Category Archives: Development

One Moment, Please

You would think that your constantly-eating teenage son would come running when he hears the words, “Dinner’s ready!” Especially since you have resigned yourself to only prepare the foods that he will eat because he is thin and needs all the food he can get. So he doesn’t have to worry about coming to the table and seeing something he might not like. Why then, when you say, “Dinner’s ready!” does he growl in response, “That fast?!” This is after the five-or-ten-minute transitional warning that you have learned to always give him. You always say, “Dinner’s in five [or ten] minutes!” and make sure that he hears you, so that he can prepare himself mentally for the transition and finish up what he’s doing. Yet every day, without fail, he will sneer, “That fast?!” when you tell him that dinner is ready, even though he has had his advance notice.

And every day, you model a more appropriate response for him. “Okay, Mom” or “Be right there!” You tell him that he should respond more politely to someone who prepares a meal for him. But somehow the appropriate responses don’t seem to register. He doesn’t get it. For years now, he has said, “That fast?!” in a negative tone, and it just seems to be a habit for him. And you worry about him doing that at any friend’s house where he might actually be invited to have dinner. You worry that in the “politeness vs. difficulty with transitions” fight, politeness will always lose.

But, much to your surprise, the day will come when you will say, “Dinner’s ready!” at his bedroom door, and he, seated at his computer desk, will politely say, “One moment, please.” And you will just about fall over dead from the shock. And when you recover, you will think that he really must be up to something in there to be that polite. So you poke your head in and check, and he’s not doing anything out of the ordinary. So you praise him for being polite, but you don’t want to overdo it or that will exasperate him and then he will never be polite again. And you can’t help but wonder if this is just a one-time deal, if he had by chance recently watched a movie that featured that line when a character announced that a meal was being served and the scene was still fresh in his mind.

And the next day when you tell him that dinner’s ready, he says nicely, “Okay, Mom.” And you thank him and then just stand there in the hallway and think, Wow! He’s getting it! And the next day when you tell him he says, “I’ll be there in a minute.” And you start to hyperventilate because he’s been polite three days in a row. And the fourth day, you tell him when dinner’s ready, and he growls at you, and you realize that you had forgotten the 5-10 minute “warning.” So at least now you know that your transitional cue really helped, even though all this time it appeared to not make a difference. The next day, you remember the “warning,” and you tell him that dinner will be ready in five minutes. And he helps.To set. The table. And after you pick yourself up off the floor, you realize that even though he still needs help with transitions, he is finally learning to respond politely. Yeah. He’s getting it.

Staying Home Alone

“Independent functioning is not simply the ability to do something, but also the ability to decide what to do. It is not only the ability to take care of oneself. It is also the ability to take responsibility for oneself.” — Elaine Heffner (20th century), U.S. psychiatrist and author

Michelle at The Sneathen Family Site, one of the blogs I read regularly, posed an excellent question at the end of a recent post. She asked, “When, if ever, have you let your kids stay home for short periods on their own?” And since one of the most common searches used to find Teen Autism is “should an autistic teen be left home alone,” I thought I would do a search myself. There are plenty of parenting sites out there that offer guidelines for non-autistic kids and staying home alone. Given the fact that I couldn’t find much when I added autism into the mix, I figured that this subject warranted a post.

I started letting Nigel stay home alone for short periods starting at age twelve. We began with 20-minute increments and worked our way up to a few hours. I felt comfortable with that only after he had shown proficiency in the following areas:

1) Being able to call out if necessary and taking periodic check-in calls from Mom

2) Not opening the door for anyone, unless it’s the neighbor yelling “Fire!” Fortunately, that second part has not happened.

3) Knowing how to get out of the house quickly and where to go if something blows up

4) Staying in the house the entire time unless something blows up

5) Not doing anything that could cause anything to blow up

I reluctantly admit that we have had problems with items 4 and 5 on that list, resulting in the suspension of staying-home-alone privileges for periods of time. Apparently, the euphoria of being home alone sometimes causes my son to climb the 40-foot high tree in the backyard or set the couch cover on fire using a magnifying glass. Thus, he is also working on impulse control. For an autistic teen yearning to be independent, this is quite motivating, because he detests having his home-alone privileges revoked.

So, basically, what it boils down to is a combination of verbal ability and safety awareness. If Nigel did not have the ability to use the phone in an emergency, I would not consider leaving him home alone. His safety awareness has been developing for the past few years, and even though he “forgets” the home-alone rules once in a while, he is constantly improving. Someday, I may even return his magnifying glass to him.

If I Blogged 5 Years Ago

Yesterday, on my way home after picking up the boys from the 700-Mile Kid Swap, I thought about what it was like when we first started doing it seven years ago. I thought about how Aidan used to throw up in the car at least every hour and how Nigel, newly verbal and still figuring out syntax and pronouns, would ask, “Why you throw up?” So I thought I’d do a follow up to my previous post on this topic.

If I blogged five years ago, Nigel would have been nine and Aidan would have been seven. I would have written about how hectic it was to have two children having IEPs with one parent to attend them (and trying to find childcare beforehand). I would write about how Nigel, who had taught himself to read at age three, before he could talk, was now reading at a middle school level and could comprehend 90% of it. Conversely, I would write about how Aidan still couldn’t read, even though I’d read to him every single night of his life and had tried to teach him for years, and so I had him in a special reading program at his school in addition to his speech therapy.

Five years ago, I would have blogged about emerging Nigelisms like this:

The Scene: Interior suburban family home. Two young brothers are seated at the dinner table while their mother serves them their plates of food. For the first time, the children are having full-size turkey burgers, as opposed to their usual half-size, so their mother placed them on buns instead of regular bread, as she had previously done. Due to their limited acceptance of foods, she wonders if they will refuse the buns.

Younger brother, about age 5: Mom, what is this fred?

Mother: It’s a bun.

Younger brother: There are bun freds?

Older brother, about age 7: Not ‘freds.’ BREADS. Not an F, a B.

Nigel, as soon as he learned to talk, loved to correct Aidan, who had pronunciation issues. But one thing that surprised me a little was that Nigel seemed to want me to correct him (Nigel). If he misused a pronoun, I would gently correct him, and then he would repeat what he’d said and insert the correction, as if memorizing it. It took about four years for him to learn to use pronouns, articles, prepositions, word order, and verb tenses correctly. He put so much effort into learning to talk. It always touched me how receptive he was to my gentle corrections. It was always the same – he would quietly repeat what he’d said and insert the correction, then move on. This happened several times a day for a period of about four years. Having studied French for several years while in school, I recognized the process of learning a foreign language. And that was how Nigel learned to speak English – like it was a foreign language.

If I blogged five years ago, I would write about how I ventured back into the realm of grocery stores and the occasional restaurant with Nigel. Salon haircuts were possible for the first time with ear plugs. He was finally starting to filter out all the sounds that had been unbearable to him before. It was liberating for both of us. I would also write about my first published magazine article, “Autism on the Rise,” which was featured in a regional parenting magazine. I would sadly and angrily blog about the first time I heard Nigel being called a retard, and how I ran outside and yelled at the boy who said it.

Five years ago, I would write about Nigel’s incredible third grade teacher, the man who happily volunteered to take on a newly mainstreamed autistic boy, one who had struggled notably the previous school year, even with a full-time aide. Mr. Incredible welcomed Nigel, provided the structure he needed, patiently included him and encouraged his other students to do the same. He made Nigel feel so comfortable that, for the first time ever (away from home), Nigel removed the snug-fitting hood of his jacket when Mr. Incredible suggested it to him in the classroom one afternoon, after six months in his class. And Mr. Incredible was just as excited about it as I was. He still, five years later, inquires about how Nigel is doing.

Incidentally, Mr. Incredible was also Aidan’s third grade teacher. By the end of that year, Aidan was reading. And now, just three years later, he’s reading at a high school level. Five years ago, I would have never thought that would be possible. That and so many other amazing things. New issues have certainly come up in the past five years – bullying, homeschooling, behavioral problems, medication, etc. – but the fact is that both of my boys continue to improve. Hope abounds.

If I Blogged 10 Years Ago

I confess. When it comes to blogging, I do a lot of lurking, especially when I first discover someone’s blog. I feel like I need to get a sense of the person before I reach out. But I also lurk because sometimes, like when I’m reading about someone who’s just beginning their journey with their autistic child, I become lost in my memories. It’s been nearly twelve years since I began my journey, when Nigel was two and a half and I thought, Hmm. He’s not talking. He often doesn’t react when people talk to him. He can’t seem to interact with peers. Autism was the farthest thing from my mind. The child development books I owned barely mentioned the A word. “Autistic children do not show emotion or affection,” they said. “They live in their own world.” That told me nothing.

Thus began a process of referrals and testing and ultimately a diagnosis that, at the time (1997), confounded me. I went back to Barnes & Noble and found a copy of the DSM IV (first edition), looked up autism, and realized that it was quite different than what I had thought it to be. And I knew then that my son had it. No question. He fit all of the criteria. Every single one. I put the book back on the shelf and went full throttle into his intensive ABA-based therapy. It was certainly gentler than full-on Lovaas (Nigel’s program did not use aversives), but the frequency at the center combined with the home visits proved to be effective and beneficial. Nigel improved, but he did not “recover.” I slowly realized that was not going to happen.

And so, if I had blogged ten years ago, when Nigel was four and a half, I would have written on a daily basis about things very different than what I write now. There would be no Boy Scouts, no Nigelisms. No posts about how well he now does in grocery stores. Ten years ago I would have written about the veritable riots he had in grocery stores, malls, restaurants, while having his hair cut (even at home), and going to the doctor’s office. I would write about how he shrieked and writhed on the floor when I had to take him into public restrooms. How he wailed if anyone even walked past the door where the vacuum cleaner was kept. I would write about how fearful he was of hearing tests, even though I held him on my lap the entire time he screamed, and his traumatic lead testing experience. I would write about my frustration explaining to friends and relatives why he did the things he did. I would write about my joy if I found a helpful autism book, because there were so few then. I would write about Nigel’s rampant echolalia at age four and a half, how he often tried to use memorized lines from movies and fit them within the context of the real situation. I would write about his hyperlexia, teaching himself to read at age three and a half, before he could talk. I would write about how he greeted visiting relatives by reciting their license plate numbers instead of saying hello. I would write about PECS cards, visual schedules, home visits, and the dedicated therapists who tirelessly worked with him. There would be talk of the precursor to IEPs, the IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) meetings, which we attended every few months.  

If I blogged ten years ago, I would mention my fears that two-and-a-half-year-old Aidan also had autism. He exhibited the same extreme sensory issues as Nigel, and also had a significant language delay. But Aidan made eye contact. He didn’t line up the Hot Wheels cars along the back of the couch and tilt his head while staring at them, as Nigel did. I figured maybe Aidan had a touch of PDD, but I could see the difference between my boys. Even so, some of Aidan’s sensory issues turned out to be worse than Nigel’s, particularly his oral defensiveness and proprioception. I enrolled him in the same center where Nigel received his therapy, and Aidan received some OT and speech. (He was in speech until he was almost ten, and also had an IEP until then.)

Ten years ago, I would write about just trying to get through the day. At that point, I couldn’t even think about the future. I couldn’t imagine what my boys would be like at twelve and fourteen. I was just so preoccupied with helping them to be as comfortable as possible in this world. And trying to keep my sanity because I was so isolated.

And so, when I read those blogs written by parents of children much younger than mine, I don’t want to come off as a know-it-all when I say this, but I say it with true empathy and understanding: I know what you’re going through. I’m there with you. I remember it all. You will get through it and your child will improve. He or she may not be able to do what Nigel or others can do now, but in many ways he or she will progress. Your child will not be the same ten years from now. And neither will you. (And I mean that in a good way!)

Look, Ma – No Hands

The day starts off as such a beautiful, clear day – sunny and almost warm. I decide to ask Nigel to accompany me to the grocery store to pick out a different cereal in addition to what he usually has every morning. He agrees. We walk in the store, side by side, and head over to the organic produce section. “Where are the coconuts?” he asks. I tell him that they are probably in the regular fruit section and point him in the general direction.

He walks over by himself, and I watch. Not because I think I need to, but because, once again, I marvel at his ability to filter all the sensory input that used to be agonizing for him. The luxury of this – to me – never wears off. The sheer joy of it. It is comforting to see that he is happy, not distressed in the least. His gait is confident, purposeful. I look down and pick out some broccoli. In a moment I look up and see Nigel, fifty feet away from me, across produce stands and people and carts, and he is standing there looking at me, a big smile on his face – eye contact, even. He has found the coconuts. I smile at him, too, for so many reasons. He comes back over to me and asks if he can have a coconut so that he can make a replacement for one of his shell-cloppers from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He likes to clip-clop his way through the house, acting out scenes from the movie. He made a pair of cloppers about a year ago, and one broke. Of course I will let him get a new coconut, but I ask how much they cost because I want him to be aware of things like that. He briskly walks back over to check. “Two dollars,” he says. “Is that okay?”  Sometimes he is so cute. I assure him that it’s fine, then suggest he go pick out his cereal. He returns a moment later with his completely appropriate, healthy choice (no, I’m not being sarcastic – he has learned not to bother asking for anything with refined sugar, after years of being turned down). He then asks if he can look at toys – not to buy, he assures me, just look. I tell him okay, but be back in five minutes.

He returns as I am unloading my cart at the check stand, exactly five minutes later, brandishing a small Lego kit that he has somehow not yet acquired. He tries to bargain. “I’ll have this instead of the coconut,” he says as he picks up the coconut to return it. I gently remind him that he promised he was only going to look at the toys and not buy any. A blank look crosses his face as he remembers. “But it has a crystal wand,” he says in a small voice. “Maybe some other time,” I say. “We’re not getting toys today.” He reluctantly says okay and goes to put the Lego back. And as I finish unloading my groceries, I marvel yet again at this child who has come so far, who, as a teen, is doing little things on his own. “Look, Ma – no hands” for us translates to “Look, Ma – no sensory issues.”  Or, “Look, Ma – no meltdown.” Of course, he doesn’t say that, but I’m thinking it. And his sensory issues are far from gone; he has just learned to filter them and cope with them. He still needs earplugs in movie theaters and often covers his ears, is a very picky eater, and exhibits some sensitivity to light and touch, but overall he does quite well now. He also knows when he needs to diplomatically settle for a coconut over Lego, and maybe, deep down he appreciates the subtle reminder that that was what he wanted in the first place.

We walk out to the car and the weather has drastically changed in the half hour that we had been in the store. The sky is dark gray and the snow is blowing at us horizontally.  “It’s snowing!” Nigel exclaims with perfect inflection. We hurry out to the car and he stands by his door, waiting to be let in. I ask him to help me load the groceries and he complies. As I put in the last bag, I hope for a second that he has thought to put the empty cart in the stall without me asking him to, but he is back waiting to get in his door, and the cart is still next to me. There will be other teachable moments, when the sun is shining.

I put the cart away and run back to the car. We get in and Nigel pulls the coconut out from underneath his jacket. “At least I protected the coconut from this climate,” he says. I tell him that it looks like a perfect one for his project. I look at the windshield wipers flicking away the snowflakes as I drive home. I breathe in sharply and feel overwhelmed with gratitude for so many things. That smile, for one thing, when he found the coconuts – it was just for me, and I will treasure it always.



Nigel:  Mom, isn’t it strange? I love pumpkin pie but I don’t like pumpkin.

So often I take for granted my understanding of all the nuances of our culture, including aspects of our spoken communication. I know when someone is making a joke or being sarcastic, I know that sometimes when I make a brief comment or ask a rhetorical question that I usually won’t get a response, and I know that most people with typical hearing only use subtitles when watching foreign films.

My son’s autistic mind usually takes nothing for granted and makes no assumptions. If he makes a statement such as “This mixes my face” while looking into a disco ball, he will repeat the statement until someone acknowledges him. He does not take for granted that I’ve heard him, that I don’t know that he is expecting a response, or that I don’t have one for him. He doesn’t understand why no one is responding to him, so he repeats himself. He doesn’t mind repeating himself five times while I am formulating a response, especially when his statement is something as, um, unusual as “My brain is the size of twenty yellow lemons,” which he said at age eight. I had no idea where that came from.

That was also the year that he discovered that DVDs were better than VHS tapes because he could choose to watch them with subtitles so that he could keep the volume low and memorize the lines while reading them onscreen. One night, when I started watching a movie (without using subtitles), he asked, “Why you didn’t want it without words?” because he couldn’t imagine how I could deprive myself of this convenience. Growing out of clothing was also a difficult concept that year. When his briefs were getting too tighty-whitey and I had to purchase new ones, I forgot that I should have prepared him. He went to get dressed the next morning and stood there in front of his chest of drawers saying, “What about the 6 underwear?” since I had bought him size 8, and his old ones had been size 6. No assumptions.

Fast forward six years, and he is starting to make little assumptions. He realizes that just because he likes pumpkin pie, it doesn’t mean that he’s going to like pumpkin. (I assure him that many people fall into that category.) And he is learning to recognize sarcasm. A few weeks ago, a friend of the family was visiting on a day that Nigel was supposed to have cleaned his room. Since he hadn’t cleaned it, it looked like a bomb had gone off in there. Nigel was sitting on his bed reading when my friend poked his head in the doorway, surveyed the damage, and said, “It looks good in here.”

Nigel paused for a moment as if considering, and then he said, “I know you’re being sarcastic.”

In spite of the messy room, I was rather proud. And definitely amused.

Ode to Lego

When Nigel was first diagnosed at age three, and for some time after, he didn’t know how to play with toys. I bought him a kids’ train set; he laid his head to one side and stared at the tracks. He had no interest in pushing the train along, even if I showed him how. I bought him Hot Wheels cars and tried to teach him to “vroom” them around on the floor; he lined them up end-to-end along the back of the couch and cocked his head to one side to stare at them. I feared that his imagination would never develop; eleven years ago my only knowledge of autistic adults was, unfortunately, limited to Rain Man. I didn’t know what to expect for my son’s development.

But, thanks to a successful response to a modified ABA-based program for early intervention, and perhaps his own desire, Nigel learned to play with toys. He skipped over “vrooming” on the floor and went right to faster-paced, battery-operated Hot Wheels tracks. His imagination began developing with his desire to feed his stuffed animals. And then he discovered Lego.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about this toy that I loved in my own childhood. Yes, we’ve all gouged our feet on errant pieces and cursed its existence, but the fact is that no other toy has encouraged Nigel’s imagination to develop as much as Lego has. And for that, I love it.

And we have tubs of it. Literally. We progressed from a medium-sized tub to two of them, and then I just up and bought a huge industrial-sized tub with a hinged lid, which is now full. And still Nigel begs for more, especially since they’ve come out with the Indiana Jones series. Oh, my son. Be still, his heart. Lego and Indiana Jones – two of his favorite things. That’s all he wanted for Christmas. It’s like the Lego people somehow knew that this combination would make an autistic teen very, very happy.

So I bought him the sets that he wanted, as well as this book that he has not let out of his sight. Of course he has re-watched all four of the movies several more times since Christmas, just to make sure that he has all the nuances of every line down pat. And so, when he decided to watch the Troy DVD this afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised. “I’m studying the layout of the outer walls of Troy so that I can take apart the Temple of the Crystal Skull set and build Troy,” he told me.

Nigel\'s Lego Troy

And that, my friends, is what he did. He constructed the ancient city of Troy out of Lego, completely off the top of his head and of his own design. He built a wall with a ratcheted gate and levers to open it. Yes, he even built a Trojan Horse out of Lego. That is either one hell of a toy or one hell of an imagination. He’s come a long way from lining up Hot Wheels cars along the back of the couch and staring at them. And Rain Man? No offense, but you can keep your cards and toothpicks. Nigel’s got an imagination – and he’s not afraid to use it.

The Seven Year Itch

I’ve never seen The Seven Year Itch (although at some point, I’d like to). The phrase, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a disinterest in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage, has entered the popular culture, and has even been used by psychologists.” And now it will be used by the mother of an autistic teen, with an entirely different meaning.

As my son entered his second year of teenhood, which was just a couple of months ago, I began noticing something. Over the course of a few weeks’ worth of seemingly isolated incidents, I realized that Nigel, who had always been notorious for the eternally flat tone in his voice (except when angry), was suddenly speaking with inflection. And not just random variations – he actually put appropriate emphasis on the right words. His tone was starting to sound conversational! It took another week or two of me pointedly observing him talk and noting the increase of his inflection before I allowed myself to believe it. This is truly a developmental coup. It’s a milestone for the five-year-old boy who, when a child psychiatrist asked, could not say his own name. It’s a milestone for the boy who, for so many years, could only parrot lines from Disney movies or Scooby-Doo cartoons when he wanted to interact with people. He has worked so hard to achieve this.

I know that much of the increase in voice inflection has to do with the weekly social skills class that he is enrolled in at the local middle school this year. It’s a very small class, with only two other students, but I know that the two instructors have been specifically working with Nigel on his conversational skills. Whatever they’re doing – it’s effective. And he’s responding to it, which tells me that he’s ready. It’s time.

What do I mean by that? That’s where my seven-year-itch theory comes into play. Over the years, I have noticed that every seven years Nigel seems to make a huge leap in various areas of his development. It’s like he has this really significant itch every seven years, and when he scratches it, he hits a milestone. For example, when he was two, his sensory issues were so severe that he had to wear a fitted hooded jacket whenever we left the house to muffle sounds and help him feel secure. When he was nine, he had a wonderful regular ed teacher (he was mainstreamed that year with an aide) who not only taught him a lot academically, he patiently encouraged Nigel to remove his hood for the first time. That was also the year that I could take Nigel into grocery stores and the occasional restaurant. Another example of his seven-year-itch is in the cognitive area. When he was three, he taught himself to read, but I was told that it was common for young children with hyperlexia to not comprehend most of what they read. Seven years later, when Nigel was ten and reading at a high school level, his comprehension was tested. It was estimated that he understood about 95% of what he was reading.

When Nigel was seven, seven years ago, he really started talking. He had some speech prior to that year, but it was mostly echolalia and scripting (a term which wasn’t used much then). He would occasionally string up to four words together to communicate, but he had trouble with syntax and pronouns, verb tenses, etc. When he was seven, something clicked. He got an itch. He started stringing together more than four words spontaneously, his syntax and verb tenses began improving, and his echolalia decreased. It was remarkable. Of course, his tone was characteristically flat and downright stoic, but that was okay. It was definitely okay with me.  I figured he would always talk that way, and that was fine.

And now, seven years later, the inflection surfaces. On appropriate words, even. I am so loving this – this unexpected gift. Some seven-year-itches can be good.


I feel like whispering this.

Last night, as I was getting ready to post what I wrote yesterday about Nigel not being able to understand someone else’s viewpoint, he came into my office. He had a pencil drawing of himself with one arm outstretched, reaching upwards to a star that emanated beams of light. Here is what he said:

“This is a poster idea for a movie that I’m going to be in. It’s called The Movie Traveler. I am live-action, and I go into the land of Disney animated movies to be their guardian, because they’ve been searching for one for 40 years. And I help them. In the end I realize that other people are just as important as me. That without them, I am nothing. In order to save myself, I have to save both dimensions.”

I had him repeat those last few sentences so that I could get it all down. Maybe I’m reaching here. Maybe I’m reading too much into what he said. Maybe some lines are from a movie he recently watched. But I can’t help thinking that the fact that he said it is a step in the right direction. And “both dimensions”? To me that’s like the autistic mind and the non-autistic mind. He wants to “save” both. Affirm the importance of both. Maybe even try to understand both. Am I grasping?

It reminds me of the first few years after his diagnosis, when I grasped at therapies, books, treatments, supplements – anything I thought would help. And some of it did, immensely. Now, years later, when he takes these steps, I grasp at them. Because it seems like he’s reaching when he says these things. And if he is, I want to make sure I’m there, meeting him half-way. And if he’s not, I’ll be there anyway.

The Good Stuffing

Someone found this website yesterday by searching “autism + stuffed animals,” and I am not surprised. I’m sure I’ve previously made several references to Nigel having stuffed animals (yes, I just checked – mentioned in general on three posts), but I’ve never written about how attached he really is to them. And, I would venture to guess, he’s not alone in that.

I bought him his first stuffed animal when he was in utero. It was a 15-inchTigger, and he still has it, fourteen years later. A good portion of the stuffed animals he has amassed over the years are specific characters, including Kermit, Simba, ET, Gizmo, Mrs. Brisby from The Secret of Nimh (made with love by Grandma), Otis from Milo & Otis, Harry Potter (yes, a stuffed Harry Potter), and Kuzco in llama form (from The Emperor’s New Groove). Nigel also has a plethora of non-specific stuffed wild animals, including two bald eagles (one 18 inches, one 6), a fox, a wolf, a squirrel, an otter, a capuchin monkey, a mountain lion, a coyote, a bison, a tiger, a mammoth, and at least a dozen bears. The boy loves bears. In fact, he loves all of his stuffed animals. He loves them so much that every year when we attempt to purge his room of things that he has “outgrown,” he refuses to give up any of them.

And so we keep adding to the collection. After all, the Tigger prompted him to do the first imaginative thing he’d ever done. I still remember the shock and joy I felt as he held Tigger at the kitchen table with him and put Tigger’s face in his bowl of frozen corn niblets, pretending to feed him. He even said, “Eat,” in his little voice. He was four years old. I’ll never get rid of Tigger. He has earned a place of honor in our home.

Nigel’s stuffed animals have also been his friends. He has acted out stories with them, talked about emotions with them, and generally been comforted by them. They have helped him to sleep and helped him to feel less lonely. So imagine my surprise when I walked into his room a few weeks ago and discovered that several of the non-specific stuffed wild animals had been gutted. He had removed their stuffing and left all the carcasses strewn across the floor of his room. I noticed that he had put all the stuffing in a soft, knit bag and pulled the drawstring closed. Curious, I asked, “Why did you do that?”

“So I could make something bigger, and it would have the good stuffing of animals I already loved.”

In case you’re wondering, he hasn’t made anything yet. But he keeps the knit bag of stuffing on his bed, waiting.