Sunday, January 06, 2008

What Do You Need?

It is a characteristic intrinsic to all newborns to be completely inexplicable. They don't speak English, they don't use sign language, and they can't leave you a sticky note on the fridge to tell you when they're out of food. Sure, most mothers insist that they can tell the difference between each little cry, but I suspect that this has to do equally with the mild delirium of sleep deprivation and with the existence of some key external cues.

It helps to determine that the snuffling, whimpering little cry means "I'm hungry" when the infant in question is attempting to find sustenance from the buttons on your shirt. It's pretty evident that the pathetic, irritable wail means "I'm hot" when it's 95 degrees and sticky and most of the people in the baby's vicinity are only refraining from crying the exact same way because of adult conventions of behavior. And really, who couldn't figure out the "I need to be changed" cry when the sound is accompanied by stink waves so strong as to be visible to the naked eye?

All that changes with an autistic child. The usual cries still apply -- hungry, wet, tired, colic, basic existential angst. However, there is a whole new range of howls that might mean just about anything. "This shirt has a tag in it and I can't handle tags. You're touching me too much. There are shadows on the ceiling. Stop looking at me, your eyes make me confused. There are too many smells in here. My hand just smacked the side of my crib and I don't know where I am any more."

Most new mothers almost certainly have a few moments, often at 3 a.m. and hunched over with unwashed hair straggling across their faces, where they look into the red screaming face of their well-fed, thoroughly-burped, freshly-diapered child and emit a despairing growl through gritted teeth, "I don't. Know what. You WANT." And then the mommies start crying because they just said mean things to their baby, and now it will be warped forever, and it didn't even help because now the baby is just screaming louder, which didn't seem physically possible thirty seconds earlier. (3 a.m. is powerful stuff.)

With Peter, though, this confusion was very nearly a way of life. His crying and his needs only seemed to line up part of the time, and it was a long guessing game to figure out what he wanted if the basic needs were fulfilled and he was still bawling. During one particularly loopy moment when I hadn't had more than a few hours of sleep for days, I remember laying him on the bed and watching him scream, and then putting him on my left shoulder, where he immediately stopped crying. I was so startled that I put him back down to make sure he was all right, and he started up again like a switch had been flipped. I started giggling slightly hysterically and put him back on my shoulder -- silence. I played with him for a while like this, on, off, on, off, partly because it's really funny when you're that tired, but mostly because my arms were too tired to hold him there for very long.

His delayed speech didn't help matters. He only knew eight words at the age of two, and even those weren't always intelligible. By age three he knew more words, maybe a hundred, but they came out one or two at a time, and when he progressed as far as "Want nilk!" we quickly learned that "nilk" could be milk, juice, or water, and woe to the parent who didn't guess it right on the first try. More time brought more words, and things became very gradually easier, but he was well into his preschool years before we could reliably determine what he wanted at any given moment.

This afternoon, Peter was playing with one of the delightfully complex building toys he received for Christmas, and had set up the pieces for his Star-Wars inspired "transport" all over the family room floor. He was absorbed in his task, fitting together apparently random combinations of red plastic pieces and black rubber tires, producing something more Rube Goldberg than George Lucas, but having a marvelous time doing it. He broke off from his play and called decisively into the kitchen, "Mom, I need some chocolate milk."

My first instinct as a mother was to say, "No, you don't need chocolate milk, and we're going to have dinner in a while anyway." And then I stopped, smiled to myself and said, "Buddy, I think that's a GREAT idea," and made my son a cup of chocolate milk.

After all the years of verbal word puzzles, Peter is finally starting to make that connection between what his little body and heart desire, and the words required to express those needs to someone else. And once he got the words out, I couldn't argue with him. He's right -- some days when you're five, all in the world you really need is something to build, a mom to admire your work, and a glass of chocolate milk.