I stared down at him bewildered. “Vitamins go on five?” I said. “I’m not sure what ‘five’ means. They go in the pantry, on the top shelf.”
“They go on five!” He was getting impatient with me, as he often did when I didn’t quite clue in to his language.
I was used to him pairing numbers with everyday conversation, it’s how he connected with the world and most of the time, as his mom, I kept up with him just fine.
Other times, I needed to buy a vowel, so to speak, as his numerical mind left me a little lost. Like in this instance, fighting over where to put the vitamins.
I like to joke that my son’s first language is numbers.
Nothing makes his ears perk up faster than when I can cleverly incorporate numbers into something I want him to hear or do. It’s exhausting at times, but it’s effective.
He associates going to the doctor with the number two. Because when we were on a cruise one time and he got a stomach bug, we visited the doctor on the 2nd floor. Now every ailment requires seeing the “doctor on two.”
Our favorite treats in the drink machine at his therapy center are known by the vending code, not the name. Mommy always gets an E6, he gets a B4. For snack he gets a 101.
One night he invented a game with a bulk size variety box of chips from BJ’s. He would bring me a bag and pose the question, “Is this 16, 12 or 10?” It took me a few turns to realize I had to identify the bag, not by it’s name (Cheetos, Lays, etc), but by the quantity of that particular chip as listed on the side of the box.
For example, Doritos were not Doritos. They were 16, because the box contained 16 bags of Doritos.
To him it was logical — and wildly entertaining.
When he was 18 months old and we began our process of diagnosing his autism, I came to resent his fixation with numbers.
It had been the first warning sign to which I paid attention. The tendency to focus only on numbers, to the exclusion of everything else, was indicative of “rigidity in play,” a hallmark of autism. It was his poker tell, the first quirk you noticed about him after a few minutes.
Mainly though, numbers were the obsession that prevented me from reaching my son. If numbers were around, humans didn’t exist. I didn’t exist.
And how do you rid the world of numbers? The fact that they are everywhere affected his everyday life. He would go outside and spend his playtime studying the license plates on our cars rather than playing soccer with his brother. His preschool teachers removed their own wall calendar because it was too much of a distraction for him and he wasn’t paying attention to classroom instructions.
It was too much. I knew it was too much. I worried that the rest of the world was passing him by. Sure, he could be codebreaking in the other room, but he couldn’t tell me what he had for lunch that day.
Would I have to take away his greatest joy if there was to be any hope of him making strides in his socializing and communication?
There was no greater love story than that between my son and his numbers, I’m convinced. It was a dilemma. How could I break his heart? But how could I knowingly hold him back?
It was two separate therapists who allowed me to see numbers for what they were…a precious and valuable tool. A friend and a bridge that would allow me to get through to my son on a level I currently wasn’t capable of accessing.
I didn’t need to compete with numbers, I didn’t need to be rid of them. What if I could make him see that I loved the language of numbers too? Would I become fascinating to him as well?
If that were the case, then I would meet him right where he was, which was on the floor, counting.
In the three years since I began using numbers to gain and hold my son’s attention — so that I could teach him different ways to interact — I feel like there have been many breakthroughs. Each one so small and insignificant to an outsider, but so giant to me.
In his toy bin right now, you will find a good mixture of numbers, action figures, cars and musical instruments. You will find him on a sunny day outside in the yard riding his bike or running up and down the street with his brother and the neighborhood kids.
Make no mistake, you will still see him show preference for the glorious digits 1-10, but he has broken his full-time fixation, as he now sees the beauty in many ways of play.
We do still talk numbers in our house. It is, after all, my son’s first language. I try my best to keep up, but sometimes I need a little extra help too.
My son looks from me to the vitamins to the pantry. And in a heartwarming act of reciprocity, he meets me where I’m at by starting at the bottom shelf and counting up, “One, two, three, four, five.” At five, he is pointing to the top shelf of the pantry. “Vitamins go on five,” he says. I shake my head at missing what was clearly obvious to my son.
My pantry has five shelves, and sure enough, he was correct. The vitamins do go on five.