the Other School
9 October 2002
I can only imagine how Damian felt the first time we approached the small school almost hidden behind a tall white fence. But he held my hand and walked inside with only a slight hesitation, just a question: "This is the Other School, Mommy?"

Yes, this is the other school. The one with kids who learned to talk without the aid of speech therapists, who never feared swings or slides, who played pretend practically before they could speak. Kids who naturally and easily play with each other, fight with each other, negotiate with each other. Kids who don’t need IEPs. You know, regular kids. The child down the street. Your child. Not mine. Not quite, not yet. Getting closer, though. So close.

The children were in the back yard, sitting on picnic benches under a canopy. Snacking on pretzels. The teacher waved a greeting. "Does Damian want a snack too?"

I bent low to talk directly into his ear. "Damian, do you want a snack? Pretzels?"

"I don’t want to do that."

He held my hand and pulled me toward the jungle gym at the back of the yard. Climbed up it, slid down, climbed up again. He was acting like he was at the playground and the other children were just distant decoration. Which is natural, I guess. Hard to handle these strangers? Shut them out of your brain.

The teacher called me over to touch base. She remembered us from our visit in late spring. Damian seemed content on the play structure, so I ambled over. A mistake. He called out to me, panicky. ""Mommy! Come back! Mommy!!"

Not exactly like a playground, then. And the children weren’t so very distant. Not distant enough, it seemed.

That was his first afternoon at the Other School. He played on the equipment, tried to ignore the kids, kept circling back to me even though Kahuna came shortly after we did. Kahuna, a large, gentle, thoughtful Hawaiian man, has been one of Damian’s floor time therapists for a year. Now he’s also Damian’s one-on-one aide in this new environment, to help bridge interaction with other children. My job is to sit on the sidelines and blend into the shadows. My job is to sit and wonder how this will work, whether Damian will be able to do this. My job is to hope with held breath that in this too he will prevail, that the synapses in his brain will click on and he will realize that he can play with kids just like he plays with grownups. That kids are, in fact, more fun. That he knows how to do this already, that there’s no reason to be afraid. That he’s not so different from them after all.

As I sit and watch in my corner of the yard or inside the classroom on a beanbag chair by a wall, I can see that it’s true. He’s not so different from them.

A girl flopped on another beanbag near me: "I have an animal," she announced, and showed it to me.

"It’s pink," I said, stating the obvious.

"Pink is my favorite color. My shirt is pink too."

And I was thrown back a year and a half – back to Damian’s first school experience. Three months of purgatory in a typical classroom, me watching the ebb and flow of preschoolers, their commentary, their tiffs. Responding to their overtures. All the while watching as my child stood, motionless, at the outskirts. Or lay on the floor amid the group, ignoring them. Or sat in the corner, fixated on a book. Or curled in my lap, desperate for comfort. I watched these normally developing children, their brains facile and quick, their interactions so seemingly effortless, their tongues quick and their voices loud. Damian couldn’t talk like they could – he had words but they were unreliable things, never there when you needed them. And he didn’t play like they did, didn’t sit still like they did. Didn’t pay attention like they did. And it hurt so bad sitting there those three months, it burns still in my memory.

Damian wasn’t the only one anxious about this new school. I was nervous too. At his special needs school, Damian fits in. Everyone understands him, everyone is amused by his antics and pleased with his progress. He doesn’t stand out, or if he does, it’s because he’s doing so well. I don’t have to compare him to the vast ocean of childhood, circumstances don’t rub my face in the fact that he’s still not quite there. Not quite the four and a half year old that you’d expect from looking at him.

But talking to that little girl, I realized: my son is not so far off after all. Not anymore. And I started to see other things, too. One little boy sat beside me flipping through a board book. As he turned to every new page, he bent his head. Licked the picture. Each picture. Oral fixation? He had one shoe on; the other had fallen off somewhere along the way and he didn’t even notice. Tactile undersensitivity? Another boy ran up to Damian and hugged him. Out of the blue. Seeking proprioceptive input? Later, he jumped from the top of a play structure, not noticing the child on the grass below him and ignoring the teacher’s warning shout. Impulse control problem? I saw a little girl walk on tiptoe, another girl spin wildly, laugh, fall down, and get up to spin again. Stimming. Children this age stutter as they speak, have trouble getting the words out, repeat the same sentence until they get it right like a room full of Max Headrooms. They talk at you with monologues, oblivious to your reaction, not really seeking a reaction at all, simply interested in getting the thought out into the world.

Maybe normal isn’t the right word for a group of typical children. Maybe everything is typical and it’s just a matter of degree. It’s more about how much your particular neurological makeup interferes with life and love and school, about working on that, and not about seeking some kind of Platonic ideal of childness.

All that should make me feel better about Damian. And it does. But not entirely, not enough. His social avoidance does interfere with life and love and school. He can’t sustain play with other children. Even at his special needs school. Some of the kids in his class may have less language but they’re more willing to wade into a pack of kids and get involved. With Damian’s imaginative play skills and general all around goofiness, you’d think he’d shine. But he won’t even go near enough to find out. Tania, the Jumpstart class teacher, tells me Damian is tentatively interested in the other kids. The other day, two boys were playing with cars on the floor, smashing them into each other, making loud car sounds. All the stuff Damian loves. And he was indeed fascinated. So what did he do? He played with his own car. A few feet away. Darted in close, bumped his car with another boy’s vehicle, and then darted back to his safe zone.

What goes through his head when he does this? What is he afraid of? He knows he can talk. He knows he can play. Why can’t he make himself do it fluidly, easily, happily? What’s holding him back?

Even with Diane’s daughter Sophia, he’s not fully at ease. When they’re together, he mostly ignores her with short bouts of manic, silly interaction. And yet the day after her last visit, he informed me that Sophia was his special friend.

For the past several months, we’ve seen glimpses of a social child, seen him actually enjoying other children. But still glimpses only. When does it all come together?

Enter the afternoon school. We hope the twice a week exposure – and Kahuna’s gentle, subtle assist – will do the trick, make it jell. Help Damian see that he can sustain interactive play with another child nearly as easily as he can with an adult. Because when that happens, he can take over the world. Or at least the playground.

I see glimpses at this new school, too. A week after that uncertain beginning: Day Two at the Other School. In the back yard. Mid-afternoon. An overcast day, a hint of autumn. Damian settled at a low picnic bench, set his lunch bag on the blue table. Opened it up, sorting through the potential treats. A girl with dark skin and a pageboy haircut sat down beside him. Another girl seated herself across the table, her hair long and brown, her face long and oval. The girl who likes pink settled next to her. Kahuna crouched at the end of the table, at their level. He chatted with the kids while Damian concentrated on eating. I shifted focus between my book and the nearby table. They were talking about food. Particularly carrots. (Pink Girl had carrots in her lunch box.) Pageboy Girl likes carrots, so does Pink Girl. Brown Hair doesn’t. Kahuna asked Damian. Damian does not like carrots.

Nothing new here, really. Damian answered a prompted question from an adult. Big deal.

But a moment later, they were talking about raspberries.

Pageboy Girl: "I like yellow raspberries."

Damian: "I like red raspberries."

Spontaneous language with other kids, joining the conversation. Of his own volition. Happy Mommy. Later, he pulled a milk box out of his bag and announced to the table, "My mommy always gives me regular milk in my snack bag." (I think this was a comment on someone else’s love of chocolate milk, but I’m not sure.)

That exchange kept me buzzed for a few days, thinking he’d made it through a kind of barrier. But the next time he went to the Other School, he practically ignored the other children. No conversations, no initiations, no reciprocation. The only interactions were forced by other children – like when kids blocked his way in his ride on car. And then he yelled at them to go away. Kahuna was pleased, though. Said he saw the beginnings of interaction. Said he has high hopes for Damian. Said he thinks it’ll take time but that Damian will rise to the occasion.

I’m starting to see what he meant.

Last Thursday, for instance. Day Four at the Other School. I was ensconced in a bean bag chair, reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (and loving it). Damian came running over to me, a plastic tiger clutched in his fist. The tiger made my acquaintance, climbed over my knees, and settled on an adjacent bean bag chair for a little heart-to-heart with Mommy. I like tigers, particularly the small plastic variety, so this was a pleasant turn of events.

It got even pleasanter a moment later, when a boy with a profusion of blond curls falling over his forehead ran over with the tiger’s best buddy, Plastic Lion. Lion joined Tiger on the Mountain of Beans. He roared and bellowed and burped. Damian didn’t respond but he also didn’t leave. I suggested that perhaps Plastic Tiger might roar too. When Plastic Lion retreated for a brief room reconnoiter, Damian started to roar – soft, tentative little roars.

Lion Boy returned, bringing with him Elephant Boy and Tiger Girl. Plastic Elephant munched grass on Beanbag Mountain, so Tiger Damian did too. Soon enough they were all eating invisible food and roaring together.

It lasted only a few minutes and then the children scattered to the four corners of the room, but they left behind a lingering warmth in my throat and heart. I can’t call it true interactive play, no "here, you wear this hat now" and "I’m the king and I’m going to make you my knight!" But he fit in the group for a few minutes and that means something still. I wish it were a common, everyday moment, seen-it-done-it-been-there-yawn bite of time, but it’s not. Not yet. Maybe this too, like fluid speech before it, will become the norm. But it’s still so tentative, so uncertain, so new. It still warrants comment.

Better still was yesterday’s moment. It lasted longer, to boot. Day Five at the Other School.

It started simply. Damian scooted down the long driveway at the side of the school in his black ride-on car. A girl with brown curls and a round face wanted to play back there too. Apparently she got in his way. He ordered her to get away, to clear out, to stop blocking him. She wouldn’t budge. He got mad. She still wouldn’t leave. She wanted to play with this strange bossy boy, come hell or high voices. And somehow – Kahuna doesn’t know how and I wasn’t there to see – Damian's tone shifted. He stopped trying to push her away and instead accepted her as a playmate.

The first time I saw the twosome, they were on the teeter totter turtle. Teetering and then tottering. Damian fell backwards, an outsized, dramatic topple. Very much on purpose. Got up, brushed off the wood chips, and ran over to me. "Mommy, I was on the teeter totter with this kid and I fell off!" Pleased with himself. He straddled the turtle once more. Teeter. Totter. Fall. She fell too, joining the fun. They bounced and fell, fell and bounced, laughed and exclaimed. She ran around the turtle, singing "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round!" Damian ran around too, around and around, shouting out a narrative of what they were doing. The two of them thrilled together. And yes, together. Damian perhaps a hair less involved than she was, but yes, he was riffing off her, he was enjoying her pleasure, he was playing with her.

Later, he ran to the ride-ons once more. She looked around for him. "Damian! Where’s Damian?" I pointed to the side alley. She raced to look.

Moments later, there they were. He rode on the back of a car, she drove. Then they switched places. Taking turns. Negotiating, talking to each other. Accepting each other as mates.

It’s not enough, not yet. Never enough, it sometimes seems. He’s still not fully present with other children, even yesterday with this girl I saw it. A slight disconnect, as if protecting himself from emotional trauma, much like a jaded lover, hurt too many times, will approach a new relationship with caution and a certain cool distance. I don’t know why this is, don’t know what fear drives it, I only see that it’s there. And all we can do is chip away at his reserve, seduce him with fun or rather, step back and turn the job over to the experts. Because we’ve done nearly as much as we can ourselves, played with him and played with him and, yes, seen him come alive. Now it’s the children’s turn to woo him over. I hope they can.

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