Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
For the first 14 and a half years of Gordy’s life, Evan and Dara Baylinson had no reason to think their son could comprehend anything they said: He had never spoken, and he couldn’t really emote. They worried aloud about his future, not filtering what they said, because they didn’t think he understood.
But Gordy, it now appears, was absorbing everything.
“My brain, which is much like yours, knows what it wants and how to make that clear,” he wrote in a letter he sent this month to a police officer. “My body, which is much like a drunken, almost six-foot toddler, resists.”
He typed each letter one at a time with his right index finger. No one coached him, edited his words or told him what to say, according to his parents and therapist. After two one-hour sessions, he had written a nearly 400-word note. [See full letter below.]
“This letter is not a cry for pity, pity is not what I’m looking for,” he wrote. “I love myself just the way I am, drunken toddler body and all. This letter is, however, a cry for attention, recognition and acceptance.”
Unbeknownst to his parents for so many years, their son was a beautiful writer with a lot to say.
Gordy’s autism spectrum disorder was diagnosed when he was 17 months old. Gordy, now 16, doesn’t speak, but his mind is a treasure trove of knowledge and opinions about the world that he has picked up from listening.
But it wasn’t until February 2015 that his parents found that out.
It was then that one of Gordy’s many therapists, Meghann Parkinson, started teaching him the Rapid Prompting Method, a relatively new communication technique developed for people with severe autism. She asked him questions and he answered by pointing to letters on an alphabet board. In a little more than a year, Gordy has advanced to a QWERTY keyboard, his words appearing in large font on an iPad screen propped in front of him as he types.
The technique is very controversial, with some experts convinced that therapists are leading the autistic children who employ it. But others say it’s possible that in a minority of cases people like Gordy can learn to communicate independently using the technique and can benefit from it.
Connie Kasari, a well-known expert in autism and a founding member of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA, said the question of whether RPM works is a “highly charged issue,” but that she tries to keep an open mind about evolving communication methods for autism.
“I’m not going to be a naysayer,” said Kasari, a professor at UCLA. “Some kids will benefit, some kids will not. It’s not one size fits all. Some individuals who aren’t verbal are incredibly smart.”
Gordy’s father was initially skeptical. He knew there had been controversies with forced “facilitated communication.” But the more he watched, the more he said it became clear to him that these words were Gordy’s and Gordy’s alone.
It’s through this work with Parkinson at Growing Kids Therapy in Herndon, Va., that Gordy wrote an eloquent and poignant letter to a police officer about what it’s like to be autistic.
Weeks earlier, the Baylinsons, who live in Potomac, Md., had seen a flier for an Autism Night Out held by the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. They asked him if he’d rather attend that or his prom on Friday. He chose the police event. There was an email address at the bottom of the flier, and Parkinson asked him if he’d like to send the officer a letter.
They had no idea their son had strong opinions about the police or the treatment of autistic people. But they sat stunned as the words poured out of Gordy with humor and empathy and maturity.
The letter reached Laurie Reyes, a police officer who started a department autism outreach program that trains officers on how to approach and handle someone with autism. They get two to four calls per week for “elopements,” which means an autistic child who has wandered off, she said. More than a decade ago, she started the unique program to teach officers to treat autistic people with dignity and compassion.
“I always share with the officers I teach to ‘never underestimate’ a person with Autism,” Reyes wrote back to Gordy. “I also teach them to not associate non-verbal with a lack of intelligence. I continuously stress those two thoughts to my officers. Gordy will help to reinforce this idea yet again.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Gordy sat next to Parkinson at a small desk for his weekly hour of therapy. She had prepared a brief lesson for him about The Washington Post, so he’d have some background about the reporter coming to interview him. Then she asked him about what she’d read. With the reporter observing closely, she held the keyboard still in the air in front of his face and he stretched out his right arm to type his responses. She didn’t visibly prompt him or move the keyboard. She repeated back to him out loud the letters as he typed.
What are we talking about?
Today we are discussing the Washington Post.
What is the Washington Post?
The Washington Post is a daily newspaper that is located in the District.
When was the Washington Post founded?
The Post was founded on December 6, 1877.
Why do you think I read you this paragraph today?
We have a lovely guest joining us today from the Post.
With that, he looked back sheepishly at his small audience, his hand reaching toward his proud father.
Throughout the session, Gordy sat with one leg tucked under him, clutching a pink stress ball with squishy spikes — he needs to keep his hands occupied. The small room was dimly lit because Gordy told them the soft buzz of the fluorescent lights was distracting.
Gordy’s parents say that he has continued to amaze his parents with his knowledge since he learned to communicate. They were learning about Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe, and they asked him if he knew of an active volcano in the United States. He typed, “Mt. St. Helen.” They said they never taught him that. He had seen it once on the cover of a magazine in a doctor’s waiting room, he told them.
“They do comprehend. They’ve been learning and listening their whole life,” said Elizabeth Vosseller, the director at the therapy center. “All the information is constantly going in and they never really forget it. It’s such a revelation — so much is revealed about the kids when they start sharing.”
Like, recently when his parents showed him photos from his bar mitzvah and he asked why he’d never seen them before. He wanted his own copies on his iPad. For six months before the Jewish rite of passage, a therapist had worked with him to sound out the Hebrew words to the first line of the “Shema,” a daily prayer. It was a huge achievement for him. But his parents had never thought to show him the photos.
“The sky’s the limit for him now. I believe he can do whatever he wants,” said Evan Baylinson, 49. They’ve asked him what kind of job he’d be interested in and he said that he’d like to be a researcher for Time magazine. Now that they know he understands, they’ve been reading him “Harry Potter.” He has been following the presidential campaign.
When Gordy answered several questions from a reporter, he sat quietly, showing no external signs of all that he was feeling. But his answers showed he feels profoundly.
Why did you write your letter?
Meghann suggested it and I’m so glad, it was something my entire being felt compelled to do.
Why did you feel so strongly about it?
I’ve heard too many tragic stories of the mistreatment and mishandling of autistics due to lack of knowledge. It breaks my heart because I know no one is truly at fault.
Are you excited to meet everyone on Friday?
Absolutely, I never expected this but I’m jumping around like a madman inside.
What is your favorite thing to do?
I love learning new things, iPads, I love communicating and typing with this gal on my right.
Parkinson blushed and tousled Gordy’s hair. “Oh, Gordy,” she said, teasingly.
Then she asked him if he had any closing thoughts.
“Thank you for seeing my potential,” he typed, “and helping my words, my story, and my manly voice get out there.”
Read Gordy’s full letter here:
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