Gerald opened the door, smiled awkwardly and said, “Ms. Davis. You came. I’m so pleased.”
“Yes, um, you never told me your last name.”
“I really prefer just, Gerald. Please come into my shop. I don’t open for another two hours so we have plenty of time.”
As she stepped in, she left a small, wary little girl who had been hiding behind her mom.
Gerald stooped down to greet her. “And you must be Rachel,” he said holding out his hand, but Rachel only made a face of discomfort and stepped back away from him.
“Rachel doesn’t like being touched, um, Gerald. I’m sorry, I should have . . .”
“Oh, that’s okay. I understand. Perhaps she would let Tom greet her.” He turned to pick up a well-used teddy bear and, with a kind smile, offered it as a go-between himself and Rachel.”
The little girl’s expression did not change, but she considered for a moment before stepping forward to take the bear.
“His name is Tom and he’s very glad to meet you. You can carry him with you while you visit if you like or put him back on the shelf right here when you want to.”
“My, you have a wonderful shop here. Thank you for offering us a private tour.”
“Saltwater aquariums can be a lot of work, but for those who enjoy them, all that work is mostly pleasure, hours of work sometimes, but look at the beauty we can create. Would you like the short full tour, or shall we go straight to the main attraction?”
“Rachel, has never seen such fish tanks up close,” she said before turning to ask her daughter while pointing to the room full of brightly lit tanks and multi-colored fish, “Would you like Mr. Gerald to explain these tanks to us or, two,” holding up two fingers, “go straight to his private collection?”
Gerald noticed how smoothly Ms. Davis offered Rachel both options while giving her a way to choose without speaking.
Rachel lifted her hand, considered her choices, and finally pointed to one large tank containing several different fish including lots of bright yellow tangs.
“Ah yes. A very good choice Rachel. Almost everyone wants to see the yellow tangs. They are very popular and beautiful to watch.”
They walked over and Gerald sounded like a museum docent as he described the tank and many of its residents. He kept his speaking normal, not speaking to Rachel as a child, but chose his words as he would for any adult who knew little of saltwater aquariums. He watched Rachels eyes as they drank in every word while her face otherwise registered nothing.
“Would you like to watch me feed them?” he asked while lifting one hand to mimic putting food to his lips.
Her mother moved as if to assist Rachel to respond, but Gerald, without breaking eye contact lifted and opened his other hand slightly to wave off her help.
Rachel saw and understood it all, considered and lifted her hand to match his mimic of eating.
“Wonderful,” he said while reaching over the tank to a shelf with cans of fish food. “There are plenty of things we can feed them, but this dried food is fine sometimes.” He measured out a portion and scattered it across the water through the opened lid. The fish darted up to consume it.
Rachel watched without changing her expression, but her eyes stayed on the fish as if memorizing the moment.
“Fascinating.” Ms. Davis said.
“Indeed,” Gerald answered. “It does not work for all, but it really works well for many.”
“So I see.”
“Rachel,” Gerald said while holding up one finger. “Would you like me to describe some of these other fish or, two,” holding up a second finger, “would you like to see my favorite?”
Rachel, stoically looked about, considering as she walked to glance into several tanks, trying to decide.
“You are welcome to stay and look as long as you like but just know that other people are going to arrive in about an hour and a half. Our Saturdays can get kind of busy, but you would be welcome to stay and look.”
Her consideration abruptly ended, and she held up two fingers.
“Well okay then,” said her mom.
“I was hoping you would select my favorite fish. Please follow me ladies.”
He led them to a locked door near the rear of the shop, opened it and led them inside. The room was darkened but was lined with brightly lit large tanks on all the walls. Almost all were populated with multi-colored sea horses awkwardly drifting and eating in the gentle currents produced in each tank. Some had linked tails together while others drifted around rocks or aquatic plants looking for food.
Rachel’s eyes got huge as she started to explore the tanks.
“Amazing – just amazing,” said her mom quietly.
Gerald stayed back and let Rachel wander.
“All these tanks are for raising sea horses for sale. They are popular additions to saltwater aquariums but collecting them from the ocean is getting unpopular because they are so easy to catch and frail if not handled carefully. Part of my business is to breed and raise them so people who want them don’t have to catch them from the ocean and loose many by trying to relocate them to their own tanks.
“They are one of the oddest creatures but are hugely popular with folks who don’t mind the extra care they take. They need to eat constantly, allowed to stay with their chosen mates, moved to birthing tanks when the father gives birth to sometimes hundreds of fry. Their food is live plankton and even that takes special care.”
“But they are among the most popular for just watching how they live. When we met in the library and you told me about your daughter’s autism, I thought she would respond well to the sea horses. You know her much better than I of course. How do you gauge her interest and response?”
“Gerald, this is remarkable. She rarely looks this interested in anything but look at her. I think she is fascinated and very engaged. You say this works well for autistic children?”
“Yes. Not all of course but many do. It can help with your communication as sea horses do take extra care so it’s something you can do together. Reading to her will help her learn and I think Rachel would be very engaged by hearing anything about sea horses. We’re pretty far from the ocean so any ocean things are unusual for our community, which is partially why I started breeding them.
“You might be well advised to set up a saltwater aquarium in your home with a mated pair and maybe even a tang or two. We could get you started and teach you what you need to know but doing it with your daughter could be the way to draw her out to be more involved in our world.”
“So far, what I’ve seen of her responses is very promising. She seems happier than I’ve seen her for months and was getting agitated about the world around her. She didn’t want to come today, but I know she already has changed her mind about that. And look, she set down the teddy bear. I was worried that I’d have to buy that from you as she might not want to part with it but look at her.”
“They can be remarkably mesmerizing. We could move very slowly to match her preferences. Let her spend more time here and get more comfortable with the fish and equipment before taking anything home. But let me try something.”
Gerald walked over to where Rachel was standing before a tank looking at the sea horses inside. “Rachel, I need to feed them. Do you have a favorite color you’d like to feed?”
The little girl turned, without changing her expression and pointed to a tank she’d already seen and answered, “the lellow ones.”
Her mom gasped.
He turned back to her and whispered, “Ah – the magic of sea horses and autistic children. That such a frail creature can have such an impact really is amazing.” He leaned closer to her. “It sure worked for me.”
Photo Credit: KL Caley