Autism and Poetry (1): Sappho's new poem and translating Charlie (#10)
Autism is an epic poem (#12)

Not a bathroom story; or, more on Charlie's words (#11)

"A big wad of kleenex." This is one of those phrases that Charlie does not say, because he has not been taught to say it, because it did not occur to us that he would need to. He knows "I want tissue" when his nose runs; he has yet to learn how to use "big," "little," "small," and the like adjectives. This purported bundle of kleenex was my guess about what Charlie would have said had he known to say it, when he ran downstairs with a dubious look on his face after using the bathroom and I baptized a new pair of sandals in the at-best brackish water belching from the toilet, besmirching the floor and threatening the hall carpet.

At such moments when you're grabbing plunger and paper towels, I think of life with autism as a big, messy, zany comedy with a fair share of grossout humor, like Aristophanes' Birds, in which two Athenians--in flight from lawsuit-rife Athenian society--create their perfect abode, Cloudcuckooland. Aristophanes made up the name--the Greek is nephelokokkugia, from nephele, "cloud," kokkux, "cuckoo," and gia, "earth, land"--for this fantasy pie in the sky place.

Charlie's no comedy writer--not yet!--and does not tend to make up new names for things he's interested in. A white bear with a Valentine's Day hat from my sister is called "Aunty Jen."A stuffed beige dog is "doggy Callie" because my uncle has a similar-looking, full size cocker spaniel. The Subaru stationwagon is what it is, "green car." Miss Greene, who looked the tiniest bit like one of Charlie's first therapists and who Charlie's very fond of, became "Stella." Charlie calls things what they are based on small contingencies, on tiny resemblances to things in his vocabulary. And what he says independently is mostly nouns and concrete entities: people's names, food, places, toys. But "stomach ache," "headache," "mad," "sad," "tired": These are not specific objects that can be pointed to, and Charlie expresses them in other ways.

I did some fancywork with the the plunger, the towels, the bleach and a lot of soap and we drove off to Charlie's verbal behavior session. He talked a ton there--a word a minute on average--about music on a tape, water balloons that splatted in his hands, and blocks and puzzles and a toy garage. That was yesterday. Then, this morning he had the day off from school, and changes in the usual routine that ye average school child would cheer can rattle Charlie. A cry, a frantic run into the front yard, and rolling on the grass turned into an hour of no language and a dent on the wall and the inevitable worried phone calls.

And, when the house was calm, a very late breakfast, Charlie's usual waffles and cereal. I sighed at him and said, "You know, if you're mad at Mom, we've got to find a better way to tell me that than with your head."

Charlie looked straight at me for a while and went to work on waffle #1. Then he asked, "b'weez."I said "beh-rees" and he said "b'weez," "b'rees," "bearszzz," for several rounds and, finally "berries."

"Beautiful," I said, and delivered the goods.

Later, watching me type, Jim groans: "Not a bathroom story."

"It's not, really," I say. "It's about Charlie's talking and all that."

But it kind of really is. Any autism mother could write you a mini-epic about The Child and The Bathroom. Figure Charlie ("The Child") as the Achilles, the hero of the story, "swift-footed" whose hero's quest is the feared Toilet Training. Mom, like Athena, goddess of Wisdom and Achilles' patron, appears at the crucial moment to deflect the hero's massive anger by holding him by the hair. (Technically impossible for this mom, as Charlie has a buzz cut.) Achilles' mother, the divine Thetis, famously--this should sound familiar to ye average autism mom--comforts her slighted son (King Agamemnon has taken Achilles' prize, Briseis, a young woman whom he has taken from her conquered people) and later presents him with a remarkable shield crafted by Hephaestus, god of the forge. Mom both advises ("How many hours has it been?") and is ever sympathetic ("That's okay, I'll clean it up, honey").

Most days, it's forget about this goddess stuff; I feel very much the mere mortal I am, wondering if I need to call a plumber. (Which turned out not to be necessary, thanks to the good work of the household gods.)


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