In honor of Autism Awareness Month we invited our readers to share their stories with us. We are sharing the stories throughout the month of April. Today’s story is from Sara Bathum.
It’s the letters. Particularly a set of capital letters about six inches high, an eighth of an inch thick, and made of balsa wood. It just so happens they match exactly the font on a series of alphabet videos he loves to watch on YouTube – one quirky, upbeat, 90-second song for each letter. He painted his letters to match. A is blue. A is always blue. B is red. B is always red. C is yellow. C is always yellow. And so it goes all the way to Z.
Happiness for my son is getting all the way to Z.
To say he has a fondness for letters would be a tremendous understatement. Something akin to saying California is a little thirsty these days or I wish I was more helpful to my boy. I wish I knew and understood more.
He loves this particular set of letters with a gut-wrenching, jack-hammer-inside-the-chest intensity. But he also loves ALL letters. (Had he been our second child instead of our first, we probably would have figured all of this out a lot sooner.) Refrigerator letters and foam bathtub letters. Letters cut out of paper and flashcard letters. Scrabble letters. Puzzle letters. Letters typed on my laptop. Letters scratched into dirt, sand, and snow. Letters he draws with his finger in the air.
I don’t remember when it began. It feels now like there was no beginning. There was always just a little yellow-haired boy and his letters. At first, before he could walk, they got acquainted; he learned their shapes, curves, and angles. Their names and sounds. Then the spelling began. Suddenly it was as though he’d cracked the code and there was no going back. Reading followed quickly. At four years old, he could open a book or magazine we knew he’d never seen before and read as though he had it memorized. In a way, he did.
Now, at five, he also often “spells” words using the corresponding number for their order in the alphabet. “Mom,” he’ll say, “my brother’s name is spelled 19-16-5-14-3-5-18.” I have to count on my fingers for every letter. He does it without thinking.
I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine people are often a mystery to my son. Why they say and do particular things. Letters are not. They are, for the most part, entirely predictable. There are 26 letters in the modern English alphabet – the one he knows and loves. No more and no less. A is the first letter. A is always the first letter. Z is the last letter. Z is always the last letter. Once you learn how to spell a word, it generally doesn’t change. Sure, there are quirks and exceptions and silent letters but those too are fairly consistent. Reliable and comforting in a way people often are not.
There was a brief, inexplicable four to five month stretch beginning sometime around Halloween last year when the obsession loosened its grip. The letters stayed in the toy box instead of carpeting our living room floor. He played with cars and dump trucks, trains and rocket launchers. And he played with them like any other kid – not painstakingly lined up or sorted by color. He squabbled with his little brother over who got to be Thomas and who got Percy. They crashed and raced and honked. My husband and I looked at one another, a bit bewildered. But at Christmas time, we bought fire trucks and Legos and felt like normal parents.
Then a few months later, just as inexplicably, the letters came back.
We try to limit his time with them, otherwise he’d spend entire days lost in his alphabetical world. To say this is challenging sometimes would be a tremendous understatement. There are many moments like this morning, for example, when it’s time to go because the speech therapist is waiting but he’s only sung the little songs with the matching balsa word letters up to M.
“Buddy,” I say softly, “It’s time to go.”
“Nooooo!” Suddenly the jack hammer starts thundering away inside his chest, sending his little body into spasms. It doesn’t matter how many warnings I give. “No, please, Mama!” he wails. “I didn’t have time to get all the way to Z!”
“I know, honey. I told you there wouldn’t be time.”
“Pleeeeeease!!” He sobs, waving his arms and jumping up and down. The jack hammering intensifies.
“Sweetie, I’m sorry. We need to go.”
“NO!! I need to get to Z! I NEED TO GET TO Z! Why is nobody helping me?”
He falls into a heap on the floor in total despair. I think he would dissolve into it, if he could. I would too. Instead I pull him up into my lap, grateful he still fits there.
I wish I was more helpful to my boy. I wish I knew and understood more.
A is blue. A is always blue. B is red. B is always red. A is always the first letter of the alphabet and Z is always the last. But life isn’t always going to let you get to Z, my brilliant and beautiful boy, and that’s something we’ll keep working on. Together. In the meantime, this will also always be true:
9 12-15-22-5 25-15-21. 9 1-13 23-9-20-8 25-15-21.
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