It is a popular misconception that autistics can count hundreds of matches
in the blink of an eye and draw fantastic pictures. In reality, few are
like this and less than one percent fall into the idiot savant category.
Most are mildly to severely retarded and autistic. Some are autistic and
emotionally disturbed. Some have Ausberger’s Syndrome (a mild form of
autism) but exhibit behavior disorders and severe learning disabilities.
According to her charts and sheets, Eureka is severely autistic.
That’s all they can conclude. I look at her and notice only that her hair
is always braided in thick cornrows that stop just below her ears, and she’s
always dressed in jeans, a man’s collared shirt and a sweater.
speaks, but what is more disturbing is that she doesn’t recognize or
I’ve been with her twice a week for the past five weeks, and she still won’t
say my name. As human beings we like to be acknowledged: ninety-percent of
our actions are motivated by the prospect of a reward, raise or compliment.
I’m sure Eureka knows me. I can see it in her eyes when I enter the room.
“Hi Eureka,” I say.
Eureka pulls her collar up over her mouth.
“Eureka,” Ms. Gambino calls.
“Say hello. Say hello, Eureka.”
“Hello Eureka,” she says, in a dim, brittle voice.
“No, Eureka,” Ms. Gambino says. “Say, Hello, Eureka.”
“Hello Eureka,” she says.
This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with students with echolalia, a
condition of constant echoing or mimicking that many autistics exhibit.
Eureka’s voice is soft, almost hollow. It’s sad. It’s as if everything she
says must travel a great distance before it reaches me. I often feel like
she’s talking to me from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Though echolalia is named for Echo, the annoying nymph in Greek mythology
who wouldn’t be quiet and was condemned by the Gods to repeat other people’s
words, the students I’ve met with echolalia don’t mimic inanely like
parrots; they use it as a tool or defense. Dexter, whose cranium is so
swollen that he looks like he’s wearing a turban beneath his baseball hat,
has his own form of echolalia. He answers every question with a question of
“Dexter, are these words?” I ask.
“Words?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Dexter, are these pictures?”
“Dexter, are these poems?”
Kevin, a student I’ve worked with for two years, mimics because it’s the
only way he knows how to have conversation. He listens to what I say and
then waits. Whether I’m talking about Schopenhauer or butterflies, he
repeats what I’ve said as if the words represented his thoughts. He
presents the information as if he’s agreeing with me. In the same way that
I laugh at jokes I don’t find funny and agree with statements I don’t like,
Kevin says things he doesn’t understand.
“Yeah, yeah, pessimism, Ms. Fay. It’s all about pessimism,” he says without
having any idea whether pessimism is something he can eat or feel.
Eureka repeats so that we’ll leave her alone. Or maybe she does it because
she genuinely wants to give us the answer we’re looking for. She wants it
so much that she’s learned to lift her head, bob up like a diver coming up
for air and repeat whatever we’ve said.
During a lesson on personification, one in which I try to get the students
to imagine that they are leaves in a tree, I tried to get Eureka to say the
word ‘tree.’ I’d introduced her to the word ‘leaf’ moments before and she
wouldn’t let it go.
“Tree,'”I said, holding up picture of a tree.
“Leaf,” she said.
“No, Eureka. Tree.”
“No, Eureka. Tree. Tre-eee.”
“Leaf,” she said.
“Tree!” I said.
“Leaf!” Eureka cried, matching my enthusiasm.
Tomorrow it might change, but today trees and leaves were one in the same. A
tree was a leaf-tree, a tree with leaves. Why separate? What’s the
distinction? After all, every picture I showed her had leaves on the trees
so in a sense she was right. I couldn’t get her to call a tree a tree, but
she was happy to call a leaf a leaf and write about it.
After our leaf-tree debate was over, I talked to the class about haiku. I
drew a man on the board with a goatee and glasses and told them his name was
‘Coo.’ I asked them to say hi to Coo.
“Hi Coo!” I screamed.
The students said nothing. Danny stared out the window. Eureka adjusted
her collar and untied and retied her shoes.
“Say hi to Coo everyone,” I said. “Hi Coo!” I waved to the blackboard.
“Hi to Coo,” Eureka said. And so it went.
I asked the students to write the color of leaves on the first line, where
the leaf lives on the second line and something they love to do that doesn’t
have anything to do with leaves on the third line. By the end of the
period, Eureka had completed a three-line haiku called, “Leaf Tree”:
in the tree
The word eureka, or heureka, is Greek for “I’ve found it out!”
Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, inventor and physicist, exclaimed this
word when he discovered how to test the purity of Hiero’s crown.
Archimedes had no idea how to determine whether the crown was made of silver
or gold. The chances were good that the worker they’d hired to make the
crown stole the gold and used silver instead (proving life hasn’t changed
that much in 2200 years), but Archimedes had to prove it.
He was perplexed
until one day he got into a bath and noticed that the water rose when he
stepped in. Delighted, he ran home naked shouting, “Eureka! Eureka!”
The students at 721K behave as differently from one another other as a group
of individuals can. They all have their habits and quirks.
When I tell
Jeffrey that it’s time to work, he immediately pulls up my sleeves. Then he
pulls up his sleeves as if he’s a worker in a factory or a farmer about to
go out and work the land.
Venus always shows me her shoes. Iris takes
time-outs in the hallway holding her doll, Iris.
Eureka is always searching for something. She’s looking for the right
answer or a way to get someone to take her outside. She’s nervously tapping
the desk, waiting for an activity to start. Sometimes she gets so anxious
that she jumps up from her chair, claps twice in mid-air and sits down
She is always looking for a way to get “water, water, water.”
One of my favorite warm-up exercises is called, “Things Inside My Head.” We
generate a list of things that are inside our heads (our imaginations,
thoughts, feelings), and a list of things around us (tangible objects). The
distinction may seem simple to you and I, but the difference between
tangible and intangible things is difficult for them to grasp.
I pass around a handout with the silhouette of a human head drawn on it. I
ask the students to cut five ‘things’ out of the newspaper that they could
hold in their hands. Then I ask them to cut out five wishes, feelings or
Eureka writes her own words. She doesn’t want to use the newspaper, and she
doesn’t want to cut. She writes the words ‘museum,’ ‘art,’ and ‘chicken’ on
slips of paper and pastes them down inside her ‘head.’
Then she writes,
‘meals on heels,’ ‘look at books,’ ‘walk around’ and ‘drinking water’ and
glues them down inside her ‘head’ as well.
“No, Eureka,” I say. “The museum isn’t inside your head. You just remember
the museum, don’t you?” They’d taken a class trip to the Brooklyn Museum
of Art earlier in the week.
“Museum,” she says.
“Do you remember it or see it in front of you?” I ask again, pointing at my
“Museum,” she says, pointing at her head.
I spend half-an-hour explaining to her that the museum is outside her head,
as are the chickens, art and leaves.
She spends the time not looking me in
the eye and straightening her shirt. I think I am being completely
logical. I tell her that ‘looking at books,’ ‘walking around,’ and
‘drinking water’ are pleasures, wishes. The bell rings.
As I walk down the
hall, I start to wonder if it really matters. Don’t we carry objects and
people around in our heads? Don’t objects and people become more real when
we need or desire them?
By late June, Eureka still hasn’t said my name.
During one of our last
visits together, I’m reminded of the myth of Psyche and Eros. In it, Eros,
the god of love, accidentally pricks himself with his own arrow and falls in
love with Psyche, a plain mortal girl.
Bodiless voices answer her
questions. The servants are invisible. Even her husband comes to her at
night in the form of a voice or occasionally like a breeze.
I used to think this myth was a love story, the tale of a woman tragically
trying to have faith in a wonderful man she can’t see, but now I read it as
the tale of a person overwhelmed by presences.
In it, people are
imperceptible. They’re imaginary. It’s the objects that live.
Like Psyche, Eureka is the queen of objects.
She takes pleasure in turning
the pages of books. She never reads them; she goes through them the way
other people do, except more quickly.
Often she’ll stare out the window as
she flips through an issue of Highlights. She enjoys string so much that if
Ms. Gambino didn’t stop her, she would tie and retie her shoes a hundred
times a day.
She also loves the collars of her shirts and is constantly
readjusting them, less to assure that they’re straight than to feel the
fabric in her hands.
Most of all, Eureka loves water. She completes her tasks so that she may
get up from her desk and go to the sink and drink.
Each time, she wipes her
hands on her sweater, turns on the faucet, puts her fingers in the water and
pulls them out quickly as if the stream shooting out of the faucet were
electric and then slowly lowers her lips.
She isn’t gluttonous. She sips
from the faucet the same way you or I would, but it’s more than an activity;
it’s a reward. It’s a ritual.
Unfortunately, the myth ends badly for Psyche. One night she tries to shine
light on her sleeping husband to prove that he’s not just a voice or a
breeze. He’s not a monster. He’s human, isn’t he? And so is she, right?
Using a candle she’s hidden in the wall, she gets a glimpse of him while
he’s sleeping. In modern retellings Eros has the face of Brad Pitt and the
body of Hulk Hogan. He’s not a monster after all. He’s real. He’s really
Then the voice is gone, the castle disappears, and Psyche is left
standing waist-deep in weeds.
In one version, Psyche lives out her days as an owl, searching the dark
woods for her lover, calling out to him, “Who? Who?”
In another, she is
turned into a bat, an animal that sees only by night.
In my favorite
version, Psyche becomes a voice, a whisper. After living so many days in
the presence of non-beings, the invisible servants and a non-existent
husband, she herself disappears.
What will happen to Eureka? Next year, she?ll be twenty-one.
The New York
education system does not allow special education students to attend school
past the age of twenty-one.
Eureka will graduate and find a job. She’ll
find work washing dishes (water!) or sweeping up in a restaurant or office
As long as her mother is still alive, Eureka will be fine.
can dress herself and go to the bathroom by herself.
When I ask Ms. Gambino
what she thinks would happen if Eureka were left on her own with no one to
help her, she tells me that Eureka would be fine.