The Quicker Picker-Upper


Where was all the underwear? Specifically, my underwear. I had done laundry for the week, and put the clothes away, so I should’ve had a drawer full. I went on with my day, assuming I’d lost track of when I last washed them, as well as had lost my mind. Then, as mysteriously as they disappeared, they reappeared. But they were much bigger. I have a long history of clothes shrinking in my closet and dresser, but they’d never grown larger.

No questions were asked. I was too busy with eight-year-old Cowboy, who was still very hyperactive at the time, to worry about AWOL skivvies. Maybe naked aliens dropped by during the night, feeling a sudden compulsion for modesty, I thought.  

Several days later, the alien underwear thieves landed again, apparently. I decided to investigate; The X Files was nothing compared to my detective skills. I started with Cowboy’s room, and hit pay dirt. Every stuffed animal was appropriately dressed from the waist down. Especially creative was the cylindrical body pillow wearing Hanes for Her. Rather than being upset that my underwear was four times its original size, I was elated; Cowboy was engaging in pretend play, which is often difficult for children with autism.

“Flash, come see this,” I hollered. We smiled at another milestone met. When Cowboy was 23 months old, before he was formally diagnosed with autism, he participated in a nine-month behavioral program that used the Floortime Approach, developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan. Cowboy was one of four little boys in the program. Each mom brought her child twice a week for intensive therapy; when the program ended, Cowboy continued weekly sessions with a therapist for the next three years. Some of our goals were to help Cowboy develop joint attention, initiate play, increase verbal skills, learn to interact, and do pretend play.

So the underwear fiasco was a bravo moment for us. Still, I needed to cover my posterior.

“Cowboy, your animals need to wear your underwear, not Mommy’s.” I was sure that was a sentence never spoken by other moms. After that, I frequently found stuffed bears, elephants, and lizards donning Cowboy’s tighty whities.

It wasn’t the first time Cowboy surprised us with a skill we didn’t know he had. When he was two, I assumed he didn’t know his colors yet. One day, I asked him to point to colored plastic bears poured out on the floor, to see if I could be mistaken.

“Where’s the blue bear?”

He pointed to the blue bear. He had processed my question quickly, and pointed to an object to answer, which was remarkable. 

“Where’s the green bear?”

Another correct response. I was thrilled. He knew his colors, but I took no credit. I need to send Sesame Street a thank you note for several things he learned along the way.

Once he learned to imitate others, a whole new world opened up to him, including washing dishes, vacuuming, and other household chores. He was a born helper, and enjoyed it. Most importantly, imitation made it possible for him to learn sign language. Using two-handed signing, his vocabulary grew quickly. At three and a half years old, Cowboy started helping me cook. I’d push a chair up to the stove so he could reach it, standing behind him to keep him safe.

And I wasn’t aware Cowboy could read, until he was six years old. Again, I decided to test my ignorance. He enjoyed going to stores with me, and I’d been working on his social skills by teaching him to pick out candy to buy. That’s right, candy. The mom who wasn’t going to let her kid eat sugar was using sugar to teach. It would become a habit I would later have to replace. One day, I wrote the names of various stores on separate pieces of paper.

“Where do you want to go shopping today, Cowboy?”

He pointed to “Target.”

We got in the car and then, to make sure he had accurately communicated what he wanted, I told him to tell me how to get to the store he chose. He navigated us all the way to Target by pointing which way to turn at every intersection. He had read. It didn’t matter to me if he was reading by sight rather than phonics; his reading was functional.

His elementary school teacher, Ms. Sullivan, told me he was reading using the Edmark Reading Program. But I was leery; that involved reading parts of a story, rather than a single word.

“How do you know he understands the words he’s reading?” I asked.

“He uses sign language to sign the words as he reads, and he signs answers to questions about each story.” I was stunned and elated.

When Cowboy was eight, his speech therapist told me, “I think we’re dealing with apraxia, in addition to autism.” Cowboy had previously spoken words before he was 15 months old, but lost them by the time he was 17 months.

“I can’t take this right now,” I responded, as I boarded the first flight to Denial. It was a short trip, but saved my sanity at the time. To encourage myself, I counted how many methods Cowboy had used to communicate with us through the years. Gesturing, pointing, using photographs, using a Picture Exchange Communication System where he handed us labeled pictures of what he wanted or needed, and sign language.

“Imagine not being able to speak, and having to let people know everything you wanted, needed, and felt,” I said to Flash one day. “He already uses five ways to communicate; most people have difficulty with one. We’d throw in the towel on the third day if we had to work that hard.” Our admiration for Cowboy grew even larger.

Eventually, he learned to write. Although it wasn’t the neatest in the world by a long shot, it was legible. As the best male speller I’ve ever met, his photographic memory serves him well. Soon, two-handed sign language gave way to fingerspelling. He’s so fast, we often have to ask him to slow down for us. Typing was next, and he’s now able to use his iPad to tell us what he wants and needs. With diligent, laborious practice, Cowboy also mastered sounding out consonant and vowels, and works hard to sound out words. It’s tough, but he never stops trying. His repertoire of things learned is ever-growing.

Shortly after Cowboy started high school, one of his Life Skills teachers informed me, "Cowboy is more independent in the kitchen than our seniors." My stunned look said everything; she responded, "That's right, Mom, he's playing you. He'll let you do the work for him at home, but he's capable." Things quickly changed on the homefront; I quit my job as full-time cook and waitress.

At church last week, Cowboy started arranging and straightening books in the bookstore. “He can come in here anytime. We’d love his help,” one of the volunteers said. Later that same day, Flash came through our front door with Cowboy, exclaiming, “Cowboy walked the dogs without my help.” Walking two hyperactive canines that continually swerve into each other’s lanes and tangle their leashes multiple times, as they strain to be in charge, is a feat I’ve not yet mastered. In years past, Cowboy’s frustration would have taken over that situation; today, he handled it calmly and patiently.

Every day, Cowboy soaks in everything he sees; he’s watching, and his mind picks up details, when we don’t realize it. A visual learner, he often needs little verbal instruction, and learns tasks quickly. Mowing grass, painting, grocery shopping, putting away groceries. The list of what he can do is tilting the scales; “he can’t” no longer weighs us down on a regular basis. Give him the tools he needs, and get out of his way. My concerns about whether or not he’ll be able to do a job in the community seem unfounded. His attention to detail, and motivation to help, whether requested or not, will make him one heck of a worker. And he works cheerfully.

Our friend Charlotte has a 52-year-old brother, Stan, who has autism. He’s a delightful person with contagious friendliness. After years of their mother doing too much for Stan, Charlotte decided he needed to be more independent. But, as is common with autism, his motivation was low. Finally, after many attempts to get Stan to take on more responsibility, Charlotte told him, “Cowboy, who is 19, folds and puts away laundry, washes dishes, and helps out in other ways around the house. You can do that, too.”

Suddenly, Stan, who met Cowboy last year, started working around their house. Excitedly, Charlotte told us her good news two days ago, adding, “Cowboy, you are a role model to Stan.”

Cowboy nodded his head and smiled. He's influencing someone, much older than he, to change for the better. Of course, that shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s been doing that for us since the day he was born.