Despite a complete absence of speech, I still had the strongest sense that Ian would speak, that he could speak, that somehow trauma or a severe shock would draw speech out of him. I sensed that he was so close.
Thankfully, Ian never experienced trauma or a severe shock. What he got instead was Ruth.
Hers was the number Nausheen had given me, and I had called Ruth straight away. We had a great chat on the phone, and she agreed to come the very next day. Tall and gangly, loose-limbed and delightfully relaxed, yet vibrant with vigour and energy, Ruth had short, dark red hair, green eyes behind red-framed glasses, and the widest smile I had seen in a long time. She arrived as subtly as a tornado and, entering our house, she made a beeline for Ian. Kneeling in front of him, holding him firmly by his upper arms, she bobbed her head this way and that, trying to keep her face in his line of sight.
“Hello Ian,” she said strongly and clearly to him. “I’m here to help you talk.”
Ian responded to Ruth that day the same way he would respond to her on many, many subsequent days : He ran away.
Poor Ruth! It was hardly flattering. But she was thicker-skinned than that and as a speech therapist with many years’ experience dealing with adults who had suffered loss of speech through brain trauma or stroke, Ruth knew about forging new pathways in the brain. Over the following months she made good her statement and did indeed help Ian talk.
But on our first meeting, Ruth wanted information. She wanted to know exactly what noises Ian made and how often, and whether he had ever talked at all. She admitted she had never worked intensely with an autistic child as part of a team before, but she was more than prepared to give it a go. I told her about Ian’s made-up word, which had been a favourite of his some months previously – “Dowidat” – and Ruth was greatly excited by this because that one nonsense word proved Ian could make vowel and consonant sounds. That one made-up word proved he had the potential for speech.
When I told her about Ian’s fixation with the television guide and how he always turned the pages to Tuesday, I saw for the first time Ruth’s intense interest in the potential Ian held inside him. She went still and quiet. “You’re telling me he turns the pages by himself to find Tuesday, no matter whether he needs to go forwards or backwards, and he knows whether to go forwards or backwards?”
“Oh yes,” I assured her. “He’s adamant it’s on the Tuesday page, no matter what page you put it on. And yes, if it’s on Monday he goes forwards; if it’s on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, he goes backwards.”
Ruth had been holding her breath but suddenly she exhaled in a great whoosh and flung her arms wide.
“Wow! Do you know what this means?” she cried, hopping around my lounge in excitement. “The little shit is clever!”
Our second find was Tania, who was the sister-in-law of the speech therapist we had met at The Browns’ School. She remembered Ian [from the assessment] and seemed keen to get involved in the programme. Tania was a slim blonde with china blue eyes, delicate skin and fine features. Now in private practice as an Educational Psychologist, she agreed to make herself available to us and had the experience we desperately needed. She was also the perfect foil to Ruth. Where Ruth was outgoing, talkative and quite mad (in the nicest possible way), Tania was reserved, calm and controlled. She agreed to work with Ian every single day, five days a week, and video footage showed that Ian always tried to give Tania his very best efforts.
The next member of our team came via Ruth who told me about a newly-graduated speech therapist who had been one of her best students. Anita was a young Indian lass with flawless café-au-lait skin, a slender build, dark eyes and long straight black hair. Ian was fascinated by her. He also sensed her lack of experience and exploited it mercilessly, making Anita work the hardest of all. It didn’t help that as the youngest member of the team, Anita ended up with the ‘graveyard’ slot, the hour after lunch, during which time Ian was inclined to nod off. I have delightful video footage of Ian sitting in his little chair, his eyelids getting heavier and heavier, his shoulders drooping, his head beginning to drop, and Anita becoming more and more shrill, saying, “Come on, Ian! Wake up! Wake up!” waving his arms around and tickling him. Sometimes he was roused. Sometimes not and work had to be abandoned. Poor Anita. How hard she worked! She soldiered on with great fortitude despite everything, and earned all our respect.
Then we were lucky enough to find Kirsty. Our first therapists were new to the idea of an intensive home programme, but Kirsty had worked with autistic children in the United Kingdom and South Africa and was experienced in setting up home programmes for other families locally. She had taught at a Special Needs School in Cape Town, and seemed more than qualified to help us with Ian.
With fine white-blonde hair, intense blue eyes, lovely soft features, a gorgeous smile and wonderful patience, Kirsty quickly became Ian’s favourite tutor. Three times a week she sang to him, made him copy her movements as he learned Brain Gym, recited verses to him, showed him pictures, taught him to draw, and lit small candles and tried to get Ian to blow them out for her. How he tried! He would have tried anything for Kirsty. As the months passed and Ian progressed, Kirsty’s delightful husky voice could be heard cheering him on and singing his praises through the closed door of the classroom. She was the tutor Ian hugged most, and I think he quite simply adored her. Even when he was acting up and she would give him her stern look and say, “Come on, Ian. Try again.” He adored her even then.