Watson Dollar went silent at age 2, then two decades later, he began to communicate with his mother, using an iPad.
The last word Watson Dollar spoke before autism erased his ability to do so was "lights."
The chubby cheeked toddler lay in his father's arms as anesthesia, administered for an ear-tube surgery, dimmed his consciousness. Head lolling back, body going limp, Watson gazed at the fluorescent lamps above him, uttering the one-syllable noun.
Then he closed his eyes and never spoke again. That was 20 years ago.
In the two months between Halloween and Christmas of 1992, Watson had lost almost of all of his 150-word vocabulary along with an interest in the world.
His parents initially failed to notice the change, chalking up the subtle signs to stubbornness or fatigue or the ever-changing nature of a developing child.
By New Year's, though, the difference was both inescapable and worrisome.
The smiling, inquisitive boy who'd sung and pranced around his house in Magee now sat sullen and withdrawn. He rarely spoke. Instead of saying "juice" or "outside," Watson met his needs by tugging the nearest adult to the refrigerator or the backdoor.
Watson also stopped playing with his toys. He used to push little cars around the living room, making vroom-vroom sounds. Now he held the vehicles upside down and close to his face while silently fixating on the wheels he'd spin for hours with his tiny fingers.
By the time his pediatrician discovered fluid in his ears and recommended tubes, Watson was a different child. His parents, Pam and Donald Dollar, hoped the surgery would return him to his previous state.
"He can't hear, that's why this is happening," Pam remembers the doctor saying. "As soon as we get those tubes in, everything will be fine."
But the procedure changed nothing.
The Dollars got the dreaded diagnosis on May 17, 1993 — 10 days after his second birthday — autism — and took immediate action.
They bombarded Watson with therapy and enrolled him in Magnolia Speech School in Jackson. They enlisted the best doctors and attended the latest autism conferences. They did everything they could to loosen autism's grip, but it wouldn't let go.
Pam and Donald eventually accepted reality: The disorder had permanently severed communication in their only child and, in doing so, isolated him from the world. Watson was lost, and he wasn't coming back.
His own mother often wondered, "Is he even in there?"
That question lingered two decades, until, on Nov. 11, 2011, Watson sent a postcard from the other side.
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