After nine weeks away from Will Q’s food pantry volunteering role with the nonprofit Neighbors in Need, I was ecstatic to see its FB post seeking small groups of volunteers to bag foods for its clients. Will’s frequent requests to get out of the house, coupled with the guys’ love of walking, suggests they’re as cooped up as I am with COVID house arrest. I signed up as fast as my arthritic fingers could tap the keys.
The catch was the need to wear masks and gloves, but we’ve had mask success lately, and Jeff Q formerly tolerated. I also had to sneak out of a busy work week, but cell phones make that manageable. The lovely NIN staff made it even better by offering us a role where no one else was in the building, meaning the boys’ quirks like Will’s frequent bathroom requests were less off-putting.
Every day I get myriad opportunities to see autism’s glass as half-full or half-empty. Or, in today’s metaphor, to admire the beauty in an earthy tuber and overlook its dirt. We’d dump a 5-pound bag of spuds onto a table, count them, then divide into 3 separate smaller bags to be distributed in individual packages to clients. Simple enough. With 510 bags to make – dividing 10-5-pounders each inside of 17 brown warehouse bags full of taters, the community could benefit from this minding their Ps with the Qs. (couldn’t resist). However that presumes your 26-year old volunteers can count.
It’s cosmically unfair that my sons’ father scored a perfect 800 on both his SAT and GRE math scores – and their sister was almost the same – while Will and Jeff can barely get four or five forks from the silverware drawer. Here’s my obligatory statement for all the smart asses reading this: yes indeedy, I have tried a thousand ways to drive improved counting proficiency. It’s been an IEP or ISP goal for the last 23 years they’ve had such goals. I’ve tried M&M, beads, checkers, pretend fruit, tracing the numerals in shaving cream and sandpaper, and singing Sesame Street “Count von Count” songs. And more. I die a little death each day when I see that such a fundamental skill still is what teachers call “emerging.” But like anyone facing a wall and knowing it only moves if you try, I swallow the sadness and look for functional contexts to practice. Like with potatoes.
I’d always thought Jeff exceeded Will’s 1:1 correspondence capabilities and that his inaccuracies were mainly attentional. Today showed Will would pause when he reached the designated 4 or 5 spuds, showing me he understood that “four was all done” and waiting for me to hand over the next flimsy produce bag for him to hold open and begin again. While Jeff would recite the numerals yet keep on filling the bag.
Then again I always thought Will had better attending skills. Today he showed his love of fast-paced, repetitive motoric work, like carrying three bags full over to the next table when done. But the nano-second his helper would hesitate, Will would dart away to a nearby sink to run water, another one of his age-inappropriate perseverations that’s been on the rise since the pandemic. OR he’d ask for the bathroom when he’s just gone. Whereas Jeff stayed with me and completed each task, albeit more slowly.
I also thought Jeff’s glove-wearing for years at the bakery would carry over here. But while Jeff tolerated the mask, the gloves bothered him, and within 15 minutes he’d so rubbed his own left ring finger that he got an inch-long blister with a second one developing on his thumb-fold. Will meanwhile whipped off his gloves and mask a half-dozen times, and stripped his glasses off his head so yet again, less than 10 days after his last trip to BJ’s Optical, they’re broken again.
The good news – and it is always good news, at least if you have the vision to see it – is that we completed 14 of the 17 warehouse sacks – over 400 bags of spuds. We went round the room and popped a freshly counted spud-bag into each of 135 pre-assembled brown paper bags for Tuesday’s clients, and mounded the rest into empty banana boxes to be bagged later. Vickie was incredibly patient with Will while helping me set the bar high by insisting on mask and gloves, although all of us got to cheating a bit by allowing our noses outside of the mask. Maybe it’s me and I’m still too new to masking, but wow it is hard to breather for hours at a time with a mask. How do the check-out clerks do it?.
Jeff calmed down with the blistering himself, and by evening his sore finger looked less red. Will extended his mask wearing although the minute we said masks were all done, his was off.
I realized they’d tolerating a demanding task for three full hours, letting a little pride seep in, mixed with gratitude for NIN allowing us to be a productive member of the community. We’d missed the boys’ exercise class in attempting to finish up, but it was a worth sacrifice to the greater good.
As the next shift of volunteers arrived I grabbed disinfectant to wipe the sorting table now gritty with spud-dust. The smell of bleach against the soil reminded me of clean linens – a favorite Yankee Candle fragrance – and the countless washings-clean that go along with growing something finer than when it starts. One day when I am elbow-deep in the dirt of some other chore, today’s 400 bags of potatoes will have been the tipping point, and I will reap what I sowed. Who knows, it may be in the form of Jeff accurately counting four steak knives at dinner. Or in tilling my own field to see beyond the dust on the spud, to the rough yet graceful arc of its shape.