Personal essay about my autistic nephew, whom I affectionately call Little Man.
Little Man is eight or nine months old, and I am sitting with him on the dark, flowered rug in the front hall of my parents house, encouraging tummy time. This is what I do now that I have been laid off. He picks at the carpet with his tiny fingers, fascinated by the fibers in the pink-hued leaf, and spits bubbles. I call his name, but he does not respond. I pat his back, his head lifts up before sinking down into the carpet. The eyes crinkle. I pick him up, and roll him over onto his back for a rest before a cry erupts. He stares up at the ceiling, his legs and arms kicking, moving, experimenting with the air. I can smell the stew my sister-in-law is cooking for dinner. Her husband, my brother, is at his law office. Mom is not yet home from teaching, and Dad is still seeing patients at the office.
My hands brush his blond hair forward, a gesture I know is soothing to him, as I say his name again, but his eyes remain fixated elsewhere. I tickle his tummy, and say “Hey Little Man.” His eyes immediately meet mine, hold them in a gaze I didn’t know newborns possessed. I smile, say “What’s up Little Man,” and he smiles, giggles, still looking at me, his arms flailing, fingers reaching towards me.
He is not deaf, but there is still something wrong.
He exhibits an uncanny intelligence for a baby, though we all disagree that it is uncanny. It is the mark of a Monahan. He learns how to bounce with force in the bouncy swing, causing my mother’s chiming clocks, picture frames and bowls to rattle. He lets loose a cackle of glee when he gets them to rattle loudly, bringing someone into the family room to see if something cracked. Later, one has to be careful when changing him as he will kick. Hard. When he learns to crawl, he moves with speed and quickly learns how to pull himself up on chairs, investigating whatever is on them. He climbs the stairs up to the second floor, scoots around the corner, pausing to investigate the books strewn about, overflow from the bookcase, before discovering another set of stairs to the third floor study. I follow him on these excursions, staying a step or two below in case he falls. His head swivels back now and then, eyes not quite looking at me, but looking. He discovers the pull mechanism of drawers, revealing foreign objects of nail polish, finger nail files, scraps of paper and elongated wooden objects with pointy ends. He soon learns that applying the pointy end to anything leaves designs. He is fascinated by this, and as he still does not listen when spoken to, requires constant vigilance until he learns to only put pointy ends to paper.
When he is two, still not adhering to the established developmental milestones of normal such as two-word phrases, answering to his name, or mimicking facial expressions or gestures such as pointing and waving goodbye, he is tested. The results confirm our suspicions: he is on the autistic spectrum. I do not know what this means, and am skeptical as he responds to things, like Little Man, just not his given name. He doesn’t do well in loud environments for an extended period of time, but who does at the age of two? Or 30?
Over dinner some nights, my mother claims I exhibit a tenderness around him that no one has seen before, and intuitively understand signals no one else notices so he responds, which is good. Still, like my parents, I, too, read up on autism. I learn its a hot-button topic, some claiming environmental factors while others claiming birthing order while others say we don’t know enough about gene sequencing and brain development in the womb to have an answer. What is known is that the spectrum is wide-ranging, from totally disabled to highly functioning, commonly known as Asperger syndrome. I think of Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short, and how one man learned of his Asperger’s through the testing of his son. His son’s ability to sit for hours, in a room, engrossed in something was exactly like his ability to lock himself in his office, for hours, pouring over the minute details of corporate financial reports that lead him to launch a successful hedge fund. He saw what no one else had the patience to see.
I wonder if I am autistic, latching onto the symptom of obsessive repetition, the sense of unease if I do not have my racquetball, my inability to consistently look people in the eye, and lack of interest in sharing enjoyment or achievements with others. Yet I exhibit empathy, I communicate both verbally and non-verbally, and have learned to adjust to change. Later I will learn that I intuitively trust the process of repetition, pain be damned, and let go of the outcome, almost to my peril. I read Daniel Tammet’s memoir, Born on a Blue Day, that has been passed around the family from other families raising children with autism. I see much of Little Man in him.
There is hope.
Suzy is born when Little Man is three and George is five. I have moved back into my parents house, still jobless, freelancing, with student loans for the first time. My brother and his family have moved into their own house, a ten minute drive from my parents. I babysit Little Man while Rachel runs errands. We sit in the basement, on the big leather couch, he nestled in my lap, watching marathons of Wonder Pets, Word World and Super Why! As the weeks pass, he starts repeating what the characters are saying, mimicking their actions, responding to rhetorical questions of finding the missing letter or building words. He is obsessed with letters, playing with magnetic ones on the fridge, felt ones my mother makes and always wants the TEACH sign on Sundays when I babysit so the rest can go to mass. He sits on the stairs, holding the sign, a big smile on his face. He learns the alphabet from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, teaches himself to spell, to read. He speaks full sentences, grows more talkative, tinkers with the mechanisms of his brother’s toys and learns how to build and undo things at an alarming rate.
A problem solver, content to live in his own world, emerging from it now and then, for longer and longer periods of time.
Suzy brings out more of his personality as the two of them play together. He learns to share, to ask for things like a glass of milk. When the weather warms, the three of them chase each other around the yard. We make trips to the park where they run rampant, Little Man first screaming at other kids as a hello before learning to simply say hello. His problem solving skills are on full display one evening during a summer festival. Not wanting to be strapped into the back seat of the double-stroller, he undoes all of his fasteners while the adults pause to talk to neighbors. It takes me a minute to realize he is not in the stroller, not being held by or hanging onto myself, his parents or grandparents. I ask where he is, and Rachel begins to panic as he still does not respond when called. I head to the playground, mobbed with kids clad in t-shirts and shorts as if they were bought in bulk. They are also wearing matching socks and sneakers. I spot Little Man’s black shoes and mismatched orange and yellow socks making their way up a ladder. They disappear as he heads for the slide. I greet him at the bottom, scoop him up and take him back to his parents. He reluctantly lets me strap him back in, and I walk beside it as Rachel pushes it home.
In the months before I move to Vancouver, I take him to school, I take him to his oral surgery follow up, I take him to swim lessons. I push him on the swing in the backyard or at the park, try to teach him how to pump his legs and swing on his own. George learns, and demonstrates. I work on teaching both how to catch and throw a ball. I play soccer with George, go to a couple games with family, and chase Suzy around the park when she gets bored. I babysit them so my brother and his wife can have date nights, ordering pizza, calling sausages meatballs so they eat them, remembering to keep the remote controls up high so neither George nor Little Man can get to them. I will set up a movie for George and Suzy in the basement before sitting with Little Man at Aaron’s computer up in his study, wishing for a repeat button on YouTube while manually replaying the “In the Big Blue Sea” counting song and the Ghost Script version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that traverses the history of music styles. The jazz, march and gospel renditions are my favorite. George prefers the rap version, Suzy likes them all. Little Man is fascinated by each, watching the video nine or ten times in a row. During a replay of the rap version, he will point with his middle finger and recite the lyrics as they scroll up the screen. George and Suzy will wander back down to the basement after the fifth round and finish the movie.
I conduct the orchestra of bedtime, giving Suzy and Little Man a bath while George puts on his PJs. He brushes his teeth as I dress Suzy and then Little Man in their respective PJs. Suzy prefers a nightgown while Little just wants bottoms. He lets out squeals of protest as I rub lotion on his back and arms, which seems to do little for his eczema, dry patches stubbornly itching near his elbow. We pile onto Little Man’s bed for story time, and I read each story they bring to me. George and Suzy pick something different while Little Man holds steadfast to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I understand singular obsession, and comply without comment. George climbs up to his bed on the top bunk to read his own book while Suzy nestles next to me, OK with hearing about Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann again.
Afterwards, I put her to bed in her own room, and fetch George a glass of water before tucking Little Man in. He whispers to me, and as I bend down to hear he wraps his arms around my neck and asks if I will sleep next to him. I let him get comfortable before taking my place on the edge of the bed, finding that one spot where my neck rests just right on the crook of the bed so it does not stiffen or ache. I stroke his hair as I did when he was a baby, listening to the sounds of the house, of his breathing as it slows before a big sigh that precedes his sleep. George snores quietly from above, and no sound emanates from Suzy’s room. I will lay with him until he rolls away from me, then get up and tidy the house before Aaron and Rachel get home.
Back in Vancouver, I will read of his escapades on Facebook, and recount in fits of laughter to my housemates.