I had enjoyed collecting for and decorating Camaro’s room while waiting for him to move in. Upon his arrival, he had many of his own toys that came with him, but I had also purchased blocks and legos and books and coloring supplies and stuffed animals and puzzles and wooden magnetic trains and tracks and puppets and playdough. I had been teaching preschool for years and knew exactly what I wanted for him. When I was done, his room was cozy and colorful and full of sunlight. There was no end to the amount of fun he and I could have in that room together. I was pleased with my work and couldn’t wait to bestow it upon my new son.
Cam, however, didn’t have a context for it. He didn’t yet know any of his colors or numbers or letters. His fingers were too weak to use legos. His coordination skills were not yet up to fitting train tracks together or navigating more than a car or 2 down the tracks without battery power. He lined wooden blocks up in great lengths, but he could not bear to stack them for fear of them tumbling down. His life to present had been full of bright red, orange, and black plastic toys that moved and screamed and flashed and wailed and blinked. He wasn’t sure what to do with the relative quiet thud of toys made out of wood that didn’t do anything unless someone applied some planning and imagination. He didn’t notice or care about contrast or patterns or what happened when you mixed colors together. His tiny fingers could not apply enough pressure on paper to make marks with crayons or poke holes in playdough, and he did not yet have enough abstract skills or ideas to utilize representative objects or drawings for any kind of amusement. He did not notice or did not care about anything that didn’t have wheels, and as long as it had wheels – it didn’t matter what size or shape or age level it was intended for. He did love to play, however – in his own unique way.
Camaro was a boy of very little attention, and constant movement. His play consisted of dumping everything out of bins and boxes and then, when the floor was nearly covered, he would make the sound and movement of any object his hands touched. He moved from object to object without any obvious planning or focus – eyes darting everywhere and sounds spilling from his lips without any filter. I tried to follow his lead and join him in his play, but interactive play was another skill that he had not yet acquired. He wanted me with him at all times, but he did not seem to understand the concept of conversation or turn taking. He wasn’t interested in exploring to learn, and his curiosity was limited to finding out what kind of batteries a particular item required. Books, stories, and even TV were beyond his attention span.
The vast majority of his verbal language consisted of repeating anything I said – over and over and over again until I said something else. If I failed to say more, he would then ask “Whadja say, Mama?” to get me started again. Then he would ask me the same question repeatedly – at least once or twice a minute – until I nearly lost my mind. It was as if he wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know how to engage in conversation and yet needed the sound of my voice actively talking to him in order to know that he and I were both present.
His unfocused and chaotic play, along with random impulsive acts of burying or throwing out various household and personal items made for a pretty dysregulated flow of time. While Cam was gentle and loving and eager to please, he lacked so many basic social and interpersonal relationship skills. He was very happy with who he was and who everybody else was, however, and he certainly had no fear or reluctance to talk to or follow anyone anywhere.
At the age of 4 years, Camaro weighed 27 pounds and his whole self fit completely in my lap without anything hanging over. He was not yet toilet trained and could not navigate stairs on his own. He did not know how to jump or hop, and was not strong enough to pull a blanket off of his toddler bed. He did not dress or undress himself, and had great difficulty using utensils to feed himself. He had virtually no problem solving skills. He did not have the attention span or drive to stick to any particular activity or endeavor, and appeared to be more than content to let the world happen around and to him. He did not exhibit any boundary testing behavior to speak of, did not ever get angry, and did not have a strong sense of cause and effect or of object permanence. He was a boy of the moment – aware of only what was in front of him at any given moment, and only on the most superficial of levels, at that. He did not aspire to independence or personal power or greater skill. He did not want to be a “Big Boy” and did not appear to be compelled to do anything on his own for the sake of personal accomplishment. His emotional responses to events were much more like those of a 6-12 month old than those of an experienced 2, 3, or 4 year old who was well on his way to figuring out how the world worked. I didn’t expect that, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle his apparent lack of motivation toward maturity and independence. So we started with what seemed like some practical steps that would make life more fun for both of us.
Since Cam was all about wheels and constant motion and hearing the sound of my voice, we took to the road a lot. We lived in the city and so there was constant movement and varied traffic – cars and trucks and bikes and emergency vehicles and construction machines and lawn equipment. Cam’s eyes could flit to his heart’s content, and I could label things that captured his brief attention. He could repeat and ask for repetition in a more acceptable context. There was a gas station nearby that was also a tow truck garage. Cam took such a shine to those trucks with hooks that I eventually made up a short ditty of a song about tow trucks that made him laugh and laugh.
In his car seat, Camaro was a captive audience. I quickly accumulated a shoebox full of board books that I knew well and read to him while I drove. Since I had the books pretty well memorized, I could hold them up high with my right hand, glance at him in the rear view mirror, and turn the cardboard pages with my fingers as I drove. We started with him glancing at the picture on each page and getting in the identification of at least one object. We worked our way, over months, up to sentences and connecting pages one to the other. It took nearly a year, but the time did come when Cam sat through and enjoyed a whole bedtime storybook.
We went to the beach where there was so much open free wild space that Cam was a bit boggled. He slowed down and stayed close. There I used his interests of play and water and the natural elements to start building some fundamental concepts. We noticed wet and dry. The water moved in and out. We walked up and down. We climbed over and under driftwood trees. The birds flew high and low. Once I taught him how to hold on to and swing at the same time, he went back and forth, higher and lower. We threw and floated sticks, and we threw and sank rocks. We pushed against, gained, and lost our balance in the wind and over the shifty sand. We pulled long lines of Bull Kelp along the beach. We watched the trees bend and the birds soar. The sky was big and soft, the earth hard and solid. We used our eyes to find shells and little crabbies along the water line. We looked for boats with sails and boats without sails. We noticed light and dark and discovered shadows. We chased birds and fed them. We watched them eat. We had frequent picnics and watched the sun set. It became one of our favorite places and over time, Cam started to notice things on his own in other places.