When my 6-year-old son and I visit the local library, we aren’t going to read books together, attend a “story time” group, or even pick out an Elmo DVD to watch later. When we visit the library, we are there to see the giant grandfather clock in the lobby.
The library is an old building, and the heavy, wooden doors in the front leading into the lobby are rarely used. The official library entrance is now on the side of the building. Every time we enter, instead of taking a right toward the stairwell leading to the Children’s Section, my boy takes a left, making a beeline for the lobby to see “his clock”.
It’s a small lobby with two reading rooms opening from it on either side. Above is a beautifully painted dome ceiling, lit from within by lights hidden from sight by a ledge. The floor below is an intricate mosaic tile design arranged in a circular pattern. My son can’t help but see this pattern as a racetrack, albeit a tight one, so compact as to force him to run at a constant slant, angled toward the middle of the design. I allow him a few laps before redirecting his attention to the clock, standing proud and aloof in the corner of the lobby against a gray column.
He first examines its pendulum swinging behind the glass door. The clock’s dependable “tick-tock” sound is not annoying like that of smaller clocks. The hollow, dark wood cabinet in which the pendulum swings provides a chamber for the sounds to mature into rich, full, well-rounded “tick-tocks” – sounds of character, depth, and wisdom. The sounds of age.
The clock is tall, the face of it starting just above my head and the number 12 well out of reach of my outstretched hand. I pick up my son so he can get a closer look at the face, reading the numbers from one to twelve, pointing to each as I go. I match the rhythm of my counting to the rhythm of the second hand. Sometimes my son watches the clock face as I count; sometimes he watches my mouth.
Not too long ago, my son discovered small windows on each side of the clock cabinet that allow you to view the moving gears inside. Now, after I finish counting, I lift him a little higher in my arms, closer to the windows so he can get a better peek. He peers in, fascinated by the metal and movement.
After a few moments the spell is broken, and he wriggles down and takes off running, arms pumping, body tilting as he races around the mosaic tile racetrack. The steady pit-pat-pit-pat of his sneakers in forward momentum, round and around – circles, loops, laps – drawing often amused, occasionally disapproving looks from nearby library patrons.
“Clock” was my son’s first word at 11 months old. It was, indeed, an odd first word. It’s not exactly an easy word for a toddler to say, what with that tricky “L”. It came out “cyock”, but one can imagine it could have been worse. I remember his chubby fist reaching for the clock hanging on the wall in his playroom, the cheap plastic pendulum swinging rhythmically back and forth in its faux wooden frame. My husband would take the clock down and lay it on the floor so that my son could examine it closely, watching the second hand tick, tick, tick around the face.
The irony of my son’s obsession with clocks is that time moves steadily forward, yet my son’s development often seems to be in a state of limbo – no changes, no growth, no milestones to mark time’s passage.
Don’t get me wrong, my son is growing and changing every day like any other child. He is of average height and weight, and his fine and gross motor skills are exceptional for his age. The anachronism lies in how my son’s autism has affected his social and communication skills. Months, even years may pass with little progress to show for it. It’s frustrating and mysterious.
Not long after his first word, “cyock”, his words disappeared. The clock measuring my boy’s social and communication skills slowed seemingly to a stop, the second hand hiccupping in the same spot on the clock face – stuck at that moment in time while the gears continued moving in his head.
There were so many things getting in the way of his learning, including obsessive compulsive and self-stimulatory behaviors – like pouring sand from his hand slowly in front of his eyes over and over, and sensory integration behaviors – like his constant need to run and jump and crash.
Time was measured in the sand slipping through his fingers and the continuous pit-pat-pit-pat of his moving feet. But there was no eye contact, no pointing, no imitating, no interest in pleasing the adults around him – none of the social skills necessary for a young child to learn to communicate.
Yet amazingly, time was working its magic, only on a very, very delayed schedule. In his 4th year, my son showed consistent signs of attention and eye contact. At 5 years old, he showed joint attention and the ability to follow where someone pointed. And finally at 6, he began showing an interest in pleasing others, imitating some actions and sounds, and understanding basic receptive language. It’s a bit like a fog lifting, the way he has suddenly become aware of the world. Maybe that’s the way all children become aware, only he’s on a much slower time scale – like I’m watching his development in slow motion.
There is a cadence, a rhythm we come to expect in life. It’s distressing when things are out of sync. Sometimes I feel as though I can see the gears moving in his head, like peering in through the windows on the side of that grandfather clock. My son is learning in his own way, in his own time.
I just need to be patient and take comfort in the forward movement of time, in the hope it offers, and in the character, depth, and wisdom it may bring – both for my son and for me.