Videos of Ruffin (at age 3 and age 15) are found at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders website--Journeys Through the Autism Spectrum and Back (documentary). Ruffin is twenty, a rising junior in Electrical Engineering and Robotics at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and working this summer as a coop employee of Texas Instruments as a researcher in the Analog Laboratory, and living with his roommate in a long-term hotel suite. The narrative poem describes his autism and recovery to functionality. Mary Jane White (Ruffin's Mom)
DRAGONFLY. TOAD. MOON.A POEM
A practiced love of sameness:As in this wild flapping and pacing . . .Grunting is how he speaks to me.A thing he wants is somewhereIn the world—find it! byLookingEverywhere. At all cost, avoid his tantrum.
A persistent love of sameness:As in never move the salt and pepper . . .As he does not speak to people, do not moveA thing in his world.This will avoid his askingWhere?This will avoid his tantrum.
A perseverative love, of sameness:As in do not change anything . . .As he does not speak to people, even me,A thing in his worldHe may love—but whom he will avoid,By lookingElsewhere. And avoid his tantrum.
To wash his hair was some danger.He might thrash the tub wall with hisHead. How hard he hated any wetness,Or to change his shirt: led me to drip water Down his back, on purpose, once. This,More than once. More than once. I remember: Once he cut himself on bottle-glass,And no more felt the pain than if his blood Were water: was how I learned this.Blood was nothing until its wetness would Somehow bother him, and he’d undress. To free himself from what?Nor run for comfort, nor cry, but only wetMade him complain—not the cut
My son toddles to four swings,Pushes them until he bringsThem into a severe alignment that pleases him.
How long his own severity attends him;How little he notices or cares for other children—
Except their play disrupt his careful patternOf empty swing and empty swing,Of crossing arc and arc of thingAnd thing, two pairs doubling
That leaves three other children out,but leaves him sing.
One morning his crib is an open handful of pick-up sticksAround his fallen mattress. In how many nights?He has unwound the metal bolts and nuts and washersAnd drawn out the several rods that help hold it together . . .
A waist-high web of stringMeets me this morning, butWhere is he gone now? SleepingOr walking with a string’s end in his fist?I see he has walked from doorknob to doorknobTo cabinet door to doorknob to cabinet door, every one on the floor.His pattern of walking is woven behind him, so hard and carefully knottedAt each knob and handle and drawer pull, there is no advance possibleToward him. It is a morning’s work to undo thisAnd a tantrum and a resistance not to beMet with, I hope, too very often.I hope he does not repeat this.As I fear he will repeat this.I do not want to repeat this.
We could not go out. He would not dress,Or be clothed, or stay clothed, or tolerateSo much as a sock, or stitch, or sufferA single thread to cling upon his skin.Nor eat, nor let us eat, or sleep—Either of us . . .
Having wrestled with my angelForty minutes, or more,To our mutual exhaustion,
Having dodged a curtain-rodHe’d thrown at spear-likeSpeed off a stairway landing—
My heart pounding,And his head soaking wet—The sweat of his exertion
Brought up baby-curls—I thought, as swaddling mightCalm a jittery newborn,
That same might workIn this pinch—with a stillNaked toddler: so
Having done that, I hauled himSeveral blocks, downtown—To our Café, whose cheerful waitress
Observed we must have beenSwimming . . . It wasSummer, so I agreed . . .
I just wanted to orderSomething . . .
I did not sleep. WhenThat bedtime came and he bangedHis crib, paced all night in there,Babbling one syllable in his trance,Happy it seemed to me, but oblivious(I learned—oblivious), I read: the stacksAnd books ordered in—in what scrapOf time—by mail . . .
Echoing Kanner, Bettleheim wrote:Mute autism was all the child of the family’sDeath-camp atmosphere,Whose refrigerator mother—nice soundBite, that!—stands humming in the kitchenCorner . . .
For such damage done by languageShould Dr. B. not beMarched out in blindfold?Sign that he was simple, blind—no,
Enough that he wandered: free to plagiarizeOther subject—harmless ones,Old European fairy tales,And carelessly . . .
You cannot imagine what all I heard,What little got back to me—Mary Had ALittle Lamb—and this likely onlyA little of all it was—gossiped aboutOur single stoplight, rural town:
Forty hours’ work a week, face to face,Across a red-blue plastic table—adultsAnd nothing but a baby in tiny plastic chairs.
Do this, do this, do this—the clean, clear repeatedInvitation to imitate—and No! (this isInformation, child), and again this: Do this:Sit, look, clap, touch your nose, your unseenEars, pillow, window, color “yellow.”
Fifty-two weeks a year—two solid yearsWith no Christmas, Easter, summer,And with this, he began to speak . . .
Like a parrot trained to talkAs the evaluating speech clinician carped . . .
This was training my loved and long-awaited childLike a seal--better by half, with less thanHalf a chance, than the alternatives—
The black-and-white,Awful documentaries—worseThan six-year-old, precociousElizabeth Bishop’sFebruary, Nineteen-EighteenNational Geographic:
A boy with his hands padded in bandages,Harmlessly battering his helmeted headIn care;
Or the unsocial male and femaleTeens, seated on a common benchIn summer, oblivious to each other,In their large, unlovely adult bodies—Gazes averted from each other,And from the relentless cameras;
Or the starched-faced toddlerFirst tracing sun-motes in her palm,Making an identical gesture—in super-Imposition—years later—No change in her behavior, her solitaryLeisure in her thirties, in the quiet or noisy,Clean or filthy State Hospital—Court-ordered to be no more of . . .
Or the young man later busy looping yarnTo hook in canvas, seated on the common sofaAt his group home—the ones there areSo few of . . .
Forty weekly hours’ healing work wasBetter by half than the available alternatives:
Public school authorities wantedTo teach him sign—that beautiful,Fluid language of the deaf, that fleeting,Moving language drawn upon the air—Which makes a picture in the mind . . .
Which he could not do, norAttend to—when his attention fixed,But upon a concrete picture, or solidThings—Nor would he be expectedTo speak to me that lovely, fluid wayAs there was no thought, no planTo teach his mother to see, or listen,Or imagine from the air, and after allWe were not deaf—
Yet, out of caution,I let them take him off to school—Just three—so they could play with him.
A video camera stationed in the dunces’ corner showedHe was not prompted to mouth a single word.
So whenThe stubby bus brought him home,After six hours’ day of school,Two women, in two three-hour shifts,More on weekends, taught himTo speak our common language, andHow to think in common ways:
Do this, do this, like a puppet, first:Woodenly—at each request;Woodenly, at first . . .As woodenly, first, his father satBefore me in his despair of our everTeaching him everything?—when?
There began to come a fewSudden fluencies—untilHe became quietly common.Over one more year’s working time, andEntered Kindergarten . . .
. . . which, of course, was notThe end of it—as he approachedEach potential playmate with hisSingle, commanding salutation:Friend, Come play with me!not lookingUp from whatever thingHeld his fixed attention until with further,Careful teaching: Touch Joe, touch Jim—We taught him—from photographs—Snapshots arrayed across his desk—eachPersonal name,and drummed uponThe odd, to him, abstract notionThat in our common world—SomeWill be your friends, and someWill not . . .
Then cameLatency: the beautiful, quietYears of going back and forth to school—Simple enough, so:
In science, in school,I, too, loved repeating it—The experiment—A simple miracle:Crystals growingDown a string—SuspendedFrom someone’s pencil:
Down a tall jelly-Glass, broughtUnbrokenFrom home—onePrinted with simpleLine-drawn scenes ofColonial Williamsburg—Huge, delicate-spokedWheels, and passingLanterns—a lady’sPiled curls—the jelly-Jewel backdropEaten up and gone—So simple—enough:Solution of sugar—We madeSupersaturate—Shoveling it in:
Also intoPale iced tea, andClouding eachCrystal goblet—If unreprimanded—At the holiday-Crowded dining table—
Stirred and stirredStubborn sedimentAway to blur—
Time evaporated:That worked as wellWith salt.
Back then we saw the house that is our home now. Stepping into the car, with a realtor. And pointed it out.If I had my choice, I’d make my offer on that one. It. The brick mass. On the corner.Ah, yes, admired the realtor, that one will never be for sale.And said straight out, If it were, you could not afford it.
Autism intervened upon this story . . .
Then, as life re-righted, when anything could happen again,I thought, What else could I make happen?
My son, then six, went with me.He said it was like walking into a church.
Whose interior walls were white. Every wall we saw.
Second visit: we got no further than the glazed-over terrace at the back door.The woman of the house could not walk, and was seated there.Surgery on her heel.We glimpsed a dining room, behind the man of the house. He was very gracious, of course, but unyielding.So wonderfully solicitous of his hobbled wife.
Third visit: my son and I stood under a low stucco outcropping—a second floor nursery, as it turned out, supported by two limestone columns—ornamented, but unclassically—carved with a double band of tulips:A band of buds, below a band of stone, open cups.
We walked through the whole house, once,Once, room after room, all white, all with stunning windows . . .
Of metal bar, each bore a central medallion—more tulips—bound by a narrow, narrow border of green-acid glass:Crackled clear glass that looked like winter ice, or falling rain.And sleet, a pebbled opalescent white.A bronzed opaque black.A little real green,A little pale yellow.
Then it came to us, our white elephant.It came as four apartments. My son and I could only afford to live in one of them—downstairs.
My son slept in the library, a north room with no closet.I slept in the original kitchen, another north room, without heat.
Its attic—crow’s nest—was empty.The maid’s room was occupied—Do Not Enter—my renter’s storage flickered under a loopy neon ring, serviced by a run of stapled conduit.
My son, my renter and I were in the basement, waiting out a tornado warning. I opened the subject of buying a house—her own home.
Then it was empty enough to touch, to enter the master bedroom and linger before the octagonal bay of four double casements, twin to a formal dining room below.
My son wants this room. I want this room. It is becoming our house now.We do not always act as if we were in church.
My twelve-year-old walks into his summer dorm room at physics camp. He is sullen. He says it is an ugly room. It is.He needs to live here, just a week.He appeals to me pointedly: It only has white walls. This is an argument he’s heard, and knows should sway me.They might have put a little color into it.I sit on the low, narrow bed. To talk.I say everyone who moves into a dorm moves away from home.I suggest now he could buy posters?He doesn’t care to.I suggest his roommate might bring posters.I remind him he will only sleep here.I insist it will be dark then.He is not philosophical.
Summer’s end: my twelve-year-old and friend are camped on the second story side porch, with cats.They are eating up there. They have even dragged up the cat bowls.
Also, a spool of kite string, and their colored plastic wheels, with snapping plastic sticks.
One end of string loops down, across the yard, to a fence.There is an elegant second string attached, to facilitate retrieval.
All afternoon the plastic wheels of a changing contraption travel back and forth, up and down, the singing string they call their zip line.
There are no proper places in this house for televisions.All the proper places are taken by fireplaces.
I take down our latest volume, to read a chapter aloud to my son and his fidgeting friend.
Now that the renter’s entry is closed up . . .Now that the stairwell is opened . . .Now that the hallway is free of odd doors . . .Now that the doors are back in their appointed places, and open . . .Now, anywhere I choose to sit in this house, I can see out the windows of other rooms.
Living room—sitting by the south wall’s fireplace, my eye travels easily out the north windows of the library—to the cool, purple rhododendron—each spring.
From the dining room’s octagonal bay—low sun strikes the tiny, red iridescent corners of a sideboard’s glazed upper cabinet doors.
Above a table, the central white petal of each glass tulip glows—a steady white flame—as the sky darkens.
At dusk, the glass becomes, burns opaque.This is dinner hour, on the western prairie.
As I wrote, this was latency. And then, heWas never going to learn to spell, althoughWe spent every breakfast working at it.Dyslexia—another awful word,But commoner—intervened:
At twelve, just past Christmas, at the ageEnglish cabin-boys signed onThe Royal Navy—the age—we researched it—Marquette left his wilderness homeFor college—for Quebec—He moved away to board in Massachusetts.
I drove to see him, once or twice a month.
Two years’ school, in blazers and khakis,And school-colored ties, he learned to listenTo his laptop computer—read for him—
And how to talk—slowly, in phrases, please—Into his headset microphone—so his ownWords would rise up in seconds flatUpon his steady laptop’s screen: he learnedTo mimic Steinbeck and Hemingway, andTo print his papers, by pressing Print,
And learned to ski—a flashing solitary—Down night-lit Berkshire’s Black Diamond Trail,To hike Monadnock, and the gentle Linden Hill . .
You were bornA girl-childTo grow intoThis Christian name,Which will beAs a shellTo the tender footOf a snail; in itYour heart willGo on beatingAnd glistening.
After the cardsAre all fallenInto theirRightful places,After the pureAccident ofA shuffle,You will seeThe heartsLine upWith the hearts;The spades,With the spades.
Then persistIn nothing:Water will eraseYour name, yourHeart. WindWill carry youAway. EveryoneWho ever lovedOr rememberedYou—thoughThey persist,Or do nothing—Will followOr go before you,The same way.
Away,He learned to playWithin a baseball team,The year his teachers’Favorite, unfavoredBoston Red Sox,Won the Series.
Baseball and golf! becameHis own preferred, predictableGames of discrete events:Do this, do this: these allowedHim ample room for individualActs, feats of skill . . . while avoiding still,And still ignores, the social fluidityOf soccer, or basketball . . .
A Benedictine wearing a teal-blue and yellow, short, down-jacket,And below that, a black scapular, his fore-apron and back-apron,
And the brisk skirt of his cassock. A blue and rather chunky bicyclePropped at the innermost, blue door of the courtyard. Another
Unmoved bicycle with wide-winged handlebars in the monks-only,Quadrangle garden, into which we may only, but openly, gaze:
These are The Rule’s customs of privacy and un-simple welcome.Our square refectory table placed at a window that opens onto
The dead garden. Our son, their student, and we, are here—are guests here,And this is their hospitality: Order, Benedictine of the Knights Hospitalier,
Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Order of the Knights of Malta who fled, fledTo the Imperial Russian Navy, that extended them all a certain, welcome
Hospitality in the East, as Napoleon moved against them. A welcomeOf ancient and heroic tenor: One who comes so as to please another.
At fifteen, he is become our perfect scholar,With good behavior—yet—As caution finds its expressionIn this part of the Midwest . . .
He’s come nearer home at least—This warm, odd, dry winter of
Russet-grey twigs of denuded sumac—uppermostTwigs.
St. Croix, along the Great River, St. Paul, St. Michael, St. Cloud—Exits
Off I-94—the hourly bells—ringing out from MarcelBreuers’
Sculpted concrete banner (spiral back stair) and honeycombFaçade.
Hand-sized pairs of red squirrels’ busy to-and-fro pattern:Gathering.
Whether winter proves warm and odd, or dry, the sameBehavior.
Dark-grey, small, square offset paving tiles everywhere,Granite.
Over these, each weekend, I enter guest rooms of the AbbeyMonastery . . .
He works his hardest, as he ever has,Under strict, kind Benedictine tutelageOf black-robed monks and lay oblatesNear Minnesota’s German-American(God is laughing) St. John’s Abbey.And so am I, as I love, have my living Isaac:
Who is learning ordinary, ancient Algebra,And new helical, chemical Biology—Dictating his assigned paper—on Fragile X—One genetic disorder I rememberHe was tested for— This makes me laugh and sigh . . .
As I am reading him Darwin’sAutobiography— in an alcove, Old Seminary:
As much as ease—as any odalisque,His bare ankles, his long feet,My down coat—full length—the fat, green sofa.Long fingers—cradling a pillow . . .
We go back to where he fell asleep . . .Don’t stop! . . . No, I heard you read that. LeaveHis head lie propped on a cushion—Heels—easily beyond now—the other arm’s end.
Hell! Greek and Roman history are hard enoughFor anyone—to dictate well, or spell.
Theology is:Practical lessons in how to make timeFor some activity you love.
Ceramics: where he likes most to work,At length, entranced, seated at the wheel—Functional, centered spinning—his kicking, kickingHeel—shaping lightweight cups, a set of plates,His glazed, shallow dish for loose pocket change,
A vase that flows out and, breathing, closes inUpon what is now—a nearly perfect lip.
Fall again. We hike on marshlandWith his camera. He foundA dragonfly at first,
And then a toad, the exactSandy brown of the pathway’sGround—to draw attention to.
Though I missed them,Digital captures in his cameraShowed me—the dragonfly—
Slow, old, or hurt perhaps,It crawled, flipped over, righted,Wandered off into the grass . . .
His toad was hard, solid,Still and small. Still,He saw it, and placed it gently
On a bleaching leaf, for a goodBackground, for contrast,As if it were an old, green
Screen for the cursor—whenA cursor was how we taught himWhat a finger is to do in pointing:
Make a path for the eyes of two,Or more, to follow. It dawnedOn me that night—the first
Time—fifteen—he pressedMy shoulders down to bringMy eyes between the leaves
To turn them toward the moon—A crescent at his fingertip . . .At one, and two, and three,
We’d lost forever that wonted,Pleasing show—of hisEarly childish lisp—
His beetle in a haystack—But, O, and yet, had this—No—would find these:
Dragonfly. Toad. Moon.
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