16: We Love Vermont

16: We Love Vermont

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

We Love Vermont

Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons.

~Ruth Ann Schabacker

I just wanted my son to talk. I wanted some affirmation that I was a decent mom, that my kid knew he was loved. At age two, Nicholas spent so much time in his own little world. If we took him around other kids, he would lie face down on the carpet, giggling to himself, and stay there for an hour until we left. At home, he flicked through book pages to a steady rhythm for entire afternoons. He had to be coaxed to point at things. He spoke only a few words — the basics, like “no,” “juice,” “milk” — and not any sentences.

Receiving a diagnosis of high-functioning autism was vindication for me. Nicholas’s slow development wasn’t my fault; he simply thought in a different way. This was something we could work with, and work through. As a psychologist told us, he was very bright. Nicholas knew the alphabet and could count past one hundred, even if he didn’t say “hi” or look anyone in the face. He was making progress, albeit slowly. There was hope. We just needed to find a way to open his eyes to a wider world.

Our miracle came in an unexpected form: a lap-sized wooden puzzle of the good old United States of America.

When I set that puzzle in front of him, his eyes went wide in an immediate reaction. I sucked in a breath. It was unusual for him to connect with a toy that fast. At age two and a half, he already had a strong preference for books instead.

“This is Texas,” I said, holding up the biggest piece in the set.

“Texas,” repeated my little parrot. He reached for the state’s northern neighbor.

“That’s Oklahoma.”

“O-ka-hom-a,” he said. We went through the rest of the states one by one. Concerned that he might lose the smaller pieces, I reassembled the puzzle and put it away out of his reach.

The next day, I found him staring up at his armoire. He didn’t point, he didn’t use words, but I could tell he wanted that puzzle again. When I placed it before him, he grinned wide and reached for Texas.

“Texas!” he announced. “O-ka-hom-a!”

Not only did he repeat most of the states back to me, but he picked up all the pieces in the exact same order I had the previous day. My mind was boggled. This time I left the pieces out for him. He stroked the edges and studied the names, chanting beneath his breath.

Puzzle time became a daily ritual. For two hours straight in the morning, he would sit there and ponder his puzzle and fit pieces into the larger map. Over the baby monitor, I heard him recite the names in a singsong. When it was time to put the puzzle away, I named each state as I put them in their places, and he echoed me, always watching.

The next week I had the news on in the background as I made supper. Nicholas began to squeal excitedly.

“Look,” my husband said, his voice soft in awe.

I glanced towards the television, expecting Nicholas to be ecstatic about some commercial. Instead, the weather map was on the screen showing the western United States, and Nicholas was engaged in a bouncy dance that would put Tigger to shame.

“Arizona! Cal-fornia!” he yelled, arms over his head as he boogied. He made the connection. The United States didn’t just exist as a puzzle in his bedroom. The states were everywhere. They were something other people talked about, too.

Nicholas’s favorite puzzle states began to make tours of the house. I would find them lined up in front of the TV, or framing his placemat at the dining table. For some incomprehensible reason, Vermont became his very favorite. He carried it everywhere, whispering beneath his breath, “Vermont, Vermont, Vermont.”

No matter where I was in the house, I could expect him to run up to me with that Vermont-New Hampshire piece in his hand. He stared at me, waiting, the piece thrust into my face.

“Yep, that’s Vermont,” I said.

He squealed and ran away again, the identity of his favorite state confirmed for the twelfth time that day.

I went through his book collection and found a lift-the-flap book on the states that we had bought months before. Nicholas didn’t care for it at the time, but now the moment was ripe. He squealed with glee when he saw his states in book form. Within days, I had to bring out the tape to reinforce the pages and flaps.

Nicholas began to understand more abstract things about the states, too. “What state were you born in?” I asked him.

“Washington,” said Nicholas, pointing to the state.

“Where do we live?”

“Arizona! Cap-tal, Phoenix.”

He would do the same thing using the world map on his shower curtain, or an atlas, or a random map we would find in a store. When other people mentioned state names, he perked up in understanding and looked them in the eye, grinning. When I read the morning newspaper, he shouted out the state names he recognized in the headlines.

Nicholas was still developmentally delayed, there was no question, but by recognizing the places in the world, his personal world became larger. Maps were a language he could understand. Through those places and names, he could connect to other people, too.

On one particular day, Nicholas had been everywhere, into everything. It was one of the days that gave the “Terrible Twos” its name. I was a frazzled wreck by the time my husband got home from work. He wanted to cheer me up somehow, so he took Nicholas on his lap and asked him, “Isn’t Mommy pretty? Don’t we love Mommy?”

Nicholas looked me square in the eye, his smile blinding. “I love Vermont!” he said, bouncing at the words.

I took that as a yes.

~Beth Cato

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