04/28/2011 08:41 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2011

Autism: Unlocking Emma's Mind

This morning Emma said, "Play musical chairs!," then positioned several dining room chairs in the middle of the room so they had their backs to one another, fanning out in a kind of lopsided circle. Emma turned on some music from her iPod and danced for a minute or two. Then she hit the pause button and yelled, "Freeze!" She ran to the nearest chair and sat down, staying very still for a few seconds before leaping up and turning the music back on.
When I joined in she said, "Mommy dancing!" Then she began to laugh uncontrollably.

After about 20 minutes I sat down and watched her continue by herself. She looked up at me and smiled, then covered her eyes with one hand. "Hi Mommy!" she said, peeking out between two fingers.
"Hi Em."
"Playing Freeze with Mommy."
"Yeah do you want me to keep playing?"
"No. Nicky hurt his toe in Aspen."

This is typical of Emma to make a sudden leap in thinking or maybe we all do this, but she just verbalizes her train of thought. Maybe he hurt his toe while they were listening to music and dancing, I can't remember any more. Maybe it was simply an errant thought.

A specialist said, while being interviewed about autism, that they thought autism was the deregulation of neural pathways. She went on to speak of the idea that people with autism have trouble communicating and putting into words their thinking, but it was the communicating that is troublesome, not the thinking. I have no way of knowing what Emma is thinking obviously, unless she tells me and even then it can be difficult figuring out exactly what she is trying to tell me, but I know her mind is very busy. I can see her processing information. I can see that she is thinking, I just don't know about what.

When I work with her on her reading and writing I can see how she is very clearly understanding the words she sees. She is learning to read. Yet if I ask her to read the sentence 'Here is a truck,' it causes her tremendous difficulty. I know she can read it because she knows each word when shown individually. Yet each word when put together to make up a sentence confuses her. It's similar when she works at the computer. She seems to have an easier time typing words on the computer than if she's asked to write those same words by hand.

When I read about autistic children who suddenly begin to type out full comprehensive sentences, it seems like magic. Usually these same children have displayed nothing to indicate to their caregivers that they can read, let alone spell or communicate in fully formed sentences. Yet there are numerous cases of children communicating through typing who have never been able to communicate before.

The other night I dreamt about Emma. In my dream she was talking to me, just as any neuro-typical 9-year old child would. She was telling me "secrets" and in the dream I thought how profound this information was. She was telling me what it was like for her and she was answering all my questions. When I woke up the next morning I tried to remember what she'd told me, but I couldn't. I kept thinking if I just relaxed I would remember, as though she really had told me, as though it hadn't been a dream, as though for a brief moment I had the answers, the key to unlocking her mind.

Every time I work with Emma on the computer I have a tiny hope that she'll suddenly write something on her own, something that we aren't working on. Magically she'll write a sentence that let's me in on her thinking and her mind. And each session when she doesn't do that, I think, it's okay, maybe next time.

In the meantime, I have a game of musical chairs awaiting me.

For more on Emma's journey through a childhood of autism and to hear her sing go to: