Last September, while I was waiting next to the coffee machine, a seven-year-old boy, blond and in a flood of tears, came near. All a-fury, he stamped about and threw himself to the floor. Despite eliciting more compassion than surprise from those around him, Estitxu, his teacher, didn’t bat an eyelid.

Given the child’s age and behavior, there was no reason to think that this was anything more than a new student throwing a tantrum at the beginning of the school year; the blank stare is what made this pupil with autism special. Three months later, this blond boy now walks calmly, holding tightly to Estitxu’s or Ainhoa’s hand. The transformation that forged this change has a key element: language.

To his parents’ great anguish, for seven years his only way of communicating had been to cry bitter and difficult-to-interpret tears, tears whose meanings were infinitely multiplied; now, his limited language, consisting of six images, has opened doors. The journey has not been easy. First, they had to find something that he loved: a corn cake. Next, Estitxu and Ainhoa created the first sign that would make up his language: a pictograph of a corn cake. Finally, they had to do the same exercise over and over again: they spread out small pieces of corn cake on a table, and every time he reached out for a desired morsel, they had him touch the pictograph. The miracle occurred when, the corn cake hidden from sight, the boy turned to the image to express his desire.

In the same way that Anne Sullivan named the world for Helen Keller, after three months Estitxu and Ainhoa had provided the boy with a bridge to reach those around him, and now he is able to ask for water, juice, a chocolate bun, a milkshake, and, of course, a corn cake. Going forward, little by little they will strengthen the bridge with new signs.

For those of us who have felt that literature is also a means of expressing the nuances and depths of reality, for those of us who spend days and nights searching for just the right word, the simple and moving language of six signs gives us something to think about.

Often, when words show us their terrible limitation, when the agony of not being able to communicate what we desire overwhelms us, we too may wish to rely on an image, on the hand of Lotto or Rembrandt, who masterfully captured with the merest of strokes, the most profound and unforgettable gazes.

This article was published in Hitzen Uberan on February 18th, 2019.