Never Underestimate Her

Wednesday night, Johanna had her weekly visit with two charming young women from the Friendship Circle. The Friendship Circle is an organization started by the Chabad of Stamford that pairs teenagers with special needs kids. Johanna has two sets of friends; one set, Jordan and Billie, hang out with her Sunday evening, and the other set, Joan and Sarah, visit with her Wednesday night. She loves it; she thinks she’s one of the “big girls." I was making dinner for the kids on Wednesday when Joan walked into the kitchen with Johanna.

“She knows all the Sesame Street characters now,” she told me, holding Johanna’s favorite Elmo book.

 That was news to me. “Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Joan said. “When I pointed to them in the book she was able to name them all. Except Zoe. I don’t think she quite got Zoe.”

That’s not surprising, I don’t quite “get” Zoe either, a monster who insists on wearing a pink tutu even though it clearly clashes with her orange fur.  But besides Elmo, I didn’t think Johanna had quite figured out who anyone else was.

After supper, I read the kids their “Guess Who, Elmo!” book. “Who’s this, Jo Jo?” I asked, pointing to Cookie. She stuck her fist in her mouth and looked at me blankly. I turned the page. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to Oscar. She stared at the picture and said nothing. “Oscar,” I said cajolingly. “Oscar.” No flicker of recognition. No response.

By the time we got to Big Bird at the end of the book, it was pretty clear to me that if Johanna knew one googly eyed monster from another, she was keeping it to herself.

Later that night, I emailed Joan on Facebook. Had Johanna really recognized the characters in the book? I asked. I wanted to let her teacher and speech therapist know about it when they came for therapy tomorrow.

She responded right away. Yes, Johanna knew who everyone was. Not Zoe, but definitely the others, like Cookie and Big Bird.

The truth is, when I stop to think about it, I have no doubt Johanna knows exactly who’s who when it comes to Sesame Street. It’s slowly beginning to dawn on me that she picks up on a lot more than we give her credit for. Like the time two weeks ago, right after the Abilis walk, when I was lying on the couch in the playroom, exhausted, and suddenly heard her count to ten.  The therapy session about a month ago where she correctly named five different colors on a string of beads—when I hadn’t even known she could identify one.  The moment this past September  when I returned home from a run to see her sitting at the kitchen table happily spooning apple sauce into her mouth during occupational therapy. “I had no idea she could do that,” I said incredulously to Carol, her therapist. “She always refuses and makes me feed her.”

Carol looked at me wryly. “Of course,” she said. “You’re her mommy. She wants you to do it. But you can't underestimate her.”

There are so many unknowns with Johanna. We don’t know when exactly she’ll be potty trained. We don’t know when she’ll learn to read, or when she’ll learn basic adding or subtracting, or, further down the road, whether she’ll ever be able to master more complex skills like driving a car or holding down a job or living on her own.

But I guess one thing is gradually becoming clear to me: if she’s ever going to do all—or even just some—of these things, then I have to have those expectations for her. It's so easy to assume that just because she won't do something, or she struggles to do it, that she can't. It's easier for me to carry her up the stairs rather than take the time to make her walk on her own. It's easier to dress her instead of making her do at least some of it herself. It's easier to assume that she just can't do something rather than push her a bit until she finally does it on her own.

Because, it seems, she can.