Growth Rings

Last week, after swimming at the Saline Rec Center, I gave Wil a dollar bill and 2 quarters to buy a Gatorade in the vending machine. 

He held the dollar bill in a pincher grasp (between his forefinger and thumb). It took him a moment to steady the dollar bill so it would fit through the narrow slot. Wil then secured the same pincher grasp on each quarter, which was slightly more challenging due to their size, and slid each one through the coin slot. I then asked him which Gatorade flavor he wanted. He pointed to the lemon-lime. 

“Ok, do you see the letter and number under the Gatorade you want?” I asked. “Punch in those same buttons.” Wil punched in the buttons with care, and a lemon-lime Gatorade slid out of its place and fell to the bottom of the vending machine. Wil reached down, pulled his Gatorade out of the machine and raised it in victory.

I had a quick flashback of Wil sitting in his high-chair. Theresa, his speech therapist, was teaching him how to pick up a Cheerio with a pincher grasp. Wil tried to scoop it with his fist. The fine motor skills required to achieve a pincher grasp was (and still is to a lesser extent) very challenging for Wil. It took much patience, care and repetitive practice for him to achieve. Like many of Wil’s achievements, there is more than what is seen on the surface. Each success has a depth to it; like the rings within the trunk of a tree. 

Our neighbor, Nancy, recently started taking Wil to Dollar General to work on his life skills. As a retired educator with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, Nancy has years of experience working with people with disabilities. Nancy’s grown son has autism, so she understands the many rings of this tree as a mother, too. 

When Nancy first took Wil to Dollar General, he just followed her around. This fact didn’t surprise me, but shook me up all the same. When Wil and I grocery shop, he may run ahead to pick out something he wants, or help me take items off of the shelf, but I’ve never given him more ownership than that. I realized, talking to Nancy, how easy it is to fall into familiar routines and miss obvious growth opportunities. 

On Wil’s last visit to Dollar General with Nancy, I gave him $10.00. Elizabeth asked him to buy her Chapstick and I asked him to buy himself toothpaste. Then Wil bought himself a drink. The cashier asked Wil for $7.30. Wil gave the cashier $2.00. Nancy said, “Try again. $7.30.” Wil gave the cashier $3.00. Nancy said, “Try again. $7.30.” Nancy’s goal is to teach Wil to listen to what the cashier asks for. He then gave the cashier $7.00 and $1.00 more for the change (“One more for the change” is a term Nancy taught Wil for covering the change. Wil now chants, “And one more for the change!”). 

As much as I revere how far we’ve come, and cheer with each new victory, I also fall unconsciously into repetitive familiar circles. Until a friend like Nancy comes along, shakes up the tree, prompts another look, another listen, and to try again. And that’s how the rings on the tree grow one more for the change! 

Wil & Nancy

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