Just Her Type

“OK, let’s try your name again. What’s the first letter?”

A forceful finger poked out an “M” on the keyboard. Then quickly, several more. “MMMMMMMM.”

“Right! Now how about the second letter?”

A little hesitation. The finger searched, hovered, and finally came down on the “I.”

“Good job!”

After a while, and more stops and backups than an overloaded railway line, we were finally there. She had finally typed “MISSY.” Granted, she had also typed “MSSAY,” “MSSBI” and a few other variations, but nothing comes without practice.

And practice is exactly what we’ve started to do.

Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, has been fascinated by Heather’s keyboard for a long time. No reason she shouldn’t be. Since we moved in a year ago to take care of her, we’ve used it to listen to tunes, watch videos and – Missy’s personal favorite – flip though family pictures.

Always with help, though. Missy doesn’t read.

A year ago, I would have said “can’t read.” Now, I’m not so sure. Her letter recognition is pretty good. And while she says maybe 100 words out loud a week, the flow is increasing, often in ways that suggest there’s more going on behind her eyes than we know.

While watching a bowling program with several 7-10 splits, we’ll hear “Those pins will not go down!”

As Heather tries to maneuver in a Christmas-crowded parking lot, Missy will shout out the window at passersby “Get out of the way!”

And a marathon story time session got just a little longer when she picked up the book, handed it back to me and instructed me “Don’t stop.”

The words are there. The understanding is there, however curious at times. Even the letters are there, if sometimes hesitantly.

What if? What if she could forge the link between what she says and what she sees?

I’m not expecting “The Miracle Worker.” But things just that unlikely have happened.

A certain video makes the Internet rounds every so often. It’s the story of Carly Fleischmann, a girl with severe autism who never said a word for her first 11 years of life. Her parents and therapists worked with her, pushed her, never gave up on her.

And in 2006, there was a payoff. After years of silence, Carly sat down and began to type. Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. As the days went by, it was clear that the girl who had been written off as “retarded” was actually quite intelligent – and had finally found a way to show it.

“It is hard to be autistic because no one understands me,” she once typed. “People look at me and assume I am dumb because I can’t talk or I act differently than them. I think people get scared with things that look or seem different than them.”

Well said, Carly.

Now, Missy isn’t truly autistic, though many of her symptoms mirror the condition. And I’m certainly not expecting “War and Peace.” But if she can bridge even a little of the gap, even if it’s just enough to tell one similar-looking CD from another, I’ll count that a win.

Reading and writing are amazing gifts. I’m not sure we appreciate just how amazing. Through them, we’ve created a form of telepathy, the ability to send thoughts into the universe and have them received by someone we’ve never met. It’s a sort of community, a network of thought that long predates the first computer.

I want to bring Missy in the door. Maybe we’ll only get as far as the foyer. But she’s surprised me before. And I don’t think she’s done yet.

And however far she goes, I’m ready to lead the cheers.

Give me an “M.”

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