How Jim Henson’s Muppets Helped One Little Girl Find Her Voice
Molly’s first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Dada.” For a long time, she didn’t talk at all—only cried. But after a while, I did start to hear . . . well, something.
“Why does it sound like the baby’s saying octagon?” I said one day, with a laugh. None of us believed it until her second word was trapezoid.
Like many children with early onset autism, Molly had major problems communicating. As a preschooler, she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say more than a few words to anyone, but she could, and did, spell out words—mostly the names of shapes and colors—with her magnetic letters. One day, while I was typing at the computer, she tried to commandeer my keyboard. On a whim, I upped the font size and told her to go right ahead. To my surprise, instead of the alphabet, she typed her first words:
To say it was spooky would be an understatement. I felt like I was in one of those horror movies where only the autistic kid knows there’s a stranger in the house. Her next words were just as bizarre:
HUGHES BROS AUTO
It took me a whole minute to remember that Hughes Brothers was a tire shop down the street. Molly was writing, from memory, signs she’d seen around town.
For years, Molly couldn’t tell us how she felt about anything except some very basic wants and needs—like the french fries she constantly demanded. We didn’t know what she thought, if she thought, about anything deeper, like friendship, love, or her own family.
Then she began to draw—and draw and draw. In a startlingly short period, her art went from scribbles to stories. We didn’t have cable TV, but we were all fans of Sesame Street and the old Muppet Show, which the kids watched on VHS. So it wasn’t surprising that Molly’s art seemed, well, heavily Henson-inspired. At first, she’d only use paper and markers. Then she moved on to finger-painting lightning fast on a tablet. More and more often her pictures had accompanying text. I shared these with family, friends—anyone who would look—so excited we finally knew what was happening inside that head. When Molly made it her mission to draw every Sesame Street Muppet, even the really obscure ones, and cut them all out, I tried to save as many of her paper scraps as I could. Everything she produced was one more clue, one more connection.
These days, Molly has moved on to drawing mostly original characters—characters who lead pretty complicated lives for an artist who still mostly talks about french fries. She creates more drawings every day, all starring animals and other creatures who seem to know quite a lot about happiness, anger, determination, teamwork and caring. Molly has a voice, and we never want to stop listening.
Best of all, whatever her characters are feeling, it’s always clearly expressed with Muppet-like googly eyes and decisive unibrow. We think Jim Henson would be proud.