Before I get to Khalid’s first sentence- his first spontaneously, original, and contextually appropriate sentence- this blog has a long preamble. Here it goes.
Once upon a time, HF and I met a friend of a friend at an Eid party. MashaAllah, he was an American Muslim convert married to a South-American convert. Together they had three children, two of whom seemed perfectly lovely and energetic and funny, and one of whom was… strange. His name was Aziz. He was extremely thin, held his arms in front of his body with his fingers in strange positions, his speech was difficult to understand and he seemed disconnected from things that were happening around him. At that time I was pregnant with Khalid, and little did I know that the weird little boy with the flicking fingers and disconnected look would have so much in common to the unborn little boy I was carrying. Aziz had autism.
We didn’t see that family again until over two years later, when Khalid was diagnosed with autism, and HF remembered that once upon a time, we met another Muslim family at an Eid party whose child had autism. Contact was reestablished, and we went over for a visit, nearly three years after we had first met them. I was nervous, and still depressed and in the initial stages of trying to understand Khalid’s diagnosis. Khalid had not yet begun ABA and we were in the agonizing wait between assessment and the beginning of therapy. Imagine my surprise when we got there and were welcomed by a totally different little boy.
“Come here,” he said, excitedly, though with his head tilted awkwardly to one side, “I want to show you my big city.” He led us to a poster on the dining table dotted with landmarks along a hand-drawn river. “This is the Eiffel Tower. And this,” he said, pointing to a suspiciously geometric-looking piece of play-dough, “this is the Sydney Opera House.” He took us on a tour from one wonder to the next- the Golden Gate Bridge, the Burj ul Arab- plastic models and play-dough sculptures as his parents stood and beamed with pride.
I asked the mother what had happened in the two years since we had seen them. She told me that she had moved back to her home in South America for a year with the kids to get ABA training and the most therapy possible for their dollar value. She sat with Aziz for six hours a day, training him, teaching him, coaxing him out of his bubble, and the end result was this intelligent, social, and earnest little boy who built his own cities.
I asked her when Aziz started speaking- a question that I worried over for Khalid constantly. At that point in time, he had no words (apart from one, single instance where he parroted the word ‘socks’) and had gone almost completely silent, apart from screaming or crying. She laughed and told me the story of their vacation in Malaysia. They had gone there as a family, and of course, they were facing challenges with managing Aziz. He could not stand being wet. If even a single drop of water landed on his clothes, he would have to be changed. Now, imagine pouring with sweat in Malaysia, and trying to control a boy who is freaking out every half an hour because he’s “Wet! Wet!” and needs to be changed no matter where, no matter when. The mother honestly told me (and I loved her for her honesty) that one day she couldn’t take it anymore. She just flipped out, and when Aziz started panicking at a restaurant when he was sweaty, she took a glass of water and threw it on him.
“There, now you’re wet!”
He went silent. And he stayed in his wet shirt until they got home, but he didn’t complain about being wet again.
Of course, the mother felt terribly guilty, and awful for having lost her cool. It was a tense vacation, and towards the end of it, they were taking a jungle tour where they were led across a bridge that passed through some treetops. They were bordered on both sides by monkeys desensitized by the number of visitors who passed over the bridge every day. The tour guy expressly told them to NOT bring any food on to the bridge, because the monkeys wouldn’t wait for you to offer it, they would just take it. And of course, kids being kids, one of their other sons ignored the advice, and midway across the bridge, pulled out a piece of bread from his bag. Within seconds, a monkey appeared out of nowhere, snatched the bread from the boy’s hand and disappeared into the great green yonder. And in the stunned silence that followed, Aziz shrugged and said his first sentence.
“Monkey took the bread.”
I have remembered that story since it was first told to me two years ago. I’ve told it to other people as well as myself when fretting over when and if Khalid would speak. It brought me joy and hope and always a little chuckle to remember the mother holding her palms up and shrugging, “Monkey took the bread.” I loved her story of Aziz’s first sentence, and I’d been waiting to have one for Khalid. Now, I finally do.
On Friday, the seventh of May, HF and I had been sitting on the bed and talking, and simultaneously two things happened. The first was that Iman made a grab for the piping-hot cup of chai that I had just set down on my desk. The second was that Khalid, who had been quietly climbing the bed from the far side, fell down and landed face-first onto the mattress. I jumped up and took the chai out of Iman’s hands just as she was about to slosh it onto herself, and HF turned and picked up Khalid who had begun to shriek. I opened the wardrobe and shoved the cup of chai inside for safekeeping and turned to Khalid, who was bleeding heavily. He had somehow bitten through the corner of his mouth. Iman began to cry as well, terrified by the blood and the screaming. She was whisked away by Cindy, and Khalid, bleeding and screaming, was quickly given a voltaren suppository as HF and I took turns trying to hold a kitchen towel over his mouth.
When we got a handle on the bleeding, we loaded Khalid into the car and off to the ER, where he was seen by a doctor at 12:20 pm, and four hours later, put under general anasthesia to have a surgeon repair his mouth. Apparently, he had fallen with his mouth open, and cut his lip and the area around it with a canine tooth from both sides, inside and out. HF stayed with Khalid, and told me that Khalid fought blindly when coming out of anasthesia, and cried non-stop for around half an hour before settling down and watching cartoons on the hospital tv in his undies. Eventually Khalid had some juice without throwing up and was ready to come home.
We got home by 9:30 pm, thanked Joy for her help, threw HF into the shower and began prepping Khalid for bed. Khalid, realizing there was something funny on his face, began to pull. And within ten minutes of getting home, he had removed the glue that the surgeon had put over his stitches, disturbed the wound, and found himself in his car seat again and back on his way to the hospital. Joy and I took the second shift and left HF at home. We took our second tour of the ER, saw a different doctor (as their shift had changed too) and were told (to our relief) that even though he had messed things around a bit, the stitches were safely inside of his lip, and the edges of the wounds still lined up reasonably straight, so he was alright without the glue as long as he didn’t pick anything else apart.
We made it back to the car by 11:30. It had been a long, long day, and Joy and I were sitting in relieved, if not tired silence at a red traffic signal. Khalid, from the back seat of the car, picked up a paper cup and balanced it on top of his head. Seeing the motion in the rear-view mirror, I turned in my seat to make sure he wasn’t picking at his mouth again. He looked at me and smiled, and shyly and carefully said his first sentence.
“I … am… a hat!”
And all was right with the world, and when we got home Khalid fell promptly asleep, and in the morning, Cindy confusedly handed me cup of tea she had found in my wardrobe and we had a good laugh.