Perfect 10

Published Dec. 5, 2010, in The Washington Post

Story and photos by Dan Zak

The train barrels under a rocky overpass. It hugs a bend, crosses a bridge and passes over a flat body of water. Then it stops. The hand that propelled it lets go. The hand rises into the air, past knobby knees, past royal-blue shorts, past the rib cage of Bobby Whalen, who stretches his 10-year-old frame into a full-body yawn over the train set. Dawn dapples the third-floor playroom through a bough of leaves brushing against the window screen.

Bobby looks at the leaves, which hold him for several seconds. In stillness, he is elfin. His left incisor is gone. His ears taper outward. His buzzed hair is tawny. His eyebrows shimmer, as if dusted with snow.

Then, motion. He bounces to the computer. His nose touches the computer screen as he clicks through a painting program, conjuring a forest scene, layer by layer: green grass, then far-away trees, then near trees, then butterflies, then a black road that narrows as it moves to the horizon, then a red car on top of it, then a round-headed boy behind the wheel.

"In the woods," Bobby says, his teal eyes centimeters from the pixels. "Went here in the woods. Brought his car to the woods."

Bobby got up 20 minutes ago, at 5:40 a.m., before his mom and dad and little sister, Katie. Today is a Wednesday, which starts with "W," which means it's a half-day at school. He backs away from the computer. He looks at the TV, on which a quartet of men behave like boys on a show called "Imagination Movers." Bobby puts on a shirt, then sweatpants.

"My car," he says, jumping up and down, a piston of sudden energy. "My Car. Car. Car. Car." He goes back to the computer screen, presses his cheek against the boy behind the wheel, and says, "Maybe if I could drive a car. My car."

Something clicks in his mind, and he exits the playroom, past a long sheet of paper taped to the hallway on which he has written the alphabet over and over in ink, a colorful code of dependable letters, the "A" always before the "B," the "D" always after the "C." Predictable, repeatable. He descends the stairs of his family's townhouse. His parents and Katie are now up and about. Outside is his bus, idling up the quiet cul-de-sac in this gated community in upper Georgetown. Bus, which starts with "B." His bus. Bus. Bus. Bus.

Early mornings are backpacks and bus rides, Doritos and lemonade-flavored Vitaminwater, the bitter odor of markers, the splintery churn of a pencil sharpener. Mornings are a front-row desk in classroom 170 at the Ivymount School in Rockville, where rules are posted for "Interrupting Politely," and the four walls are labeled North, South, East and West.

"How's your engine running?" Ms. Jonna asks as Bobby enters the occupational therapy room on the second floor at about 9 a.m.

"Just right," Bobby says in his sing-songy monotone.

A Bach arioso plays on a stereo. He swings from a tire, then uses stamps to imprint the alphabet on a slab of pink Play-Doh. This will be for his mom. In Bobby's opinion, there's no more perfect gift than the alphabet. Math, however, is something to be vanquished back in homeroom. Last week, he completed 25 problems in five minutes. Today, his teacher urges him to aim for 30. Bobby wants to do 100.

"That's a great goal, but do you think it's a reasonable goal?" his teacher asks.

"If you don't let me go to 100, I'll be saaaaad," Bobby says, drawing out the last word playfully.

The teacher starts a timer. Bobby works his pencil. His fingers flick. He completes 42 problems in five minutes and allows himself a rare, fleeting smile as his teacher praises him. Teachers thank him throughout the day for his patience amid controlled chaos. His five classmates are handfuls -- always on the verge of freakouts, requiring hand-holding to complete basic tasks -- but Bobby is either oblivious to this or, quite simply, mature about it.

Near the end of the half-day, Bobby works diligently on the alphabet imprint for his mom. He presses "H" into the Play-Doh, then runs into a problem. He can't find the next letter in the tray of stamps.

"Oh no no no," he says quietly. "I gotta find the I. Oh, where is the letter I?"

The anxiety swells. "I? I? I? No."

Then he dials himself down. "Oh I'm sorry," he says, to no one in particular. "I'm worried. I have to find the letter I."

He looks at the H still in his hand. Something clicks. He turns the letter sideways to make an I.

Bobby might know the word "autism," or he might not. He probably doesn't know that roughly one in every 110 children is diagnosed with the developmental disorder, and that this rate is increasing every year. He doesn't know he reads at a second-grade level and does arithmetic at a third-grade level.

He doesn't know that the District budgeted $174.9 million this year to educate him and about 2,700 other District children in non-public schools, and that his parents spent nine months and tens of thousands of dollars making the case that his special needs, for now, are best met outside the city. He doesn't know that he is relatively fortunate to be an autistic boy in 2010; that services for and awareness of children with autism have burgeoned in his lifetime.

In the last three years, Ivymount's assistant director, Stephanie deSibour, has observed Bobby morph from a timid, anxious child (uncomfortable in groups, fearful of music) into a boy with a sophisticated sense of humor, a knack for art and design, and a firm grasp of dimension and perspective.

Bobby knows his mother is Molly, which begins with "M," and his dad is Dan, which begins with "D." He knows his dad is a cop. He doesn't know his mother was appointed to an advisory board on special education to help improve the District's capacity for educating special-needs children.

He doesn't know know that his parents, loving and patient, plan to eventually buy a home that has an attached living space where Bobby can subsist on his own as an adult, with help nearby. Or maybe he does know all this and just isn't wired to express it. There's no way to tell. Knowing exactly what's in his head is not the point.

Dan says: "You can't mold him into something he's not. ... It's not scintillating dialogue with him, but it's the time together that counts. The quiet moments in between things."

Molly says: "I want to know what it feels like for Bobby to look someone in the eye. You know he wants to please and the fact that he can't -- there must be some sensation to it. I would love to get into how his mind works. I would think it's a magical trip. ... As much as I'd like to make his path easier, the autism makes him who he is. You can kind of see his soul shining through."

His eyes are back in front of the computer in his playroom by 2:15 p.m. On the screen, he renders Earth as a light blue orb with continents of neon green. He paints a moon in its orbit.

"That's where my apartment is going to be," Bobby says, pointing on the neon green.

What apartment, Bobby?

"My apartment in 15 years."

Where?

"Washington. There's gonna be an elevator. 4W. That's the apartment's name."

In 15 years, you'll be 25. Will you be an artist, Bobby?

He stares at Earth, his eyes both focused and distant, his blank expression a Rorschach test for a silent moment shared by two people. (Bored? Sad? Focused? Content? Lost?)

What do you want to do when you get older, Bobby?

Still no answer. He paints a boy on the cratered surface of the moon.

"He wants to go home," Bobby says, "but now he's stuck on the moon."

Two hours later, Bobby and his friend Sammy are outside, climbing trees along the cul-de-sac in the slanting May light. Up the street, a weed trimmer whines.

Sometimes they explore, explains Sammy, who is 7 and precocious and wearing camouflage shorts. They sneak behind houses and sniff out shortcuts and cross suburban gulches. Sammy likes Bobby because he's funny and nice, which are probably the two most important things a 10-year-old can be to a 7-year-old.

"Hey, Bobby," Sammy says. "You wanna go hunt for caterpillars?"

Bobby sits on the ground and puts his temple to his knee. He doesn't answer. Sammy is unfazed. This is who Bobby is. This is what he does.

"Hey, Bobby," Sammy says after a couple minutes. "Wanna race down the hill?"

He does, so they do. They drag their Big Wheels from garages on opposite sides of the street and bring them to a small crest in the blacktop. They pedal and gather speed, zoom past their houses, then jerk the wheels so they spin and spin in the cul-de-sac. When they come to rest, they catch their breath, lock eyes and smile. Then they do it all again.