by Elizabeth Childers
“Once upon a time, in the summer, Greta ran away. She was barefoot and she just went outside, took her scooter, and without telling anybody, and without wearing a helmet, she just went away. And we called the police and we found her on (Euclid). It had a lot of traffic, and she was either going to or coming back from the pony farm, which she loves.”
Rosie Gruber relays this story her twin sister as she sits on the floor, pausing in her attempt to make a perfect ball out of the play and moon dough mixture she had created. She giggles after she tells the story, and assures her sister it’s true.
“I was in the squad car,” Stephanie Merkel, the girls’ mother, explained, “looking for her, and when we found her – actually, someone called and said there’s a little girl, she’s not answering – she was soaking wet from head to toe. She had been in someone’s pool or sprinklers. We don’t know where she was. That was hard.”
Stephanie’s daughters, Greta and Rosie, are nine years old. Rosie has dark, straight hair and brown eyes. She’s dressed in a red jumper and floral print tights. Greta is blonde with blue eyes and is a little bit bigger than her sister. She’s dressed in a blue sweater and jeans. Their differences do not end with their appearances: Greta is autistic; Rosie is not.
“I’ve never lost her for that long,” Stephanie continues. “It was forty-five minutes –it was crazy… I went inside, because she went out without her shoes on, so I went in to get the shoes, I came right back out, and the kid was gone…she’d hopped on the scooter and just disappeared. I didn’t see her down this street, or that street. She was just really fast. I didn’t know what direction she went in. But they have a registry in town where you can register your special needs kid, and in any case, they kinda know who Greta is.”
Stephanie Merkel and her husband, Franz Gruber, met as graduate Students at Cornell University. She was 38 when they decided to have children, so Stephanie and Franz decided to use a fertility clinic.
“I was surprised I wasn’t having more,” Stephanie exclaimed as she looked back to the days of her pregnancy. “In fact, at the clinic I was at the secretary asked how many I was having. I told her, ‘Just two.’
“I taught that semester,” she continued. “When it started, I was six months pregnant. And at that stage, with twins, you’re really as big as you are at full term. By the beginning of that October, I was on bed rest. It’s funny how you think you’re going to be able to do it. But my students also didn’t appreciate it. It was hard because it was in the middle of the semester, and it’s not really quite the same class without the professor.”
As Stephanie spoke, her daughters sat with her, playing with a Play-Doh machine that cranked out different shapes, like fish. Greta sat next to her sister across from her mom, holding the dough in both hands, but she stared off into space, her brow slightly creased as if deep in thought.
Suddenly, she sang, “Way down yonder in the paw paw patch!”
It was loud, but not off key. Stephanie paused in what she was saying to repeat the line to her daughter, and then continued to describe her child’s early years. Greta was diagnosed with Autism when she was 23 months. Autism is often discovered at a young age, at any time from birth until about two years of age.
“One of the reasons we may not notice that children develop autism in the early years – some kids you can tell at birth – but other kids they notice later, like in the first two years because they have an overgrowth of synapses, which account sometimes for the gifts they have,” Stephanie explained.
“At first, I didn’t notice a difference between the two,” Stephanie said. “When she (Greta) was about sixteen months, she started doing unusual things.
“I remember I would be reading or working…and after about twenty minutes – she’d be playing on the floor beside my desk – I’d look down and see she had made the most interesting arrangement of circular objects. She had found all the circular objects in the plaything…and she had made a pattern that was about ten-foot-long snake. It was very patterned, like by the size of the rings. At first I thought, ‘Okay, that’s kind of interesting,’” she laughed.
The next sign Stephanie noticed was more alarming, but common sign of autism. “She (Greta) developed language right along with Rosie, but at one point, she lost the words she had learned. All the first basic words just stopped. She started to do repetitive things…Instead of playing with dolls, she would line things up. Instead of playing with toys, she would line them up in patterns.”
It was these behaviors that prompted Stephanie to have her daughter tested. Since Greta’s diagnosis, Stephanie and the rest of the family have endeavored to help Greta and be a part of her world. Stephanie enrolled her in a school in Columbus for autistic children with a student-teacher ratio of 1:1, with the help of a $20,000 scholarship. The commute, though, took a toll on her.
“I would drive all the way down, almost to OSU, and she got off at three, so I had to leave at two…” she said. “It was 100 miles a day.”
Stephanie said the school was a great help in Greta’s early development, especially its use of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
“It focuses on making them pay attention and help them learn to follow direction,” she said. “She would get fresh people every hour. But they would make her stay on task.”
Greta’s development therapy didn’t stop there. Stephanie and her family participated in the “P.L.A.Y. Project,” a program set up by Dr. Rick Solomon in 2001. Stationed in Ann Arbor, Mich., the program focuses on helping parents with autistic children learn to play and interact. Stephanie said someone from the program would film her and Franz playing with Greta once a month.
“We would use his play techniques, which were geared toward engagement,” she said. “To getting her to pay attention, staying with us, and to really get her to have fun and laugh. It’s very difficult to play with an autistic child, especially when they’re young.”
Rosie recalled one game the whole family would play. “We did this thing called a hot dog bun, where we rolled someone up in a rug.”
“We’d roll Greta up in a blanket,” Stephanie corrected.
Rosie continued. “And we’d pretend to squirt mustard on her and eat her. You did it for me, too.”
Stephanie agreed: the whole family would play games like this. It was one Greta really enjoyed.
“It was really strange, being filmed, and then the films would be sent back,” Stephanie said. “The film would be sent back and there would be comments with it, like, ‘Too slow!’ or ‘She should do this instead,’ or ‘That’s no fun!’ It was trying to teach us how to play with Greta and how to develop her emotional response, which I think was pretty important at her age group. I think it made her a pretty happy kid.”
The P.L.A.Y. project said it focuses on four key components in “helping parents become their child’s best P.L.A.Y. partner,” including Diagnosis, Home Consulting, Training and Research. The project is based on the National Academy of Science’s recommendations “for the education of young children with autistic spectrum disorders.” Basic components are beginning intervention between ages 18 months and five years, using intensive intervention several hours a week, having small play partner to child ratios, being engaging and having strategic direction.
“One of the main things that was important about that program was just joining her in what she likes to do,” Stephanie said. “You go into their comfort zone. Once you’re in there, you kinda play with them…Instead of playing with a toy car, she would just spin the wheels. So if you got down there with her, and you spin the wheels, then maybe you could get her to roll the car. And then, she’d roll the car, and then we’d create some kind of obstruction she’d have to deal with. So that was for hours and hours. I spent a lot of time those early years being autistic myself.”
Greta sang another line then: “The bow, the bee, the day!”
Stephanie repeated the phrase to her daughter, absently brushing the girl’s hair back from her face. Greta didn’t react to her mother, but continued to cut up pieces of Play-Doh with a pair of scissors shaped like an elephant, then tapped them against the varnished wood table. She began to sing another song.
“She likes (when you repeat what she says back to her),” Stephanie explained, Rosie added, “That’s what she wants you do to.”
“Sometimes, if you don’t do it, she gets upset,” Stephanie said. “…She’s a pretty good little musician and she plays the piano…The funny thing about that is she wants you to sing what she’s singing. Greta has a pretty good ear for pitch, so if you don’t sing it right, she can get pretty upset and she’ll make you sing it again until you get it right.”
Several times during the evening, Greta stood up and approached the vertical piano sitting in the corner. The first time it was pleasantly surprising to hear the distinctive notes of “Figaro, Figaro” pounded out on the keys. Then, as fast as she’d approached the instrument, she was off again.
“Greta, do you want to give a concert?” Franz asked from his seat on the floor. “Want to play Clopity Cloop?” He then told his wife, proudly, “She really stayed with it, for an hour yesterday. She played it about ten times.”
One of Greta’s talents Stephanie and Franz believe came not just from autism, but from her father as well, is her talent with singing and piano.
“And she pays attention when I sing and direct,” Franz said, his arms making the motions a choir director would. “She’s in the choir at school. She does it to herself. When the tone goes up, she goes up; when the tone goes down, she goes down.”
“She likes to play and she has a nice little voice,” Stephanie said over her daughter’s music. “My husband and I are looking for someone to give her lessons.”
“She knows hundreds of songs!” Rosie said proudly.
“Greta has a hard time singing with the group sometimes, though,” Stephanie said. “They’ll be on stage and Greta will just walk off with her fingers in her ears, and she’s like, ‘No.’ You just have to be down with that.”
While Rosie goes to the Columbus Academy, the same school where her father teaches Latin, Greta goes to the neighborhood school, Smith Elementary.
“For first grade she went to Smith School,” Stephanie said. “They have a special program called the Star Room. It’s designated for kids with autism. Half the time she’s in a regular classroom, the other half she’s with a one-on-one specialist. I don’t think she’d be able to do it if she hadn’t had those two years at the special school…”
The Star Room at Smith Elementary is the only program like it the Delaware City Schools District. While many of the school’s special needs facilities have a “converted-closet” atmosphere, many schools send their special needs children to Smith for its interactive classroom.
The Intervention Specialist in charge of the program is Danielle Korte, who is in her first year at Smith Elementary. She is young, with straight brown hair and a big friendly smile. She is immediately welcoming to anyone who enters her classroom, and was enthusiastic about her students. The children in the Star Room program also have help from three instructional assistants, one of which is Sharon Huff, a good friend of Greta’s family. Students in the classroom are on a wide range of the Autism Spectrum.
“…Honestly, when you have a student with autism, you never know what that student is going to be like until you meet them…I have students who I only see once a week, and they’re in the general education classes the rest of the time,” Danielle said. “And then I have students who spend half their day in here, as well. It varies.”
Greta is one of the latter kind of students. The classroom is divided into sections, and Greta follows a visual schedule to get through her daily tasks. There is a section for “Teacher Work,” where the kids do assignments in math, science and reading.
“Greta is a very smart girl,” Danielle said. “It’s different in the fact she may not be able to communicate everything she wants to tell you and what she’s feeling, but she has those emotions like any other kid.”
Both Greta’s family and Danielle agree Greta is also a very artsy student. As well as playing and listening to music, Greta loves to color and paint. “Repetitive motions calm her,” Danielle explained.
Stephanie, Franz and Rosie have also experienced Greta’s zeal for coloring.
“Greta has gotten into a phase now where she likes markers and lately she’s been reverse highlighting any text she finds in the house,” Stephanie said, demonstrating the motion of Greta blocking out lines in a book. “So magazines, books….she likes to take dark marker and mark out the print. All kinds of books. I just have to keep an eye on that.”
Greta has even taken her coloring skills and demonstrated them on some of Stephanie’s student’s papers. On those occasions, Stephanie contacts students to get extra copies of papers.
Rosie also had stories about Greta’s coloring endeavors, and how she can get annoyed at her sister when she gets hold of a book from school.
“I take books home from my classroom library because I love reading, and she finds them and she colors in them,” Rosie said. “I have to hide them in my backpack for a long time before I get up the nerve to return them.”
Franz then told Rosie to show off Greta’s work in one of his books, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. While the cover and sides were fairly intact save some green marker, several inside pages were scribbled with green and black marker. The damage ranged from small patches of text blocked out to whole pages.
“She loves the glossy pages,” Franz noted, flipping to the center of the book, which had several pages of photos.
Rosie snapped the book shut and set it aside. “Yeah, Greta colors a lot.”
“She’s pretty thorough,” Stephanie added.
When it comes to school, Greta had subjects she likes and subjects she didn’t.
“She doesn’t like math that much,” Danielle said. “She loves to read, which, I mean, Stephanie Merkel, I think we all understand where the reading comes from in her family – they’re all so good at that. Math is a challenge for Greta, and also, just getting her to do more of those social greetings and more interacting with her peers.”
In addition to reading, Greta was a good speller. Stephanie said sometimes Greta will hear a word and spell it over and over.
Other sections in the Star Room include spaces for sensory breaks, where the kids can break up their work by playing with toys and tactile things, as well as swing, jump on a trampoline, draw and color at an art table, play interactive games on educational websites and rest in a quiet area.
The students get a predetermined amount of time in the sections, and Danielle will set a visual timer for each one. The point of the visual schedule and visual timers in the classroom is to keep the kids on track.
“Some of the kids would constantly go from station to station to station if we let them,” Danielle explained. “The timers and the schedule keep them focused and help them regulate.”
Danielle said it took Greta quite a while to get used to her being in the classroom. Greta has been part of the Star Room since first grade at Smith, and her old teacher retired at the end of the last school year.
“Greta wouldn’t even read me a book to me the first month of school,” Danielle said, laughing at the memory. “…I’d sit with her and we’d try to do our work and she would look at me like, ‘Who, who are you? This isn’t Mr. Stanton’…It took some time, and it does. It takes time to build that relationship, and it does with any kid. But with a kid…who has autism, it takes a little extra time to establish that relationship and for them to know what your expectations are… I think that was the base thing: letting them know my expectations and having them understand it.”
Danielle emphasized that her students are unique, but are also like any other kid.
“I know there’s a stereotype of a person with autism, but every person is different,” she said. “There may be some same underlying characteristics, but I can’t emphasize enough how different each of them are. Greta is very good at the arts, and loves music and is great at playing music, but not all of my kids like to do that or anything like that. It’s a challenge when you meet them trying to figure out what their needs are, what they need to be successful in this environment.”
Autistic children may be challenged to interact with others.
“That’s another characteristic of autism,” Danielle explained. “Maybe not really having good eye contact. So, instead of talking, she’ll be looking (around) while telling you what she wants…Greta usually has to be prompted more to interact with the other students. She’s very happy in her smart mind, and she knows what she wants to do…She’ll skip the formal greeting and tell you she wants to go color.”
When asked if there is any bullying problems with her special need students, Danielle is happy to say it’s not very common.
“Third grade here at Smith is really great for that,” Danielle said. “I think it’s because they’ve all known Greta (for a long time) and that’s made a big difference, and in growing up with them.”
At the beginning of the school year, Danielle decided to speak with the general education classrooms about autism and how students with special needs are just like them, they just do things differently. She was pleasantly surprised at how few questions the children had for her.
“The kids were like, ‘Yeah, we know all of this already, which was great,” Danielle said.
Danielle smiled as she tried to remember some of the best memories she has from the past months of working with her students.
Suddenly she laughed, and described one specific moment with Greta. “One of our sensory things we do for a break is playing with shaving cream,” Danielle began, “And we’ll just write words in it, maybe her spelling words, to make it more academic. I was playing with Greta…and Greta drew a cookie. I don’t know how the topic of cookie monster came up, but I said, ‘Cookie monster,’ in a voice trying to impersonate the Cookie Monster and Greta just looked at me…just looked into my eyes and said, ‘Cookie,’ trying to do the exact same voice. It was amazing. It was a moment with Greta, and I told Stephanie I did start crying because I had never had that. She just looked right in my eyes and it was clear as day that she was just like anyone else. It was just really cool.”
Danielle then recalled a moment when three of her students were on the classroom swing, three boys, each from a different grade. “They were all on the swing together, and they were just laughing. I love it when they look just like everyone else and totally normal kids and you just look at them and you know that’s what we’re doing this for, for them.”
Greta continued to move around the house, sometimes stopping in to the room to see how her mother, father and sister would doing. She would say something, which towards the end of the night was the repeating of the words, “Jell-O Jigglers?” and then walk off again, most times towards the kitchen.
“Greta is more of a gross motor kid,” Stephanie explained after Rosie told the story of Greta getting on her scooter and riding away. “She bikes, she likes to climb trees. She’s a good ice skater.”
Since giving birth to Rosie and Greta, Stephanie said she’s met a lot of families with autistic children. A lot of the families often had twins where one or both of the children were autistic. She believed it was due to the fact twins are often born early (her own were born eight weeks ahead of schedule), and premature birth can be one of the risk factors for autism.
In her interactions with these other families, Stephanie has noticed certain common traits these children share: they are fearless.
“It’s another thing about her, she really has no fear,” Stephanie said. “Now, it’s not so bad, but when she was younger…I felt like if we didn’t end up on the six o’clock news, it was a good trip…I watched her constantly. If we went down to the farmer’s market down on Sandusky Street, I always had to have her by the hand because I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t just spontaneously walk into traffic.”
Along with spontaneous swimming pool rescues and an occasional naked child, Stephanie also said, “It’s never boring with Greta.”
When it comes to having friends and playing with the neighborhood kids, Stephanie said in the winter it’s a little more difficult to do.
“It’s better when it’s warm outside when the games are more like climbing trees, roller skating. But when it’s like the girls sitting around and playing Barbies, Greta just can’t join in. But in summer, the kids are all over and Greta is there with them. The kids are very sweet to her.”
Though Greta was unable to tell stories like her sister Rosie, Stephanie was still able to get details from Greta’s days at Smith.
“Greta does a lot of echoing, of things she hears, so I’ll get snippet of the school day,” she said. “Greta loves any chicken nuggets of any kind, and the kids at school are always giving her their chicken nuggets. So Greta will come home and say, ‘Do you want a nugget?’ ‘Do you want my nugget?’ Or, ‘Do you want a push?’ Everybody knows Greta loves to swing, so if Greta comes out to recess and all the swings are taken, the kids make someone get off.”
Greta’s days don’t just end when Stephanie picks her up at school. “We have a little break right now, but she does equine therapy. This is her third year, and she goes and she brushes the horse and cleans the horse’s hooves, and then it’s time to ride…On Thursdays she does a sort of occupational therapy, where they teach her to self regulate more, exercises to music, drawing to music, things like that.”
Though there are some places Stephanie knows Greta wouldn’t want to go, or would upset her, she doesn’t try to limit the places she takes her family.
“I don’t like to make assumptions, ‘We can’t go there,’” Stephanie said. “In general, we just try it and if it doesn’t work out, we just bail.”
Some of the harder things to gauge are movies. Often Stephanie will end up hanging out with Greta outside the theater while Rosie and a friend or cousin finish the show. Stephanie said she strives to end most of Greta’s outings on a good note, so Greta “feels successful.” Stephanie found the “playing by ear” is the best way to see what Greta is up for and what she isn’t.
This past fall, Stephanie and her family attended a Notre Dame football game. It was a good trip, Stephanie said with a smile. They were able to sit through the first half of the game and the half time show when Greta started to show signs of being “done.” They spent the rest of the game on the grounds of the school, walking and playing while listening to the game. It was a fun, successful outing for Greta.
Greta came back into the room and stood in front of her mother. She smiled, tucked her hair behind her ear, and said emphatically, “Jell-O…Jigglers?”
Stephanie remembered they made the treats earlier in the day, and Greta was hungry. Heading into the kitchen, she mentioned Greta enjoys being in the kitchen with her, helping her cook by stirring and cracking eggs.
Both Rosie and Greta take a seat on the island while Stephanie gets out plates and the green jello that has been poured into a Madagascar-themed mold. Both girls enjoyed their treat, and then Rosie went to finish homework while Greta ran back to the living room to play. “Poop, ew, poop,” Greta repeated, over and over, laughing all the while and smiling. She stood up from the coffee table and ran out of the room, continuing her mantra.
“…I think her third grade peers like to teach her fun words,” Stephanie speculated.
Greta came back through the room, holding her mother’s phone and watching videos. She doesn’t stop in the living room, and instead continues to some other part of the house, leaving Stephanie and Rosie to play.
After a moment, Stephanie said “Greta will probably buzz in and out,” and she left the room to go check on her.
While Stephanie and Greta are out of the room, Rosie spoke about how her Girl Scout troop is selling cookies.
“On my cookie list,” she said, “my favorite is the thin mints, and there’s one called ‘Samoas’ that I haven’t tasted yet, but I think they’ll be my favorite.” She paused for a moment, and then asked, “Would you like to buy some cookies from me?”
She was able to sell a box of thin mints before her mother re-entered the room.
Stephanie has been a professor in the Humanities-Classics department at Ohio Wesleyan University since 1998. She teaches full-time, and her classes include Myth, Legend and Folklore; The Devil, the Hero and God; and Great Books of Russia: The Russian Enigma.
Very often, on the first day of class, Stephanie will tell her students that there will be occasions where class is cancelled, and on some of those days, it will be an email on the morning of class. As a faculty member with two small children, especially one with special needs, there are times when she is unable to come to school, be it one of her children becomes ill or there is a delayed start at their schools, or even a snow day.
“It’s not like I have to ask the provost.” Stephanie explained. “As a professor, you have a lot of flexibility with your hours. I would schedule to have all my classes done by noon… I try to keep it to a minimum…”
Stephanie agreed to the description of her home and professional life as a balancing act.
“It’s a huge challenge,” It’s like I have two full time jobs,” Stephanie said. “It’s easier now, because they’re both in school, but when they were small, it was very hard when they were two or three, because Greta had so many appointments. I taught a full load of classes, and many years I chaired. Now I look back and think, ‘How did I do it?’ Well, I had help. I had really good students who watched the girls all the way through, who are still good friends with them.”
Stephanie described one of the greatest challenges was the late nights she had with Greta. “Greta went through a period of a couple years when she didn’t sleep at night. And she could go two days without sleeping. Those were the hardest times, when she was three or four years old. She would just stay up. Now, occasionally, maybe once a month, she won’t sleep. That’s really typical with autistic kids, that they have sleep problems. Her brain just would not shut down and she’d stay awake.”
While Ohio Wesleyan has a community preschool called the Early Childhood Center for children who are three, four, and five years of age, “I think we could do better,” Stephanie admits. “I think it’s very hard just to have a child at Ohio Wesleyan, let alone a disabled child. It’s like, our ECC…their sessions just don’t line up with the classes. The session will get out in the middle of the class period. There are a lot (of) things I think we could do better there.”
Stephanie also discussed how having young children affects her participation in her department.
“Academics have a low birth rate anyway,” Stephanie started. “We don’t have a lot of female faculty members who have children, and I happen to be in a department where people don’t have children….There are lots of things I can’t do. If there’s an evening event, it’s not easy for me to find a sitter. I can’t just grab the high school student down the street. It takes me two or three months to train (someone).”
Rosie paused in her play to add, “One time, I had to babysit Greta. That was just this past Monday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). It went pretty smoothly.”
Stephanie began to explain why. “My husband is a Latin teacher, and they had a contest in Columbus. He wanted to take the girls-”
“On our day off!” Rosie interrupted, sounding indignant.
“The girls didn’t want to go down to Columbus. And I’ve never done this before, but I taught and I left them here for an hour.”
Rosie then reminded her mom about the five dollars she was owed for watching her sister. Stephanie agreed, and pointed out Rosie now had a witness to the debt.
“I can’t really do the learning trips,” Stephanie continued. “The dean has asked me to take a trip to Russia, and it would be great – I’d love to do it, and it’s something I’ve done in the past, before I had children. But now I think, ‘How could I go for two or three weeks? Who would be me?’ It just wouldn’t work out, not now, with Greta.”
“In my experience, I have colleagues who don’t have children and they don’t really understand, ‘Oh, you can’t meet at three.’ Or when school lets out. I get a lot of eye rolling. It can be frustrating. Or, have someone say to you, ‘You really shouldn’t talk about your daughter.’ I had someone say that one time.”
At this statement, both Franz and Rosie ask who had told her that, and why would they suggest Stephanie shouldn’t speak about her child with special needs. “Because they felt like, that’s something they shouldn’t know about it,” Stephanie speculated, not appearing overly concerned about it. “That I shouldn’t mention it because it’s my life. I thought about it later and it’s a almost like someone knowing you have a drinking problem and it’s like, so long as we don’t hear about it – just don’t tell us about it, we don’t need to know.” Stephanie chuckled this last statement, and waved her hands in a, ‘Stop, no!’ motion.
“I think it’s mainly ignorance,” Stephanie continued as they continued to ask why the statement was said. “If you don’t have children to begin with, and then, even people to have children it’s difficult for them to make the next leap and think, ‘Well, what’s it like to have a disabled child?’”
Greta came back into the room, and her and her father sat at the piano. Franz helped his daughter play “Clopity Cloop.” Greta also played “Silent Night” on her own before she sat back down at the table to pick the play-doh back up.
“I don’t think it’s just Wesleyan,” Stephanie said while she helped her daughter put dough in the plastic machine. “It’s academia in general; we could do a better job at accepting that part of academic’s lives, for men and women. It’s a valuable use of your time, and could make you a better teacher.”
We went to the fair, Mary (the sitter) was with us and when we came home, Mary said, ‘Did you notice all those people looking at us when we came out of the barn and Greta was upset?’ and I said, ‘No, I didn’t notice at all,’” Stephanie laughed as she recalled what she said.
Stephanie leaned on her kitchen counter while Rosie got ready for bed and Greta sat at the table, snacking on some cheese. Absently, Stephanie fiddled with the bag of shredded cheese.
“Yeah, people look,” she said with a gesture.
“Especially now that Greta is older, she doesn’t act the way a nine-year-old is expected to act. When the kids are small, any three-year-old or four-year-old is going to have a meltdown. I really don’t notice it; I guess it doesn’t really matter to me. I mean, my kid has autism.”
Rosie ran into the kitchen, and asked for help with her homework, then spontaneously decided she didn’t need help. Stephanie suggested they get ready for bed. Greta stood up and ran after her sister.
“There are times, when we go to church, I get the eye,” Stephanie continued. “But what can you do? You can’t wear a sign that says, ‘My child’s autistic.’”
Rosie ran back into the kitchen, and then sat on an empty stool, spinning around in her pajamas. Stephanie put the cheese back in the fridge, and Greta sat back down in front of her empty plate.
“We don’t do things, like go out to restaurants,” Stephanie said. “Very rarely. It’s just not something that would fit with us.”
As she spun to and fro on the stool, Rosie said, “We go to Buehler’s a lot!”
Stephanie nodded and said, “The waitresses know us there, so they know when we sit down, Greta needs something to nibble on, and they’re pretty fast…We can’t go to Olive Garden: the ambient noise is just too much.”
Stephanie suddenly laughed and said, “We have pretended that we’re famous, and that’s why people are looking at us. That part really doesn’t bother me.”
“I don’t do that!” Rosie yelled. “You do that, I hide under the table!”
Greta began singing, “Opals and bonobos,” while Rosie and Stephanie spoke, and when Stephanie didn’t read it back to her, she put her hand on her mother’s face to get her attention. Stephanie sang it back.
“There are unexpected things that you can’t plan for,” Stephanie continued.
“Like someone in a costume that she doesn’t like, or the opposite that she basically goes after. Some places she won’t get out of the car. And it’s, ‘Okay, we’re not going to do that.’ Most of the time, it works out okay.”
In the other room, Greta tapped out a few more notes on the piano.
As the night ended, Franz concluded, “She needs to be happy in order to learn. If she’s sad, or angry, she just can’t focus. She’s a pretty happy kid.”