I often found Christopher in the kitchen standing in front of the refrigerator, staring at the smooth white plastic as if it held a mysterious secret inside. When Christopher heard me behind him, he inevitably started to cry, his eyes focused on the refrigerator doors. I experimented with my responses to this behavior. If I stood still and waited, he’d eventually turn and walk to me, grab my hand and drag me back to the refrigerator. Then we’d stand together and stare. The longer we’d stand, the louder he would cry. When I opened the door, the wailing would only increase, and the guessing game would begin again.
“Want juice?” I’d ask. The answer: louder crying.
“Want bread?” I’d say, holding up a plastic covered loaf. More crying.
I assumed that if he stopped or even slowed his crying when I held something in front of him, he wanted it. Then I’d put him in his high chair, and lay the food out on the tray. Sometimes I’d find an item he wanted and sometimes I wouldn’t. When it seemed like no food or drink would stop his crying, I’d arrange an offering of different items on his tray: sliced bananas, crackers, cut grapes, a hot dog. Occasionally Christopher would eat something, but usually he’d throw each item off the tray, the sticky pieces landing clear across the kitchen on the white tiled floor.
But watching ABA therapy at the May Center and Alex’s house had given me an idea. I got out my camera and took a photo of every food or drink item in the kitchen, and went to the store and had the film developed while I shopped. In the photo aisle, I found clear plastic photo holders, with magnets attached to the back. I bought several dozen. When I returned, I filled the magnets with the photos: a cup of juice, a cookie, a chicken nugget, a French fry, and an apple. Then I hung them on the refrigerator door where Christopher could reach, and waited for the ritual to begin.
Christopher entered the kitchen and walked up to the refrigerator. He spotted the photo magnets and carefully touched each one. Before he could begin to cry, I approached him.
“What do you want, Christopher?” I asked. He didn’t answer, his eyes glued to the picture of the apple.
“Apple?” I asked. He was quiet, but his eyes didn’t move.
I took Christopher’s right hand and moved it to the apple. Together we pulled the picture from the door until he was holding it, running his fingers over the blunt edges of the plastic.
“Want apple?” I asked, holding out my hand to him, palm up. Christopher froze. The skin above his nose crinkled in confusion. “Want apple?” I asked again, my hand still out. I watched his face as he considered my question. His skin was the color of fresh cream; a fine blue line snaked across his temple and disappeared under a shiny clump of hair. Several seconds later, Christopher pushed the picture into my hand and I jumped into motion.
“You want apple,” I yelled, and immediately opened the refrigerator and pulled out an apple. I picked up Christopher, put him in his high chair, quickly sliced and placed the apple in front of him. “Apple, apple, apple,” I sang. Christopher looked at me as if I were an alien who’d landed in a spaceship on the lawn and walked into his kitchen. I sat at the table across from him and waited. Soon Christopher picked up an apple wedge and began to chew. I suppressed a loud cheer, smiling instead.
Somehow I’d found a way in.
During the next few days, Christopher quickly learned the new system. He started to seek me out, coming into my office or bedroom to hand me a picture. My response was always the same. “You want cookie?” I’d scream. “Let’s go get a cookie.” Immediately I’d scoop him up, carry him to the kitchen, put him in his high chair and serve the cookie. The episodes of crying in front of the refrigerator were over, and I was ecstatic.
“I feel like I’m actually communicating with him,” I said to Mike, as I handed Christopher a cup of juice after he’d brought me yet another picture. It was Saturday, my favorite day of the week. With no work to worry about, we could lounge around the house in our pajamas, watching Christopher and Cierra as we sipped from streaming mugs of tea.
“It’s great, Heather,” he said hesitantly, as I poured tea. Mike looked at me with a worried expression. “But, in some ways it concerns me too. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have to ask: what motivation does Christopher have now to actually talk?”
I sat down on the couch next to Mike, stunned.
“Shit,” I said. “I didn’t think of that.”
Now that Christopher had a way to communicate, would he ever need to use words?