We’re all being summoned to the living room. We have no idea why.
Sonia sits us all down; a floppy blue chapeau perched jauntily upon her head. She climbs atop her toy box.
“Daydees and menamen,” she begins.
Nicole, Dan and I steal furtive glances among ourselves trying to determine where this is going.
Sonia lifts an imaginary microphone to her lips and exaggeratedly clears her throat.
“Sonfin in my HAT!”
Removing it with a flourish, she reaches into the misshapen hat and produces a small stuffed cheetah.
Stunned. We were stunned.
The three of us sat, frozen in disbelief, for a moment. Then simultaneously erupted in laughter and applause.
Sonia’s face lit up as she took a couple of clumsy bows, “Takoo, takoo!”
Needless to say, the crowd went wild again. There were numerous curtain calls. With each subsequent performance her confidence grew. She added more animals to the hat, tossing them to the crowd as they made their appearances time and time again. The more we smiled and laughed and feigned surprise, the more she elaborated upon the original trick.
It was darling; it was funny; but most of all it was encouraging.
Sure, she was simply imitating the dialogue from an episode of "Max and Ruby," but for Sonia to come up with the idea of putting on a show —without the slightest adult coaching—well, that’s new.
Imagination play doesn’t come naturally to autistic children, because they’re often incredibly literal.
And while Sonia is high-functioning enough to want to play with other kids, she simply doesn’t understand their games. It doesn’t make sense to her to make eating and drinking noises if there’s no actual food at the tea party. While she’s happy to run and scream with the group, she doesn’t quite get why everyone is so panicked about a dragon that doesn’t really exist.
The more plot-based and scripted her peers’ games have become, the less Sonia has been invited into them.
The scowls don’t deter her. Nor do the turned backs, or the “go aways”—because reading facial expression and recognizing emotion is another skill that doesn’t come naturally to autistic kids. It’s something they need to be taught deliberately, the way an adult learns a foreign language.
So seeing Sonia pull that cheetah out of her hat was like watching my child recite Dante in its original Italian. I was blown away. I almost cried.
She was pretending. She was interacting.
And for a kid on the spectrum, that really is magic.
Actual video footage of the show is embedded above. Sorry it's so dark. This all happened so fast we didn't even have time to turn on the lights. Thank goodness for Dan's ninja-like camera phone skills!