At home, my focus was on the microphone stand. It was too high. I drug out the plastic stool with Handy Manny and his tools, stuck to the side, and placed it under the mike. The shiny blue stool oozed happiness. Strange, that. But it worked. The smile on his face lit up the room when he saw it. He stood upon his stool, leaned over the mike, placed his mouth on it, and said, “Get ready for the test! Don’t peek at your list! Begin!”
Ah, the “Spelling Lady”, as she is known in our house. The computer-generated voice had provided the most recent addition to our echolalia library. Every week, the little guy is on a website where I input his spelling words. He waits for the test I input to begin with the words above, spoken in a voice suspiciously like Ellen Degeneres’. Gleefully, and methodically, he types the letters of his words. But this practice session was not on a computer – it was the real deal. The inter-school Spelling Bee was upon us.
We had practiced and practiced. There were four sheets of 75 words each. 300 words to learn. He spelled at the mike. He wrote words out on a chalkboard. He enunciated. He grew tired. The words seemed to jumble together, the longer we went at it.
Finally, at 3 a.m., Monday morning, he awoke, loudly spelling p-a-p-p-e-r. “No,” I told him, “P-a-p-e-r. Just one p. Go to sleep.” He re-spelled, his eyes closed. But sleep was over. He knew this was the day. If he won it all, a brand new Power Wheels Barbie car was his. Yes, he wanted the Barbie car because of the speakers in the back. And, if he did not win, he was promised a small, remote control car for all his effort. He wanted, coveted and worked hours and hours for that car.
We had to travel out of town for the Spelling Bee. After an hour and a half on the road, we arrived. As we parked, the sun streamed through my dirt-speckled, windshield. In front of us was a church-school combo, the buildings made of red brick.
As we headed for the sanctuary, we saw others doing the same. Once inside, the first thing I noticed was the thick smell of old musty carpet. I doubted my son smelled it at all, given his hypo-sensitive nose. Never has he asked me about a smell, good, bad or neutral. Today was no different. Mentally, I noted, he was missing a tool that could evoke strong memories of childhood. I wondered if he had some alternative way to access his memories.
After checking in, getting instructions and being officially welcomed, we were off to our first grade competition room. There were 23 first graders competing from seven different schools. Like the sanctuary, the classroom was saturated with that thick, musty odor.
In the classroom, two, metallic, folding tables, with fake wood tops, had been forced together for the judging crew, an arbitrator, “spellmaster”, head judge, recording judge, and roundkeeper. The sixth, known as the hostess, stood by the door, keeping others from entering or exiting during the competition. Full-sized, plastic chairs were lined perpendicular to the judges’ ‘table’, for the parents and 23 tiny, plastic, competitor chairs, papers numbering their backs, faced the judges. Toots was number 7.
Toots’ ABA tutor was nearby, to guide him from chair to chair (there was a first and second waiting chair and the speller’s chair). She would help keep him from verbal outbursts. As none of the judging panel in our room was from Toots’ school, I felt anxious. It was incumbent upon me to explain the role of the tutor to this strict, rule-abiding, panel of judges. Would they understand? Would they say he could not have his tutor?
He was the third competitor in the room. I headed straight to the panel and explained. They listened, nodded and accepted the tutor with no argument. I was not relieved much, but I saw no sign of anxiety from my son.
Rules were rehashed, instructions repeated, none of which my son appeared to listen to. There were two practice rounds. He did fine, moving as prompted. He spelled “from” and “three” correctly.
The real round began. “Bent” was his word. “B-i-n-t” he said. And it was over.
Weeks and weeks of practice. Weekly visits to Toys-R-Us to covet the Barbie car. Waking at 3 a.m. to compete. And he was out in round one. My heart ached for him.
And yes, of course, I wanted him to win. I wanted his hours and hours of work to yield him a tangible reward. I wanted to show the world that autism does not always mean intellectual disability. I wanted to jump up and down and say that’s one for our team, but it didn’t happen that way.
On the way back, he heard me telling his grandpa what happened. My dad, always easy going, said, “Oh well, next year. Not a big deal.” Through the rear view mirror, I saw both of Toots’ hands go to his face. His ran his fingers through his hair while covering his face. With body language, he expressed frustration and shame. He said, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“There is nothing for you to be sorry about,” I told him, hanging up with my dad. “You did a great job. Mommy is very proud of you,” I said. “We will try again next year, yes?” He did not respond.
I realized I’d never before seen him express this kind of disappointment. Sure, there is disappointment comes from denial of a toy or ice cream. But disappointment of working the hardest you’ve ever worked, and not yielding the reward? That’s hard. I still get that every time I lose at trial. And it hurts.
But when you win, after feeling that kind of loss, the victory is more sweet than it could ever be without knowing the sting of loss. He only knows the hard half now. But I see lots of sweet rewards in that little boy’s future. For now, a little remote control car will console him until the next competition arrives. And, in a way, I think he knows. He’s been spelling b-e-n-t to me unprompted, every day this week.