Story: The class had broken up into its several specialized reading groups, and each cluster of chairs droned and buzzed from its own corner of the room. I was engrossed in my assigned paragraphs of Tom Sawyer, but the teacher interrupted me in mid-sentence.
“Leanna, the principal would like to see you at the door.”
I sighed, shaking my head slightly. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I have to take care of something.” I added the last statement for the benefit of the rest of my reading group. I knew my teacher, and every other teacher in the school knew all about my peculiar business. I walked to the doorway.
“Leanna, your brother is running loose in the halls again” the principal gravely informed me. Would you please go get him and bring him back to his class for us?”
“Yes, I answered!”
I headed for the junior and senior high section of the school. Less than a minute had elapsed before I heard faint giggling coming from the Art and Shop corridor. I followed the sound around the corner and found Ricky merrily cavorting in a pool of water surrounding the drinking fountain. His head, shirt, and sneakers were sopping wet. Silently I crept up behind him and grabbed both of his arms, pinning them to his sides. He laughed manically.
“Ricky Jasper,” I pleaded, expecting no answer, “What on earth are you doing”” I let go of him.
“Play in the water!” he responded enthusiastically. He moved one of my hands up under his chin. “Lana tickle,” he snickered.
“No way am I going to tickle you! You’ve got to go back to your class—NOW!” I declared sternly. I seized him by one arm and began dragging him back toward the elementary section. We had only gone a few yards when he sat down in the floor and refused to move.
“Ricky, get up!”
Ricky put his free hand over his mouth and made a bizarre groaning sound. His dark eyes twinkled wickedly and he began to giggle again. Finally he stood up, but gave a mighty tug and pulled free of me. He ran squealing down the south hall toward the cafeteria.
“Lana play chase!” (Being chased was second only to being tickled as Rick’s most profound pleasures.) I paused for a moment to plan my strategy. If I sat down and waited, I would probably see him peeking back around the corner he had just turned at the far end of the passage; he always kept at me until I finally played along. However, I felt frisky that day and elected to go after him. I could easily outrun him anyway. I had been told to bring him back and that was the quickest way to accomplish it. I tore down the hall at full speed. A table full of conferring teachers stared open-mouthed as they watch the spectacle through an open door of the lunchroom. I turned the far corner just in time to see Ricky disappear outside through the southwest doors. Panting, I followed him out and within a few seconds tackled him at the base of the jungle gym he was preparing to climb. This was his climax of ecstacy.
I dragged him—none too gently—back inside through the doors nearest the kindergarten room; there was no need to retrace our steps past all those classrooms. Not that it mattered; half the school had watched the scene through their windows. Before returning him to the principal’s custody, I took him by the shoulders,
“Ricky, you’ve got to stop this. Why can’t you just sit still and do what you’re supposed to, like everybody else?”
He looked back at me with his characteristic bland, distant expression. “Chase!” he suggested, his eyes twinkling again.
“No!” He was worse than talking to a wall. “Don’t you care that you’re making a fool of yourself?” I was shaking him now. “You’re making me look like an imbecile, too!” (I was eager to use the new word I had just learned the day before.) Thoroughly disgusted, I led him back to his classroom.
“Here he is, Mrs. Kraft.”
I returned to my reading group, barely noticing their inquiring looks. I must have been a real novelty; seven-year-olds didn’t normally leave their classrooms to conduct pressing personal business. It never occurred to me to worry about what they thought. I had already built a steep wall of indifference to public opinion concerning Ricky. For better or worse he was my brother; I accepted him as such.
The rest of the day passed quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for Mom’s brown station wagon to inch its way through the line of cars coming around the circle drive in front of the school.
“Hi honey. How was you day?”
I gave her a sanquine account of play practice and other pleasantries, but said nothing about Ricky.
“What are we having for supper?” I asked, as usual.
“Daddy and I are going out for a change,’ she answered, smiling. “We’ll get you something from McDonald’s before we go, though. Nancy Wilcox will babysit you. After dinner we have to go back by the school for the quarterly P.T.A. meeting and our parent-teacher conferences with Mrs. Linsey and Mrs. Krafft. We probably won’t be home until you’re in bed,” she added.
I was silent the rest of the way home. This was the worst possible evening for a conference. I wondered why they were going out to dinner—it was probably a diversion to psyche themselves up. As far as I knew they weren’t aware of what had happened that morning (or many of the other times). They certainly knew things weren’t promising. They didn’t need to know what went on at school—Ricky’s behavior at home was even more remarkable.
When he was not disruptive he was sullen, and brooded in a silence interrupted only by his chilling, mournful moaning sounds. His only speech was primitive baby talk or repetition of words and phrases he heard others say. Instead of playing with toy cars, building forts, and playing army, he entertained himself by flipping a shoestring or waving his hands in front of his face for hours at a time. He was beyond reason: he seemed unable to feel heat, cold, pain or danger. Sometimes he would wear his heavy coat, hood up, on the most sweltering August days. He refused to stay out of the street. Once a car stopped for him and he began examining its headlights and tires until the angry drives brought him up to the door with some choice words for Mom.
He could not comprehend the reasons behind events. He was beside himself the first day I went off to kindergarten; he had screamed and cried inconsolably. “Lana! Come back!” he had wailed—he had thought I would never return.
He had not always been that way. In my most shadowy memories I recalled when he could speak normally, even brilliantly for a two-year-old. Almost overnight, he stopped talking and began building an impenetrable shell around himself. Occasionally a flicker of the old intelligence would appear in his eyes, but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared. I was bewildered, but I still played with him and tried to treat him as I had before. I would pretend I was Yogi Bear; he was an obedient, if uninspired Boo-Boo. I would rather have pretended we were Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, but these required cooperation. Our games were doomed to be maddeningly one-sided. Still, it was all I knew to do and he remained my silent sidekick.
Ricky was our lonely, private problem. It was not that Mom and Dad didn’t eagerly seek help wherever they thought they could find it—there was simply none to be had. Doctors were utterly baffled, but being doctors they could not admit ignorance. Ricky was obviously abnormal; it was the 1960’s and every abnormality had to be explained. The psychiatrists kindly told my parents that Ricky’s malady had most likely been caused by cruel and negligent care on their part. No one had much hope to hand out along with the guilt, but as a consolation we learned that someone had coined a name for the condition. It didn’t help. We soon became convinced that no one outside our family had ever heard of autism. We were forced to continue explaining the inexplicable.
After Mom and Dad left that evening we devoured our burgers and fries, took our baths and watched T.V. with Nancy until time for bed. She usually let us stay up a little later than we were supposed to, but we were not so lucky that night. She knew where Mom and Dad were going and expected them home early. I hoped they would be; I felt instinctively that the shorter the interview, the better. Nancy packed us off to bed, sang us a little song as she tucked us in, and returned to the living room.
Ricky was soon up jumping on his bed. “Pop, pop, pop,” he said, as he always did while jumping.
“Ricky, stop it,” I laughed.
I ignored him for a few minutes and he stopped. He lay still but continue to moan. Sometimes when we weren’t in the mood to go to sleep I sponsored impromptu tutorials for Ricky’s benefit. Though his progress was infinitesimal, if it existed at all, I had never given up. In my estimation, if he was going to make it into first grade he needed help desperately.
“Ricky, let’s review our days of the week.” (He had never once said them in the first place.) When he failed to answer, I prompted, “Monday, Tuesday…”
“Threesday, Foursday, Fivesday!” he responded triumphantly.
“Stay out of the street!” he firmly commanded the air.
“Listen to me,” I continued patiently, “What day of the week is today?”
He answered by reeling off all six days that it was not—the days he would not admit he knew a moment before. That was what was so infuriating. Obviously he knew—what was there inside him that would not allow him to simply say the right answer in the first place?
“Do you want to stay in kindergarten for the rest of your life? You’re going to look awfully funny in there when you’re twenty years old,” I angrily warned him. I realized the ludicrous irony of the statement as I rolled over to go to sleep. Since when did Ricky care what he looked like?
Next morning we got up, dressed, and ate our customary bowls of cereal. Ricky sat at the table picking all the marshmallow candies out of his Lucky Charms and absently eating them as he stared out the window. Mom had been ominously quiet as she packed my sandwich and potato chips for lunch.
“Leanna, Mrs. Kinsey says you’re doing exceptionally well in all subjects,” she finally revealed. She was trying to sound cheerful, but her voice lacked the brightness that should accompany that kind of news. “She says you’re a leader and well-liked by the other children,” she added. “Daddy and I are real proud of you.”
It was time to turn off the cartoons and get ready to go. I climbed into the car with my lunchbox and library book. I had known all morning that something was very wrong. As we rode down the familiar streets, I gathered my courage.
“Mom, what did they say about Ricky?” I ventured uneasily. She sighed. “We were going to talk with you about it this evening, but you might as well know about it now, “ She answered wearily.
“They’re going to keep him in kindergarten again next year—is that it? I was starting to get scared that they would,” I said miserably.
“They told us not to bring him back to school at all, Leanna.”
I felt weak in all my joints and muscles. This was beyond anything I had imagined. “What school is he going to go to? Willow Lake is the best in the whole city. If they can’t teach him, no one is going to want him,” I reasoned aloud, incredulous.
Mom shook her head. “We don’t know,” she whispered, tears in her eyes. “Mrs. Krafft and Mr. Dandridge started reeling off all these names of special experimental schools in Chicago and St. Louis, and observation programs in a couple of big hospitals—they say we have to send Ricky away if he’s ever going to get any help. They have been so kind and done all they know to do—we can’t ask any more of them. She got choked up and stopped for a moment. “They told us they would help get him placed in any way they could.
“Mom, I don’t feel good,” I said weakly as we approached the circle drive.
Impulsively, Mom drove on past the driveway as she dried her eyes.
“Where are we going?” I cried in amazement.
“To the park…to the zoo…shopping—wherever we decide. Right now we’ll go back home and I’ll call Mrs. Kinsey and tell her you don’t feel well,” she announced with determination. “Today we need a vacation.”
I was immensely relieved. The news would be all over the school, and for the first time I didn’t feel up to it. Maybe Mom didn’t want to be alone with Ricky and her thoughts today, either. I really was nauseous. Though I lacked the sophistication to analyze my feelings very closely, I knew I had seen a heavy door slam shut on Rick’s future, and the future of the rest of us as well. He wasn’t going to snap out of it. He wasn’t going to be inspired by some enlightened learning facility. I had never before pictured Ricky as a grown man, perhaps with no more capabilities than he had that morning. There would be drastic adjustments, the nature of which I could not even imagine.
“Mom,” I asked very softly, “Will Ricky really go away?”
“We just don’t know, Leanna. If we thought someone could really help him, yes. But if not, maybe he’s better off at home. At least he’d be with people who love him.”
I could not fathom the possibility of life without Ricky. I didn’t want to think about strange people giving him his bath and tucking him into bed at night. Maybe no one would be there to tuck him in at all. Ricky needed us—he needed me. I knew it was true even if he did ignore us ninety per cent of the time. It was a two-way street. When he locked himself inside his cocoon, he had locked me out. Maybe forever!
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