The Telephone Game

I caught the tail end of the 60 Minutes segment on autism last night. It was interesting to me how Lesley Stahl characterized the boy’s progress on the iPad as a “little thing.” She wasn’t being disparaging, merely pointing out that his ability to locate an object and look up seems, to the outside world, no big deal. The mom pointed out that this was a “huge deal.” I can relate.

Getting Nate to use the phone took years of training. In Illinois it was purely a mental exercise, but in Cooperstown, we wanted to be able to leave Nate home alone, if only for a little while. It was both a test for him and an occasional necessity for us. Living in a small town created the possibility that Karen and I could have dinner on Main St. and leave Nate a few blocks away. The key was if we could check in with him and know he was doing well.

Before we started our experiment, a few trial runs were in order. I’d give Nate the portable house phone and explain to him that if it rings and he sees my name (thank God for caller ID), he was to press talk and answer. Off I’d go to the kitchen, cell phone in hand. I called, heard the phone ring in the small TV room where Nate camps out and waited. And waited.

“Nate, pick up the phone!” He did.

“Oh, hi Dad!” he answered with surprise, as if it was going to be someone else.

“Hi Nate. Everything good?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Great. Now press off.”

It took a few of these run-throughs before he got it. Eventually, Karen and I ventured out by ourselves. I’d call, and most times he would answer, telling me he was just hanging out. There were times when he wouldn’t answer, and I’d drive home to make sure he was alright and scold him for not picking up. Like I say, living in Cooperstown gives the proximity necessary to make leaving Nate possible.

By the time Nate was ready for college, he was fairly adeptHe needed a cell phone of his own, simply to keep the possibility of contact open. If he wandered off I needed to know I could reach him. Maybe; it depended on him. We bought a GoPhone, programmed a few vital contacts and sent him off.

He’s pretty good at answering. He’s very bad at turning the phone on. That can be frustrating. Finally, I set up his voicemail. When it was time for him to record his name, Nate put his own spin on it. Right before his cue, I whispered, “Nate, say your name.”

“‘Nate Katz, remember?” That’s what you’ll hear if you call him and he doesn’t answer.

Though I’ve showed him how to answer a message, that’s not sticking just yet. Neither is calling out.

Nate and I were in Oneonta on Saturday for yet another visit to Office Max. He goes through inordinate amounts of ink, copy paper and card stock. Next to the Bed, Bath and Beyond was a sign: Game Stop was coming! Nate was excited and I thought that he should tell Joey, who would also be thrilled and was with Karen shopping near Utica. Nate attempting a call was ridiculous.

First, I had to dial for him. Second, he seems not to know how to hold the phone when he’s calling, holding it in front of his face and looking at it as if it were an alien artifact. Odd, because he knows how to work it when he answers. I’ve seen Nate try to call and he never knows how to start. Sometimes he talks as it rings. He rarely can tell the difference between a machine and a person. Sometimes I don’t even know if the other party has answered. It’s impossible to gauge looking at Nate.

Exasperated, I asked for the phone and, sure enough, Joey was on the other end. He didn’t quite get Nate’s point. That’s another thing. Nate doesn’t register whether his words are communicating his thoughts. They are spoken but without a care as to if they hit home. More work lies ahead.

And forget proper etiquette. Once I refilled the minutes on his GoPhone, unaware that AT&T immediately sends a text confirmation. Nate was in Math class when his phone vibrated. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell and held it up high.

“I’ve got a call!” he announced loudly.

The amount of effort that has been put into teaching Nate how to use a telephone is staggering. It’s a multi-year, ongoing project. And this is one of the small things!


About Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is the former Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.
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