The Quiet Leader (#98)

There’s a photo of Charlie at the Vietnam War Memorial, a small boy in a light green striped shirt walking with his head tilted down. It was April of 2000 and we were in Washington, D.C., to attend the first Unlocking Autism rally. What stands out most in the picture is the long line of people walking in the opposite direction that Charlie is.

This was neither the first nor will be the last time that Charlie walks his own way, head against the crowd. A daycare teacher once referred to Charlie as "a quiet leader" (this was in his pre-autism-diagnosis days, when he was just shy of 18 months old); one day, Charlie had started pushing around a toy lawnmower and the other kids grabbed toy shopping carts, scooters, anything pushable, and pushed around the room with him.

Charlie did not notice that he had started a trend. He has always, as Jim wryly quips, been utterly immune to peer pressure, to the point that a basic portion of Charlie’s education has involved teaching him to imitate others. I tend to think that all of what Charlie does is him self-expressing, communicating what he thinks and wants and believes in, whether through speech ("Mommy! I want brown eat. I want brown uhm-uss") or deed (taking his lunch box out of the refrigerator, which to him means "school tomorrow"; hitting his head). The dilemma is when to encourage and when to teach otherwise, when Charlie’s communication method is self-destructive.

After we left St. Paul in May 2000 and moved back to St. Louis for a year, Charlie’s most cherished possession became Polaroids of his Minnesota ABA therapists, of Stella, Tara, Kristy, Beth, Arielah. We continued to take pictures of his St. Louis therapists; these were equally cherished and, indeed, made clear Charlie’s deep emotional connection to the young women who had taught him to learn. By the time we moved to our house in February 2003, the photos had become an over-stimulating obsession. Looking at them led to terrible behaviors in stunning contradiction to Charlie’s clear fondness for the people in the photos. I hid them all over our house and moved them when Charlie might detect them. He and I talked a lot about "Kristy photos Kelly photos pictures! Used to have" and, gradually, this conversation topic eventually brought a smile onto his face.

Due to Charlie’s having no school for Rosh Hashanah, I had the morning off from work and was cleaning and dusting his room. I found the photos, long forgotten, in a red bin; I thought of leaving them out, then put them back under layers of stuff. So long as he was occupied (with rice cakes and Capri Suns), Charlie was able to endure sitting in my classical Greek class; afterwards, he curled up in a fetal position on the floor and wanted to be carried (I acceded, explaining prepositional phrases all the while). (Maybe I should have brought those photos……..) A friend had insisted on watching Charlie while I taught my Latin class and Charlie spent a happy hour with her, drinking a soda and playing with a shapes game. He was smiley and calling for "home house" when they met me after my class, and Charlie then took his time walking in the bushes instead of on the stairs and running a stick against an iron fence. He was utterly uninterested in any audio-video item at Target. Once home, he wanted me to wear "brown shirt" (it was in the wash); rifling through my drawers he found some more Polaroids and I thought, whatever!, and gave him the ones I had found that morning.
Charlie was quietly ecstatic: "Beth! Tara! Stella! red car! Gramma! Shiri! Kristy, Kristy photos!" Jim and I had been plotting all day about rearranging the furniture in his bedroom to cover the hole in the wall with something too heavy for Charlie to move (Charlie kept picking at the plaster whenever we turned our backs and we had an image of the whole wall, and our house, falling down). I dragged Charlie’s chest of drawers into another room and pulled his bed away from the injured wall; Charlie gleefully shoved it back. Jim came home and then a real change to our upstairs came, with Charlie’s bed moved into our guestroom and his own room turned into a sort of study with a desk and shelves (and the drawers smack over the hole in the wall), a bigger, better space for him to do his therapy sessions in the months to come.

Charlie was now loudly ecstatic and talked and talked and talked: So much to tell, with his precious photos refound, his bed in the special place in the guestroom where Gong Gong, Po Po, Tara, Aunt Janet, our friend Patrick, had stayed. He ran up and down the stairs and throughout the three rooms of our second floor; he eventually stretched out on Jim’s and my bed, then plomped himself on his own bed, holding the photo of Stella’s red car and smiling "goo night" at me.

It’s a lucky and a beauteous thing when a negative becomes a positive. Maybe someday I’ll learn how really to listen to what my little boy is trying so hard to tell me, in his often Maybe someday I’ll learn how to simply follow where Charlie leads me, and to really hear what my little boy is trying so hard to tell me, in his often wordless, ever emphatic, so determined, way.

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