well.

Then there are the things I wish I had done much sooner such as  Dr. Marion Blank‘s literacy program instead of all those hours spent doing ABA.  I wish I had discouraged Emma from sucking her thumb.  I would not have introduced corn, soy, wheat, dairy or any foods that are thought to be problematic for some children.  I would have obtained an evaluation much sooner as well as taken her to a neurologist and had an MRI done before she was 18 months old.

Had I done all of those things, would any of it made a difference?  Except for introducing Dr. Blank’s program right away, which I am convinced would have made an enormous difference, who knows?  How much of a role does the environment play?  How much is due to genetics?  I have questions, lots of questions.  None of which will likely be answered any time soon.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Emma’s Story

This is the story Emma made up and wrote this morning before she went to school.

I had to give her support a couple of times when she would say a word, such as “the” or “to” but then would forget to actually write it and wrote the next word (always a noun or verb) instead.  According to Dr. Marion Blank, the woman who created the literacy program we have been using with Emma for the past nine months, children on the spectrum dislike non-content words.

Emma then took her story over to her dad and read it to him!

We first met Dr. Blank almost a year ago now.  Before that first meeting we both read her book “The Reading Remedy” and were impressed by it.  In January of 2011 we began implementing her program with Emma.  During those first few months we worked on the beginning of letter formations and sequencing.  In April Emma was able to form all the letters of the alphabet and we began the first level of the literacy program.  Over the last seven months Dr. Blank has added other elements to the program, specifically designed for Emma so that we now are working on a spoken language program in conjunction with the literacy piece as well as the Phonics Plus Five and Reading Kingdom programs.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Amanda Boxtel

Last night Richard and I went to a launch party here in New York City of Ekso Bionics with a live demonstration by Amanda Boxtel.  Amanda was in a skiing accident over 20 years ago, which left her a paraplegic.  For more than two decades Amanda has lived her life from a wheel chair.

This photo is out of focus and does not do Amanda justice.

Amanda demonstrates the power of Ekso Bionics

This quote is from Amanda’s website.

“Imagine wanting something so badly for years and years—fluctuating between acceptance of what is and hope for something better.  Imagine if that one thing you longed for is to stand tall with your legs supporting your full body weight, and then taking your first step.”

When we took Emma to Costa Rica for her first stem cell treatment, fluid seeped from her spine into her blood stream.  Suddenly she was in excruciating pain and Richard and I were terrified.  Amanda wrote me and her letter, one of many I have kept, was a calm voice of strength and reassurance.  Amanda has been to India six times for stem cell treatments.  She is an inspiration and source of hope for all.

Watching Amanda stand and then walk last night was a visual confirmation of what is possible in this world, if we never give up.  I think of Amanda often as I work with my daughter, Emma. Writing is difficult for Emma, it does not come easily.  But then walking does not come easily to Amanda either and yet she has never allowed that to slow her down.

Emma’s writing from this morning

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Having a Daughter with Autism

Someone asked me the other day – What’s it like having a daughter with autism?

The flippant response would be – I don’t know what it’s like to have a daughter without autism.  But the more thoughtful answer is a bit longer and more complicated.  My own experience of being a daughter to a mother with whom I feel deeply connected to, a connection that many, I have learned over the years, do not have certainly plays a role in my answer.  I have always felt my mother and I share something that goes beyond the usual feelings of responsibility and gratitude toward someone who gave so much in order that I might have a good life.  It is as though we share something much more than the history and past of living under the same roof for the first 17 years of my life, something I cannot adequately put into words.  We have a closeness, a bond and yes, a friendship that only a few of my female friends can relate to regarding their own mothers.  I have often said that if my mother were not my mother, I would wish she were.  I don’t actually know many people who can truthfully say that about their mothers.  I am lucky.  I get that.

So when I was pregnant with Emma, I fully expected to have a similar experience.  I knew right away she was a girl.  Don’t ask me how, I just knew it.  For one thing I began to wear pink, a color I never liked until Emma entered my being and for another I craved spinach and blue cheese during my first trimester, as opposed to steak and all things meat when pregnant with Nic.  Okay so I’m not being completely serious – though all of this is true – the pregnancy was different with Em, it just was.  Without meaning to or even consciously trying to, I visualized my soon to be daughter.  I knew she would have blonde hair, blue eyes and broad shoulders, as both Richard and I share these things, but beyond that I couldn’t know. I sang to her, just as I did when I was pregnant with Nic, I talked to her, read to her and dreamed about her.

While pregnant with Emma, I was walking on Fifth Avenue one afternoon, when I passed The American Girl store.  It reminded me of my first and favorite doll, Maribelle, a gift from my mother to me when I was little.  Maribelle came in a blue and grey striped trunk complete with shoes, gowns, dresses, she even had a fur coat!  (I still have Maribelle – she and her trunk reside upstairs in my mother’s house.) I saved her, intending to give her to my own daughter, were I fortunate enough to have one. Looking through the large windows of the store I fantasized of the day I would bring my daughter there and how she would choose a special doll.  A doll that would be like Maribelle was to me – a companion, a doll she would whisper secrets to and spend hours upon hours playing with.

Richard and I were not the kind of parents intent on placing our yet-to-be-born children on waiting lists of the most coveted New York City preschools, looking to the day we could sit listening to our child’s speech having graduated  from Harvard Summa Cum Laude.  Ours was a more unconventional approach – at one point we fantasized about putting all of our belongings in storage and traveling the world for a few years.  We spent many an evening discussing the places we wanted to travel to, which included Tanzania, Lebanon, Egypt, Brazil, Morocco and Laos.  We poured over guide books and vowed that once both children were out of diapers we would make our fantasies reality.  We had no way of knowing that Emma wouldn’t be out of diapers until she was eight and a half years old.  We couldn’t know that once she was out of diapers we would be scrambling to cover the staggering cost of her care, making any dreams of extensive travel abroad impossible to seriously contemplate, not to mention the sheer logistics of traveling to a foreign country with a child with special needs.

(To be continued.)

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Autism’s Murky Future

Yesterday the New York Times ran a front page piece entitled – Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.  I am always so grateful when I see anything on autism, even when I am not told anything I don’t already know.  I am particularly grateful when I see something on autism on the front page of the New York Times.  For those of us who are parents of a child with autism, the looming question of what will happen when our child becomes an adult is something we do not have the luxury to ignore.  Yet, the answer is not readily available to us, either.  There is no road map by which we can look to.  The future of our children is very much up in the air.  It is a tricky balance keeping the fear at bay, while also being practical and realistic about ones child’s future and how we might ensure she is taken care of should she not be able to hold down a job and live independently.

My message of hope on The Hope Installation at the entrance to the High Line

The truth is we cannot know what Emma will be like in another eight years, all we can do is continue to work as intensely and extensively with her as we currently are.

So this evening when I come home from work, I will work on the word – does.  After we spend an hour or so going over the word, both using it in hand written sentences and as well as typing sentences with it, we will also use the word verbally as when I lay out a frog, a boy, a bus and a dog and say, “Hand me the one who does not eat.”  After we have done all of that we will play some games using the word “does” and finally we will go over a list of words she has already learned and review them.  Somewhere during all of this – dinner will be prepared, Nic’s homework will get done, stories will be read and everyone will eventually go to bed.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Gymnastics – Autism

Because Emma has a wide variety of sensory issues and because she is so active, we are always trying to find things she can do that might give her some of the sensory input she so craves as well as help her focus while doing something she enjoys – moving.  Finding someone willing and able to teach her is often challenging.  It requires a special person who can keep her focused without using a great deal of language, who also has the patience and desire to continue to work with her for more than one of two times.

When we finally found Brett, a gymnastics instructor, we leapt at the chance to make this into a weekly affair.  So on Sundays Emma and Nic have an hour of gymnastics – or they did until Brett hurt his ankle.  But now Brett is back and off they went last Sunday to their first gymnastics class in almost four months.  Emma was very excited and kept saying, “Oh, Brett’s ankle is broken.”  “Brett hurt his ankle.”  “Ankle all better now.”

To which we would answer, “Yes, Brett hurt his ankle, but now it’s much better!”

When we arrived and Brett came out to get Nic and Emma, Emma bent down and gently patted his ankle.  “You hurt your ankle,” she said, sadly.

“Yeah, but it’s better.  Thanks Emma.”

“Ouch!  Have to get a bandaid,”  Emma said.  Because to Emma, anything that hurts requires a bandaid and will feel better if a bandaid is applied.

Emma and Nic stretching with Brett

Since it’s been awhile since Emma had gymnastics, I was curious to see what if anything was different.  Would she be able to stay more focused?  Would she attend more?  Would she be able to follow instruction better?

During their stretching period, Emma managed to keep up.

And while her form wasn’t great, she did do all the various stretches as best she could.

Later she was able to do straddle jumps on the trampoline and forward and back rolls on the mat.  She became a bit distracted when a birthday party took place in another part of the gym, but for the most part she attended and tried to listen.

Waiting for her turn on the trampoline.

All in all she showed progress, slow but steady progress.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

A Work In Progress

As we have added more work to Emma’s already busy schedule, I have had to adjust my own schedule to accommodate.  Since her new school year began this week, I am now doing her literacy session before the bus comes to take her to school in the morning, while Richard gets Nic ready.

This morning we worked on the word “boy”.  Emma wrote this in answer to my question – “Are these boys?”

“What are they?”

Wait for it…

Yes, they most certainly are!

The beauty of this is that all of it is done non-verbally.  Emma is able to concentrate fully on answering the questions posed by either writing or typing the sentences on the computer.  Today she learned how to use the shift key while hitting the appropriate letter to create an upper case letter to mark the beginning of a sentence.  The grin on her face when she wrote:  “Here are some boys.  They are sitting.” complete with punctuation and upper case letters for the “H” and the “T” was as close to euphoria as one can get.  She even giggled when she was finished and beamed at me with pride.

This is the dress Emma chose to wear to school today.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Hope – Autism

For those of you planning a trip to New York City, you must take in the High Line, New York City’s most creative and interesting park, built on the old elevated tracks on the west side of downtown Manhattan.  The High Line spans more than twenty blocks and eventually will end at 34th Street.  Last Sunday we came upon this art installation at the bottom of one of the High Line’s many entrances/exits.

On each of the little red and yellow tags people had written what they hoped for.  One said, “Cure Ann of her cancer” another said, “I hope I will love Miquel forever”, and still another read, “Please make Mom get better”.

Love and health were the most popular “hopes”.  I would have written one of my own had I’d thought to bring a pen with me – Let Emma live an independent, happy life, filled with loving relationships.  I guess the thing about hope is it keeps us moving forward.  Hope allows us to get through tough times.  I am reminded of the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:  “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope…”  Regardless of ones beliefs, these words have given solace to a great many, myself included.

For more on Emma and her journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

My Emma

A mother with her little girl, about Emma’s age stand patiently in line for the bathroom on our flight to Denver.  Methodically her mother braids her daughter’s long, blonde hair, then places her arms around the child’s upper body.  Her daughter puts her own hands on top of her mother’s, tilts her head up and smiles at her mother.

I marvel at how such a simple gesture, probably gone unnoticed by either of them, is utterly foreign to me.  I long for such a simple exchange with Emma.  I get them, but they are rare.  When they do come, seemingly out of nowhere, I am usually caught off guard and brought to tears, tears of relief and joy and something else, something closer to grief.

I think of Emma, standing in a similar line, on this same airplane route flying from New York’s La Guardia to Denver several years ago.

“Potty?” Emma says, anxiety rising in her voice.

“Yes, we have to wait in line,” I say.

“Potty?!” Emma says again, her voice slightly louder, the anxiety has crept up a notch.

I count the number of people in front of us, there are four, but one’s a couple so maybe they don’t both have to go, perhaps they’re just keeping each other company I reason.  Five minutes, tops, I think.

“We have to wait,” I say again, grim determination steeling into my tone.  I take a breath when another person vacates the only bathroom, reducing our line to three.  I look behind me at the two bathrooms at the back of the plane, the line snakes up the aisle, at least half a dozen are waiting.

“Have to use the potty,” Emma says now close to tears.

The woman in front of us turns to look at the whining child, my child.  “She can go ahead of us,” she says kindly.

“No she can’t,” her husband, counters.

“Scott!  Of course she can.  Go on, go ahead of us,” she glares at her husband who is shaking his head in annoyance.

Grateful, I thank them, ignore the husband’s irritated glare and go to the head of the line, pulling Emma ahead of me.   Anxiety, stress – will she wet her pants?  Did I bring enough pairs of underwear and a full change of clothing if she does  Embarrassment, humiliation… it’s all there.

I return my thoughts to the little girl with her mother behind me, looking for any sign that she might be uncomfortable.  There are none – mother and daughter, utterly relaxed standing close to one another, as though this were the most natural thing in the world.

“Compare and despair,” a friend of mine once said to me.  And it is true, though I cannot always help myself.  Whenever we are with friends with small children, whenever we are at a playground, any time I see a child I find myself asking – did Emma do that when she was that age?  Did Emma ever to do that? And then the inevitable follow up question, which serves to slam the door shut on all further questions – will she ever do that?

Who knows?

I am away for the next four days, yet my children and husband are here with me, everywhere I go.  I find there’s great solace in that.

The Performance

Emma loves nothing more than a birthday party.  And so it was with great excitement that she descended the staircase wearing her party dress with a pair of lime-green and black crocks on her feet last night.

“Oh Emma!  You look so beautiful!”  I said when I saw her.

“It’s Mommy’s birthday,” She said in response.

If we are having a few people over for dinner, Emma will say, “It’s a birthday party!”

“No, we’re just having some friends over for dinner,” I will try to explain.

“Party,” Emma will say, nodding her head and then she’ll add quickly, almost under her breath, “Birthday party.”  As though by saying this it will make it so.

It doesn’t matter how often we explain that any given holiday such as Christmas is different than a birthday it becomes a  – “Christmas Birthday party.”  If we are having family and friends over for Thanksgiving – it becomes a “Thanksgiving Birthday party”.  My mother’s birthday falls on Thanksgiving every seven years, which has only compounded the problem, making our explanation all the more inexplicable to Emma.  How is it that just two years ago we had a huge birthday celebration on Thanksgiving for my mother with relatives flying in from all over the US and now this year it’s a regular Thanksgiving.  As far as Emma’s concerned we are making things far too complicated.  A party is a birthday party no matter what we say.  And yet, now after the other night’s monologue I wonder if this is true.  Perhaps the subtleties are not lost on her, perhaps she simply is unable to express herself well enough to tell us how she feels and it’s the excitement she is trying her best to convey.  The kind of excitement we can understand and which we are able to share with her derived from a birthday celebration.

So it was last night as I celebrated a half-century of life, which does seem an awfully long time.  But age carries little importance to Emma.  Often when asked, “Emma, how old are you?”  She will answer, “Three!” or “Five!” as likely as what her real age is, “Eight!”  These are words, which she tries to remember but sometimes forgets.  When I hear her answer, it seems to me the number holds no meaning to her.    As it should be, I say.

Last night after the birthday cake was served and my mother had given a toast, Emma ran up to the front of the room, grabbed hold of a pretend microphone and proceeded to say in a loud voice, “Ladies and Gentleman!  Enjoy the show!”

Richard and I exchanged a nervous look.  Emma has been known to get up in front of an “audience” whether it’s on the subway and they are involuntary and captive or at any dinner party to sing.  Often Emma will sing the same song over and over until she is told to stop.  When we are home and it’s just us we will allow her to sing the same song repeatedly.  However even then we will try to redirect her and encourage her to sing a different song to break her out of the increasingly perseverative loop she can get herself in.

“Emma!  Would you like to sing?”  I asked.

“Yes,” Emma said, bouncing up and down.

“Okay, one song,” I said holding up an index finger.

Emma nodded her head, “Okay.”

“What would you like to sing?” I asked.

“It’s My Life,” Emma said.

It’s My Life by Gwen Stefani is Emma’s favorite song, hands down.  Not only does Emma know the lyrics by heart, but she has all the instrumentals down and does her best to make noises replicating them.  Our guests, all 50 plus of them gave her their attention as Emma began.  It was a flawless performance, which began somewhat timidly, for Emma is usually not shy in either pitch nor volume, picking up in intensity after the first few bars.  By the end she was dancing and singing with abandon.  When she finished everyone cheered and applauded as Emma beamed.  She ran over to me.

Looking into my eyes she said, “Daddy’s turn and then Emma sing again?”

That’s our beautiful girl – a Gwen Stefani wannabe, rock and roll princess who loves an appreciative audience.  I’m just hoping someone recorded it.


“Do you think Emma will ever ask us a question?”

When Ariane asked me that question, I had to pause and think about it. Had Emma ever asked us any questions? After a few more seconds of scouring the memory bank, I answered.

“She asks us questions all the time,” I said. “They’re just simple questions.”

“Go to snake bite museum?”

“Watch Elmo movie?”

“Take a plane, see Grandma?”

“Have some apple juice?”

As far as I can remember, all of her questions are requests to have her needs met or requests for information or clarification, which are also needs-related.

“Go to snake bite museum?”  Request for needs to be met.

“Take a plane, go see Grandma?” Request for information related to needs.

She will also frequently make statements that are stealth questions, often with her voice rising up slightly at the end of a sentence like you do when asking a question.

“No see Becky today. No school bus.” Then she will look up at you expectantly, requesting an affirmation.

“That’s right Emma, today’s Saturday, there’s no school today.”

We probably say “That’s right Emma” more than any single phrase to her. As a consequence, she also says “That’s right” all the time.

“No take the bus.”

“That’s right Emma, no school bus today.”

“That’s right! No school bus today!”

“So what do you want to do Emma?”

“Make pancakes?”

“Sure Emma, let’s make pancakes.”


When Ariane asked me the question about Emma asking a question, I instantly knew what she really meant by that. That’s why I had to pause a few seconds and think about whether she had or not.

“Why does Grandma live so far away?”

“How do they get all the music into an iPod?”

“Where is California? How long does it take to get there?”

“Why are the buildings so tall here?”

“How come they keep all the animals in cages at the zoo?”

“When am I going to be a grown-up?”

These are all simple questions you might hear from any four-year old child. They seem light years away from Emma’s capabilities right now. Why? When? How? Where? What? These questions never seem to materialize, at least not in that form.

“Can I?” “Have some?” “Go there?” Yes, they are all questions, but not the kind you expect to hear from a girl who is eight years old. Her teachers at school have told us she has made progress in asking questions, and will even tell us examples of the what, where, when, how and even some why questions she has asked. I can cite some examples too, though they don’t use the actual W words.

When and where questions are the easiest:

“Get on a plane, go see grandma?” That’s a when question in disguise. She wants to know when we are going.

If we are in an unfamiliar area she might ask a where question like, “Go find swimming pool?” Most kids would ask, “Where can we find a swimming pool around here?”

“Get on a plane, go to hospital (hosspull)?” That’s a when and sort of a where question. She wants to know when we are going for the stem cell treatment and where are we going, which foreign country do we have to fly five hours to reach because our government can’t get it together to have these treatments available here. Ha. Ha.

“Daddy, movie is broken. Daddy help?” That’s a when and how question. How can you get this thing working again? When can I watch Mary Poppins?”

What questions are a rare breed, at least the kind of what questions normal kids ask that stem from curiosity about something unfamiliar. She doesn’t seem to have that curiosity for more information about what something is, how it works, or why it is the way it is.

The rarest of the rare are why questions, and the rarest of the why questions, the albino elephants of the question world, are why questions related to abstract thought.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

If we ever hear Emma ask a question like that, we are home free!

Presto, chango. “That’s a normal kid you got there mister!”

Why questions related to feelings are the low hanging fruit we strive to harvest, planting the seeds for them by asking her why she feels the way she feels, usually when her emotions are very intense – intensely happy, or intensely upset.

“Why are you so upset Emma? Why are you so sad (or angry, or frustrated)?

“Emma is so upset (…because…) Emma can’t find cokie.” (her blanket).

If she can truly understand a why question like that, and she does hallelujah, then she can ask one too. Since her receptive language (comprehending what we say) is stronger than her expressive language (communicating her thoughts), this is how we practice with her.

I know she asked me a why question once, related to my feelings. Probably something like “Why is daddy upset?” but I can’t remember exactly what it was.

Maybe Ariane, Joe or one of her teachers or therapists could add more examples they have witnessed in the comments section below. The more we can list, the more hope we have. Hope is the name of the game here (and the name of the blog).

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t have a great deal of hope that this next stem cell treatment will yield a few how and what questions.

If we get a few whysGravy.


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.

Emma’s School Bus

Emma came home this evening and said, “Sad.”  This was in answer to my question, “How are you?”

“Why Emma?  What happened?” I asked.

“Emma have to go on the school bus.  Emma make you sad,” she said, frowning and nodding her head.

“What do you mean?” I asked kneeling down so my eyes were on the same level as hers.

“You have to wait!  You have to sit!  Emma cry.  Emma bite yourself,” Emma looked directly at me as she said this.

“Why do you have to wait, Emma?” I asked.

“Want to go to Becky’s class.”

“Did your bus come to school early?”  I asked trying to piece together what Emma was trying to tell me.

“You have to wait.  Want to go to Becky’s class.”

“Did someone tell you, you had to wait?” I asked.

Emma nodded her head.  Shouting and pointing her finger she said, “I told you! SIT DOWN!”

At this point I was more than a little alarmed.  “Emma, who said that to you?”

Emma didn’t answer at first, then nodded her head.  “Yeah,” she said in a sad voice.

These kinds of responses from Emma only highlight how difficult it can be to communicate with her and understand her.

“Did the bus driver say that to you or the bus matron?” I asked, knowing these were the only two people on the school bus.

“Bus driver said – I told you NO!  Sit down!”  Emma said in a loud stern voice.  Then in a quieter voice she said, “Emma cry.  Emma so upset.”

I think it was at this point in the conversation when I went to the computer and wrote an email to our lawyer, ccing Richard and Emma’s head teacher, the head master and social worker.  I have no idea what kind of recourse is available to us and so we need advice.  What I do know is that we have had to deal with the Office of Public Transportation since Emma began going to school five years ago.  Emma’s bus arrives between 7:20AM and 7:40AM to take her some fourteen blocks to her school, which begins at 8:30AM.  When I called to complain about the early pick up time, insisting that it cannot possibly take an hour to drive fourteen blocks even if three of them are cross town blocks, I was told the bus picks up many other children who go to several nearby special education schools before Emma is eventually dropped off at her school.  In other words, Emma is driven around the city for close to an hour.  For years now I have questioned the logic in this and have been:  hung up on, yelled at or told this is the way the route is mapped out and there’s nothing that can be done.

A few years ago I was determined to have the bus change their pick up time from 7:15AM to something later.  For two months I went back and forth with various people at the Office of Public Transportation, sometimes calling three and four times in a single day.  By the time they finally agreed to change Emma’s pick up time the semester was coming to an end and we started anew with a new bus company and driver after the break.  Which is another bizarre thing.  Are special needs children the only ones who have a new bus company, new bus driver, new bus route every three to four months?  How is it that neuro-typical children in New York City have the same bus for the entire school year, often for several years in a row?

In the past few weeks I have noticed when the bus pulls up that there seem to be only one or two other children on the bus as was the case Thursday morning, no other children.  Emma was the only child.  So unless the bus is picking up children after Emma, it is driving fourteen blocks (which should take about ten minutes depending on traffic.  If the bus arrives early, (picks Emma up at 7:25AM drives ten minutes to her school, getting there by 7:35AM) it sits idling outside the school until the school’s doors open at 8:25AM.  Which means (if I am correct) Emma is waiting in the bus alone for almost an hour.

What makes all of this particularly horrifying to me is we put Emma on the school bus and cross our fingers she will be treated well and with respect, she will arrive safely at her school in a timely manner, but we cannot know what really goes on because Emma cannot tell us.  We have to trust.  And at this moment I no longer trust.


Emma can be very strict.  She is a stickler for rules.  Merlin (see yesterday’s post) is not supposed to jump up onto the counters or dining room table.  If he does, Emma shouts, “Merlin!  Get down!”  Even if he hasn’t jumped up on the counter (yet) Emma will remind him, “Merlin!  You may not get up on the table.”

If we have a vase of flowers on the dining room table Emma will repeatedly warn Merlin (whether it applies or not) “Merlin, kitty, you cannot eat the flowers!”  Then she’ll laugh.

These are all things she has heard us say at some point and Emma is a terrific mimic.  She will not only repeat the things she hears us say, but she will mimic the tone.  There’s a word for what she does.  It is – echolalia – common among autistic children.  Echolalia is the parroting or echoing of sentences and phrases heard.   Emma does not make the sorts of linguistic mistakes commonly heard in young children.  She does not say things like – I bringed it to her – something often heard from young neuro-typical children as they try their best to navigate the English language.  On the other hand Emma will say – Bye Emma! When saying good-bye to someone, whose name is definitely not Emma.  It is what she hears them say to her when they or she is leaving.  Why would she say anything else!?  To Emma “Bye Emma” means a parting of ways.  Or, as in the case of a dinner party we had a few months ago, Emma felt it was time for everyone to leave, she announced – “Dinner is all done!  Bye Emma!”  When our guests, understandably confused, said, “Oh!  Are you going now?” but did not themselves show any sign of leaving, Emma began bringing them their coats, saying, “Bye! Bye Emma!”  while vigorously waving her hand good-bye.  Needless to say she cleared the place out within minutes, despite our reassurances that it was not time to go yet and wouldn’t they like to stay and have some coffee or tea.

For Emma, however, we had eaten, she had patiently waited while this occurred.  She knew there would be dessert after which she would be allowed to blow out the candles on the dinner table while singing “Happy Birthday” (Any party is a birthday party and remarkably some guest almost always is about to have or has just had a birthday – so it confirms Emma’s ‘party = birthday party’ theory.)  Once Emma has sung Happy Birthday, usually several times and with all of us joining in for the third or fourth “last time” rendition – it is time to go to bed.  Emma has a difficult time understanding that we may not be ready for bed.  We may want to move into the living room to talk, have some tea or coffee and enjoy each other’s company.  This, for Emma, is not how it should be, it is her bedtime now and so it should be everyone elses too.  This sort of flexibility does not fit into her “rules”.  The guests should leave and if they do not, then Emma must remind them.

When Emma was beginning to talk she did not say single words, but whole sentences.  See previous post – “Emma at Ten Months Old”.  As Emma grew older, she would repeat things she heard others say.  But the things she latched on to were things said with a great deal of emotion, or, as Stanley Greenspan used to say, “high affect”.  Sometimes these comments were in context, but other times they were arbitrary.  A dear friend of mine who has two children just a bit younger than mine admonished her son in the playground one day while we were there.

“Rogan NO!”  She shouted, as her son dashed toward the gate leading out onto 10th Avenue.  Emma, for the next four years mimicked her in all sorts of situations.  Often it was when she wanted to go somewhere, but knew she shouldn’t, but just as often it was arbitrary.  Emma would shout, “Rogan NO!”   Sometimes she would add  “You have to come back!”  And sometimes she would just use the short hand version  “NO!”  But we knew from the way she said it, the tone she used who she was mimicking.  She had captured the voice perfectly.  A few years ago we ran into my friend with her children in the park and Emma upon seeing her, immediately said, “Rogan, NO!”  Fortunately my friend has a good sense of humor and didn’t take offense.

Emma does the same thing with another friend of ours.

“Jack!” Emma will shout in a stern voice.  Then “Jack!  Jack!  Jack!”  Said in rapid succession.  She captures the child’s name and the anxiety ridden pitch perfectly.  At Nic’s birthday party a few years back, Emma, upon seeing Jack’s father, started shouting – Jack!  Jack! Jack!

“I guess that’s how I sound, huh?” The father said, looking slightly embarrassed.

How to explain?

For Emma, rules help her cope in a world run riot.  Rules provide sameness and from that, Emma derives comfort.  Though Emma has been known to question some of the rules she does not like.  “We cannot make pancakes,” Emma will say, knowing it is a school day.  She hopes maybe we will make pancakes anyway and this is as close to a question as we often get.  But once confirmed, “No we cannot make pancakes this morning.  It’s Wednesday,” one of us will say, Emma will begrudgingly accept this.  It is our rule after all.

“Sleep, wake up, sleep wake up, sleep wake up, pancakes!” Emma will respond.

“Yes.  That’s right.  Pancakes on Saturday and Sunday.”

“Make pancakes with Mommy?”  Emma will say with a sly grin, trying one last time to see if this ‘rule’ can be suspended if for only one day.

“Pancakes with Mommy on Saturday.  Today is Wednesday.”

“Okay,” Emma will say.

The Search

One of the things I realized early on in my search to help our daughter was, there are a number of people who believe they know what causes autism and many more who believe they can cure it.  There is also a tremendous amount of money to be made from desperate parents, like myself.   I cannot tell you how often I took Emma to an alternative “healer” who claimed, if I just kept going and paying them their enormous fee, Emma would be cured.  I do not believe these people meant to deceive, I think they really have convinced themselves their method will cure a child and if it does not, it is because we didn’t give it enough time.

In many ways Bruno Bettelheim’s refrigerator mom is alive and well even if it has taken on a new twist in today’s world.  While no one came right out and said – You are to blame for her autism (and to blame if whatever method they were pushing didn’t cure her) – it was inferred by the questions they asked.  What follows is a sampling of a few of the questions I have been asked over the years.

Did you drink caffeine during your pregnancy?


Did you or do you drink alcohol?


Did you take any sort of medication during your pregnancy or labor?




What about aspirin?


Did you sun bathe?


Did you have an epidural during labor?

No.  No drugs, natural childbirth.

How long did you breast feed?

9 months.

Just nine months?

Yes.  Emma didn’t want to breast feed, she weaned herself.  I wasn’t going to force her to breast feed when it clearly distressed her.

Ahhh…  Did you eat fish?

A couple of times.

What kind?

Grilled swordfish.  I didn’t know about the mercury levels in fish when I was pregnant with Emma.  It was only a few times when we were in Cape Cod.


There it was, finally, the answer they were waiting for.  Depending on the practitioner, the questions changed and as a result, my answers, but there always came a point when I gave the “wrong” answer. It always ended the same way with the same look – eyes downcast, a slight sad shake of the head.  I came away from these ‘interviews’ feeling angry, but I also wondered if there was any truth to it.   Maybe the two times I ate grilled swordfish while we were in Cape Cod, really was enough to cause her autism…  I think as a mother, it is second nature to wonder if something one did during pregnancy horribly effected the baby.  To this day I feel tremendous guilt for having unwittingly eaten swordfish during my pregnancy with Emma.  I honestly did not know how toxic our oceans had become.

I have become particularly wary of those who are adamant autism is caused by any one thing.  My guess is, it’s multi-causal, but who knows?  I am also wary of those who speak with absolute assurance they know how to “cure” autism with diets, behavioral therapies and alternative remedies.  Autism is a neurological disorder and while all of these things may play prominent roles in children getting better, I have yet to meet a child who has been cured, in fact, I have yet to meet anyone who has met a child who has been cured.