Katie (5) and Brooke (3), 2007
It is 2007. Luau and I are sitting at the kitchen table, interviewing a home service provider. Or perhaps she’s interviewing us. I don’t know which end is up. I just know that we need help.
Brooke is three years old. She lives in a state of frustration. All we want is to help her. But we don’t know how.
We’re trying to come up with examples for the therapist – specific times that communication fails.
“Okay, here’s one,” I say. “I’ll ask her what she wants to drink. And she’ll tell me. And then I’ll bring her what she asked for. And then she’ll burst into tears or yelp or shove it back at me. I don’t know why and I don’t know what to do.”
I don’t realize that I’m crying until Luau hands me a tissue. I take it, but crumble it in my hand.
Katie has wandered over to see what’s going on. She’s been standing at my side for the last couple of minutes, watching, listening.
“Mama?” she asks, “may I say something?”
Three sets of adult eyes turn to her. “Of course, baby,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Well, when you ask her what she wants to drink you give her choices. And if you ask her if she wants milk or water, she just says, “Or water,” because it’s the last thing that you said and she repeats it. But she might really want orange juice. She just can’t tell you cause she can only say, “Or water.” So she’s probably getting mad cause she wants something else that you didn’t ask her.”
My mouth is hanging open. It will be weeks before we will hear the word echolalia for the first time. But our five-year old … she’s miles ahead of us. I’m not getting it because I’m trying to understand what’s happening from my perspective. Katie is getting it because she’s looking at it from Brooke’s.
The therapist looks from Katie to me, then back again. I try to collect myself from the table, the chairs, the floor, the walls. I try to gather in the guilt that coats every surface, to contain the fear and the helplessness that threaten to set the whole toxic mess aflame.
From this moment forward I will know that the most powerful tool I have to help my daughter is my best attempt to see things from her perspective.
“Katie, THANK YOU,” I say, grasping onto her words as though they are a life ring tossed into the middle of a dark and tumultuous ocean. “Thank you so much for telling us that, kiddo. That’s really, really helpful.”
She shrugs and wanders off.
Someone recently asked me when we decided to tell Katie about her sister’s Autism. I said what I always do — that other than explaining to both of the girls that Brooke’s particular kind of neurology had a name, we never really had to tell either of them much of anything.
They always gets it – always got it .. and usually show us how to do it better.
Ed note: When I asked Brooke for her permission to share this story, she said, “Sure, but I have a joke.” So I thought it only fitting that I include Brooke’s joke. Ready?
What’s a tree’s favorite drink?