One of my favorite t-shirt I had when I was younger was light pink with a Precious Moments character. It had this saying on it: Tea for Two, Two for Tea. One for you, One for Me. I loved that shirt and wore it until it was too small for me. I was reminded of it while waiting for an appointment to start one morning. Ronan and his two little sisters were with me that day. Since Izzy and Lil Sis are all too familiar with waiting rooms, which they frequent while Ronan goes from one specialist to the next, they knew it could be awhile before we were called back. They found the waiting room toys quickly and began to play. Ronan, who isn’t yet fully interested in toys or playing, used the dry erase board in another corner of the room. I wrote some words Ronan knew and asked him to write some also. After he’d signed the words I asked him to identify, Ronan finger spelled words that he wanted me to write. Not too long into our activity we were interrupted by Izzy when she called to me, “Mom! We’re ready (giggle giggle); you sit here (pointing to a spot on the rug). We’re having a tea party!” The girls had set up a cozy tea party right behind me and now expected my full participation.
Since Ronan’s attention span is still short I planted myself where Ronan could continue to write, where I could keep my eye on him and where I could have a “bite” of the tasty treats my little girls had set before me. Well, before I had fully settled at this tiny feast on the rug, Ronan came over and sat in my lap. He looked at the spread of plastic bowls, colorful plates and miniature food pieces and grabbed a plastic chicken leg. I was curious to see what Ronan would do with it and was then shocked as he lifted the chicken leg to my mouth as if asking me to take a bite of it. I said thanks and tried to grab it from his hand thinking he was giving it to me. Ronan wouldn’t let go but instead put the chicken leg right at my lips. He kept it there and waited. I tried to say thank you and reach for it again, but Ronan wouldn’t let go of that chicken leg. What was he doing? Sitting there so close to me waiting very intently, it took me just another second before I realized ohmygoodness! He wants me to “eat” it! I pretended to take a bite while reaching for the chicken leg to put it back on a plate. Nope, that wasn’t it. Ronan left that chicken leg hovering in the air.
My pretend eating was not enough. Ronan kept the chicken leg poised at my mouth now moving it gently closer to me. Ronan insisted I do more, but what? Staring straight into my eyes, I looked right back at him. Wishing that intense stare had directions with it, I thought, “Tell me, little boy. Tell me what to do. You know Mommy would do anything for you.” I opened my mouth and pretended to take an even bigger bite, but still, Ronan’s reaction, or lack of one, told me there was something more he wanted me to do. My mind was doing cartwheels at this pretend cooperative play and his focused interest. Think! What am I supposed to do? Normally I’m the one waiting for Ronan to respond. This time, I was being tasked with something that felt impossible.
Not wanting to disappoint, or to ruin the wonderful pretend play Ronan was finally interested in, I leaned forward toward the chicken leg that Ronan was holding tightly to. Still staring at me, his eyes pierced mine. Oh! “Yum,” I blurted out. “Thanks, Ronan. YUM! YUM!!!” Finally satisfied, Ronan took the plastic chicken leg away and put it back on the plate.
We are constantly asking Ronan to say yum because, out of the few words Ronan does have, it is one of his clearest ones he can say. Izzy hears Ronan say it happily and with sincere thanks when she offers him a gluten-free treat she’s made specifically for him. Yum, for the brownie she baked. Yum, for the donut she made. Yum, for the cookies she serves. I felt so silly afterward and so excited. Ronan just wanted to hear what we ask him to say all the time. What a connection to make!
My girls were full of glee at this point. I shared their joy because the play between the girls, and now Ronan, continued. Next, Ronan “fed” me a bunch of bananas. Then he picked up a donut with jimmies and offered it to me. I repeated the play, the exchanges, the YUM and the thanks. Ronan repeated his pretend play gestures creating more excitement for his little sisters with each exchange. Two more times I offered a hearty YUM directly to Ronan thanking him for the delicious moment. Izzy had gotten up and moved toward Ronan to see if she could help him chose the next bite of food for me. Ronan acted like he’d been playing tea party with us for years and kept playing not needing his sister’s assistance. Realizing this, and in the excitement of watching her brother participate so fully in something so typical, Izzy squealed, “Mommy! He’s really, REALLY gonna talk and play with us!”
Being able, just like they are is the ultimate dream my typical kids have for Ronan and for Izzy especially. She is very in tune with Ronan’s needs. She sees and hears his struggles and wants so quickly to make things better. Out of all my children, Izzy is first to realize what Ronan needs. She is first on the scene when he needs help and is his loudest cheerleader when we have something to celebrate. With each of Ronan’s achievements she witnesses, Izzy feels such joy for Ronan knowing how difficult it was for him to do it. She’s always associated an accomplishment to being a step closer to speech even if the skill Ronan acquired had nothing at all to do with being able to talk. I love that about her and encourage her to continue to try to make connections with Ronan in the hopes that she will elicit more vocal and verbal responses from her big brother.
On the days that Ronan is with us cognitively, and when he is able to jump into an activity that was a struggle just the day before, I too want to celebrate loudly like Izzy does. That morning we made the most noise in the waiting room bringing smiles to the staff and other patients. Toasting with tiny, pink tea cups, while nibbling plastic chicken legs, may not sound too exciting for the average person. But, for my little girls and me, the little tea party we had with Ronan was watching a dream come true. Ronan played. He did it well. He did it so very well.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.