Alex has puzzles of a garbage truck, a tow truck, and a dump truck. Each has 49 pieces, each piece a little bigger than a quarter. In the dump truck scene, there’s also a guy laying bricks, a red-headed driver, and, in the background, three birds and a crane. The garbage truck scene includes a sanitation worker in an orange jumper, a stone wall, and a guy strapping a bike to the roof of a red compact. The tow truck scene has a smashed-up blue car, a cop, a photographer, a guy in red coveralls working the winch, and a dog on a leash staring right at Alex as he softly snaps the pieces together.
I timed Alex the other day. Garbage truck: 11 minutes. Tow truck: 9 minutes. Dump truck: 15 minutes. The three birds and the crane must slow him down.
These are not Alex’s first puzzles. He also has a 36-piece school bus, big pieces but a ton of blue. I dumped it out the other night, to keep him occupied while Jill and I entertained our friend Jessica. Jessica and I watched Alex trying the pieces this way and that, never lifting his head. “He’s fast,” Jessica said. The bus took 10 minutes, and he then began trolling for something else to do. Sooner or later, such searching leads him to screeching or to Jill’s dresser, where he roots out her stuff. I dumped out Ned’s two Thomas the Tank Engine puzzles.
“Is Alex doing two puzzles at once?” Jessica asked. He was. Before he brushed his teeth and asked for his binkie, Alex also completed his 24-piece Elmo and 24-piece Clifford. At the same time.
Alex has been doing puzzles almost since he could sit up. He started with big plastic shape-sorters: squares, circles, and rectangles of red, blue, green, purple. Before he’d even eaten by mouth, I think, he was plunking the shapes through the right holes. “That’ll translate into good skills with letters when he’s older,” a therapist noted. Then came the wooden puzzles: a “Sesame Street” farm, barnyard animals, boats and copters, a school bus, a fire engine. Each piece in these puzzles tucked into a cutout in the wooden base. These puzzles are now entombed in the boys’ dresser. I joked to Jill the other night that Alex could do one of these now just by looking at it.
“I don’t know about that,” she replied, “but I do think he could do one of them with his eyes closed.”
Even though he’s in kindergarten, Alex still doesn’t have many words, so he couldn’t tell us about his talent. “Does he ever do puzzles here?” Jill once asked his pre-school teacher.
Oh yes, all the time, the teacher replied.
“But ever jigsaw puzzles?” Jill wanted to know.
Yes, of course jigsaw puzzles, the teacher said. Twelve-piecers!
Ned started doing puzzles for the same reason he bit a plastic ruler in half last night: Alex does it. Sometimes the brothers do puzzles next to each other at their little table. The quiet of concentration blankets the house. The quiet of a library, of a chess game, of craftsmen. But right now, Ned is more like the guy in that office who talks when everyone is busy. Once over puzzles Ned softly chattered support to Alex, who at last got so fed up and distracted that he left the garbage truck unfinished.
“Daddy, I need help!” Ned will say. “I can’t do it!”
“You are doing it, Ned,” I say. Alex doesn’t even look up, his attention anchored on the 49 pieces. “Stay on it, Alex!” I call, as I fly into the kitchen to do the dishes or bag the trash or some such chore that seems more important than watching my son do puzzles, but in fact isn’t.
Less and less, Alex needs help on a puzzle. He prefers to link the first two pieces, then work and sort by color, and test-fit pieces almost one-by-one. He used to need me to find the corners. He used to need me to find the edges. Now he just needs me to dump the pieces out of the Zip-Lock bag and put them right-side-up. Sometimes. I wonder if he could do this too, but thinks it’s nice to let me help. Wise guy. Where’s that 60-piece Noah’s Ark?
Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.Tweet