Handwriting on the Wall

We were talking here about the daily improvements Nate makes in conversational language. Robbie told us that he was heading out for the night and Nate, instead of his usual, “Where are you going?” asked, “Are you going out Rob?” It’s a slight though real difference in approach, from a basic inquiry to a more open-ended question.  “Are you going out?” signifies that, in Nate’s mind, Robbie wasn’t necessarily leaving for the evening, that perhaps he was going to his car for a moment. Clearly a small but significant move toward greater understanding of a simple situation, and it sent me back to an earlier time, when Karen and I were first learning to be amateur speech therapists to our uncommunicative little boy.

The Chicago Botanic Garden was the ideal place for a family outing. First, it was just fifteen minutes east of our house, via Lake Cook Road. Second, a visit there was a good way to exhaust 5-year-old Nate and then-little Robbie and get them to fall asleep on the way home. Third, Nate couldn’t get into much trouble there. What could he destroy? There were paths, fountains, plants. Beautiful, I suppose, and boring as hell to me, but Karen loved it there. So we’d go, and I’d count the minutes before I could ask whether we were done yet.

As we strolled around, the blast of water falling and cars speeding blended into a vast white noise. Nate squirmed as I held his hand, Rob coasted as Karen pushed him in his stroller as we approached a large fountain at the end of the Rose Garden, the arbor behind it framed in pink. Streams shot skyward; no walls or fences cordoned off the bronze colored reinforced concrete base from the lawn.

Nate made a break for it.

Here we go again. “Nate, Nate, stop!” I yelled as I ran toward him. Of course he ignored me, but I was fast enough to grab his arm. Then I remembered what Phyllis, his therapist at The Center for Speech and language Disorders, had taught us: write things down for him.  It was much easier to get through to him with simple words that he could read. Karen knew this instinctively by now. She lived it. I had to remind myself that the way to Nate’s brain lay through the visual; the printed word was his master.  I guided him to the sign posted on the perimeter of the fountain.

“Read this,” I said.

Slowly, he read out loud. “For your safety, please do not climb on the fountain.” He grew rigid, Superboy confronted with a bit of Kryptonite.

That sign was as good as a solid barrier; he didn’t try to go any further.  For me, the incident signaled the end of the outing. With any child, there is always the worry of wandering off or acting out, but thanks to Nate’s inability to communicate the way that I was used to communicating, the situation was amplified exponentially.  It was too exhausting, this non-stop vigilance of watching Nate and making sure he wasn’t causing destruction to his surroundings or himself. I did feel pretty good that I employed some of my newly learned skills and that they worked.

Getting Nate to read hastily jotted notes on a pad, or, as in the story above, rushing him to a sign for directions, was tiresome. Often I forget how hard it was now that we’re in the place we’re in.

Right now Nate came in to the computer room and I asked him if he wanted to run over to Brewery Ommegang with me later. I need to buy tickets for a September Bon Iver show.

“Nah, I don’t feel like going there.”

Just like that. No pen and paper required.


About Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is 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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