Silence. The young girl lay in the middle of the small grassy field, her hands pressed tightly over her ears, staring up at the sky. A warm summer breeze washed over her, carrying the scent of daisies.
With her bright green eyes, she watched faces form in the clouds. They were strange, distorted faces, displeasing to the eye. But they pleased her. They were quiet. They never felt confused, sad or afraid. They just were. Quiet. She loved gazing at the clouds. It was the only pass-time that brought her any solace.
A thought, a whisper, suddenly intruded upon her mind.
Katie… could be lost… HURT… so worried… where is she? Always out playing alone… wish she would be like other children…
Katie then heard a sound. Her mother was calling her name and heading in her direction. Though she hid the apprehension from her voice well, Katie could feel the emotion as though it were her own. It made her uncomfortable.
Knowing the anxiety would only worsen if she didn’t respond, Katie rose to her feet, while pulling bits of grass out of her long brown hair. As Katie’s mother ran to her, still calling her name, a wave of relief washed over her.
“Katie, it’s time to come in now,” explained her mother, gently taking her hand and leading her toward the nearby house. “Are you hungry? I made a special dinner for you,” she said, radiating hope.
Katie nodded slowly.
Her response elicited joy and pity from her mother, as she contemplated her only child.
Aislinn climbed the three steps leading to the front porch and opened the door for her daughter. Staring at her feet, Katie walked in.
The pair arrived in the living room where the table was set in preparation for a family meal. Aislinn lifted the seven-year-old into a chair and walked into the kitchen. Her husband, Adam, turned from the salad he was mixing and gave her a broad smile.
“Playing in the field again?” he asked cheerily.
Aislinn opened the refrigerator and reached for a carton of milk.
“Staring at the clouds,” she replied into the refrigerator and then sighed softly. “Like she always does.”
“Honey,” her husband’s tone became serious, “like the doctors have said, she just has trouble communicating and socializing, that’s all. She’ll be fine.”
Aislinn stared at her husband for a moment, willing herself to be comforted by his words. But she answered quietly, almost to herself. “How can they be sure? I just wish I could… see inside her head.”
Leaving the salad, Adam walked over and took Aislinn’s face in his hands, gently turning her towards him. He kissed her gently then looked directly into her eyes.
“Stop worrying. This new school will help her. She’ll start learning how to fit in. Things are going to get easier. I promise.”
“I hope so,” she answered, forcing an unconvincing smile.
The couple separated to pick up the dishes they had prepared. Their arms full, they stepped into the living room.
Katie sat with her forehead pressed against the wooden table. She was crying quietly, with her small hands pressed tightly over her ears. Aislinn cast her husband a look, unable to conceal her despair.
The car rumbled along the street as they entered the city. Katie’s father turned around in the passenger seat, smiling reassuringly.
“You’re going to like this school, pumpkin.”
Please let her like it…
“You’ll make all kinds of friends!”
“The teachers are very nice and will take good care of you.”
They better, for the price we’re paying.
Feeling the warmth of her father’s words, Katie gave him a smile, although she knew she wouldn’t enjoy the school. It was especially difficult to cope with the whispers from other children. While adult thoughts were complex and confusing, those of children were virtually devoid of meaning but heavy with emotion. She knew that her difficulties with other children had been the reason why her parents had sought out this school.
Her mother turned into the school’s parking lot. Already, Katie sensed bursts of joyful discovery and miserable disappointment, the extremes of every emotion. A short, overweight woman hurried toward Katie and her parents as they eased out of their car.
“You must be the Owens,” called the woman as she approached. “My name is Maria Santangelo. I’m one of the teachers here,” she said cheerfully.
“Hi, I’m Aislinn,” replied Katie’s mother. “This is my husband, Adam.”
“And this must be Katie!” chirped the teacher as she bent down to bring her face to Katie’s height. Katie couldn’t help but wince at the intense analysis forming in her mind.
Cute little thing… pervasive development disorder… difficulty interacting… observe carefully… encourage participation… challenging…
“Why don’t we bring her to meet the other students? Then we can go inside and talk a bit about the program we have planned for her.” Maria’s tone was cheerful, but Katie sensed the doubt she was hiding.
As the adults led Katie toward the schoolyard, so many thoughts and emotions careened through her psyche that Katie could not distinguish her own. The three adults smiled down at her, reading the turmoil on her face. Katie sensed concern, but could not focus on their words enough to understand. The adults headed toward the school building, leaving Katie among the crowd of children.
Katie squeezed her eyes closed and walked away, trying to find somewhere quiet. She bumped into one of the students, wincing at the explosion of irritation that burst into her mind. She shuffled along until she walked into a fence. Opening her eyes, Katie saw that she had crossed the schoolyard and now stood apart from the others. The whispers in her mind were less abundant here.
Looking around her, she noticed a boy sitting only a few feet away. He was smaller than Katie, with a paler complexion and short, black hair. He sat cross-legged, his back to the fence, his shoulders hunched and his eyes downcast. Turning her attention to him she felt no new thoughts form in her mind.
Intrigued, she sat beside him. She concentrated on his mind, listening very carefully. She had focused her attention this way on other minds before, albeit unintentionally, but the experience had been completely different. With her mother or a stranger, she would hear the person’s thoughts grow quickly in volume, as though they were speaking aloud. A few stray images would then erupt into her mind and she would be flooded with intruding emotions.
This time was different.
The boy had not reacted to her approach. He showed no sign, either inwardly or outwardly, that he was aware of her. He remained with his eyes fixed on the ground, unmoving. She reached her hand out to touch his shoulder.
“The program will allow Katie to learn to express herself,” Maria was explaining to Aislinn and Adam. “According to Katie’s file, and from what you’ve told me, it seems she usually understands well enough, but has difficulty expressing herself.
“For some children, discovering the world around them can be traumatic. Not every child is equipped to selectively filter the incredible wealth of stimuli that they perceive. This is especially challenging when communicating.
“Children like Katie become so overwhelmed trying to sort out what they receive that they can’t communicate back. So, they hide themselves away in their own world. It’s a defence mechanism. They need special education to teach them how to cope and to overcome their self-imposed isolation.”
As she spoke to Katie’s parents, Maria’s eyes wandered over the kids on the other side of the window.
“In most cases, we have found… Oh my God!” she exclaimed. Quickly looking over, Katie’s parents saw their daughter and a boy looking at each other, her hand on his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” Aislinn inquired, alarmed and confused.
“Jonathan—that little boy—he never makes eye contact with anyone!” she explained hurriedly. “He has a more serious condition than Katie’s. You would probably know it as autism.”
The three adults gathered at the window, looking past the agitated mass of noisy youngsters, watching the two silent figures at the far end of the playground.
Katie examined the dejected look on the boy’s face. Gazing into his solemn eyes, she focused on what lay behind them.
At first she heard nothing at all, but as she listened carefully, she began to make out very faint sounds, thoughts that seemed to emanate from impossibly far away. As she concentrated, her mind steadily crossed the immense distance between herself and Jonathan’s consciousness.
Gradually, she began to make out an image of a clearing in a fantastical forest. As her mind approached, Katie felt the scene surround her. Majestic trees reached up to the sky on every side, their leaves rustling gently in a warm breeze. Lush grass covered the clearing, shining resplendently green in a beam of sunlight that pierced the treetops. Exotic birds chirped and sang, composing a lilting symphony. A tiny fairy with delicate wings whisked in and out of the brightly-coloured flowers. It was a place of peace, and Katie felt herself drawn into it. Warmth and serenity filled her.
She felt the need to reach out to the boy. She wanted not just to experience his thoughts, but to complete their connection by sharing hers with him. Katie tried to send a thought of her own. From within Jonathan’s clearing, she heard a whisper, but it was barely audible, as if originating from the other side of a great chasm. By the time it reached her consciousness in the clearing, all meaning had been lost, faded by distance and distorted by echoes. She began again, singularly focused, and determined to bathe the glade in a resounding, cheerful sound. The noise of her own joyous laughter abruptly burst upon the clearing, filling Katie with elation at her success.
The birds exploded out of the treetops, desperately fleeing the fanfare. The boy’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped open in a mute cry of anguish. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to his side, clutching at his chest. The forest vanished around her and Katie was brought back to reality, staring at the boy convulsing on the ground next to her. Her fear came rushing back, amplified more powerfully than ever before.
A teacher ran over to them. Maria and Katie’s parents came rushing out of the building as the other children crowded around. Katie felt their emotions crash over her. She curled herself into a ball and began to cry, overwhelmed by the assault.
“It looks like an anxiety attack,” guessed one of the teachers examining Jonathan.
“It will pass,” Maria asserted calmly. She sat on the ground next to Jonathan and cradled him in her arms, gently muttering reassuring words. Katie’s parents did the same with their daughter.
Katie squeezed her eyes closed and struggled to think of clouds once again. She pictured a vaporous rabbit languorously travelling across an otherwise clear blue sky. Feeling a small measure of peace return, she opened her eyes and turned toward Jonathan. Visibly relieved at her apparent recovery, her parents allowed her to approach the boy.
Although he was no longer convulsing, she saw that Jonathan had completely retreated into himself. She placed her hand on his shoulder again and tried to understand what she had done wrong. Perhaps having an intruding thought cross his mind’s protective moat with such strength had just been too much. Perhaps a fainter sound would be better, not too loud but not too quiet either. She needed to find the perfect balance.
Carefully, Katie once again reached across the gulf, returning to Jonathan’s glade. Order was being restored there and the birds were already singing in their treetops once again. Katie began to compose a whisper. Instead of blaring the thought this time, she made it a gentle, distant echo. Very carefully, she repeated the sound, increasing its intensity just a little each time.
Jonathan sat up. His fear was suddenly dwarfed by his curiosity. Encouraged, Katie continued until the sound could be heard as a softly spoken word in the clearing.
Jonathan looked at her. Feelings of comprehension and joy grew within him. She saw the boy’s eyes sparkle as he associated the sound he had heard in his mind with her.
He had understood.
It occurred to Katie that she was the opposite of Jonathan. Her mind touched everything around her, where his mind was enormously far removed. Yet in the end, their behaviour was the same. Both withdrew from the world, isolating themselves. Katie did it by physically moving away whenever she could, while Jonathan separated himself within his mind.
As this epiphany took root, an idea struggled to form amidst the whirlwind of uninvited thoughts in Katie’s mind. Surely, if Jonathan was able to distance his consciousness from the world, so could she.
Closing her eyes, Katie tried to mentally remove herself from her surroundings. At first, she escaped from some intruding whispers only to amplify others. She continued trying and soon enough, she found a point where the thoughts she heard around her, while still disconcerting, were no longer overwhelming. Though she had to concentrate hard to maintain the balance, she was confident that with practice, she would be able to do it more easily. Looking up, Katie found that she could listen to the adults speaking and, concentrating on their words, she could identify their meaning.
“You’re looking much better, Jonathan. How do you feel?” asked Maria, using a tone that implied she didn’t expect an answer.
Empowered by her revelation, Katie turned to Jonathan. Slowly, she repeated the teacher’s words to him inside his mind.
After a few moments, recognition flashed through his eyes.
“…O… oh… k… okay,” the boy belatedly struggled out his response. The adults instantly ceased their conversation and looked down at him, wearing indistinguishable expressions of shock. Katie felt powerful feelings crash around her, but they diminished in strength as they crossed the protective mental gulf she had created. She withstood the onslaught.
Katie smiled triumphantly and looked up at the adults. Their surprise seemed to be evolving into an incredulous joy. Tears were welling up in Maria’s eyes and she covered her mouth with her hand. Jonathan grinned happily at them all, sharing their joy.
Focusing her mind, Katie looked up at her mother and spoke as clearly as she could.
“I’m… okay… too,” she managed.
Both her parents were immediately kneeling in front of her.
Can’t believe it… She spoke…
“What was that honey?” her father asked softly, full of hope.
Taking a deep breath and refocusing her mind, she spoke again, more confidently.
“I’m okay too!”
Aislinn and Adam laughed with delight as they hugged their daughter tightly. Katie laughed with them, as for the first time in her short life, she felt genuinely happy.