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Smokey the Bear, Aaron, and a joke

Smokey the Bear and Aaron

Aaron and Smoky hanging out in community room

This year, Smokey the Bear celebrates his 65th birthday.

Last weekend, as our family was trying to keep our house available to prospective buyers, we took a road-trip to Clifty Falls State Park in Indiana. (click here for related post)

Between the community room and the dining room we caught up with the “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” celebrity in this bigger-than-life woodcarving of Smokey the Bear.

It is hard to know what Aaron knows and doesn’t know, but he went to check out Smokey and it reminded me of one of the most amazing moments in Aaron’s and all of our lives.

Escalante, Utah

Around 1991 Aaron was about 16 years old and Tommy 14. We were driving from Escalante National Monument on one of our famous/infamous summer vacations. Check out America the Beautiful for another of our trips (click here).

We had just fixed breakfast on our trusty Coleman stove, packed up the camper and were traveling on All American Hwy 12 to meet my sister in Moab, Utah. It was ferocious hot.

This area is so remote, it could have its picture next to the word in the dictionary. Think canyons, dust, dirt, and sky. We stopped at the traffic light in this one red-light town of Escalante.

Suddenly, a police car pulls up in front of us and blocks our car. Then, as only can happen in a small town, a full blown parade starts up the street. We thought it was hysterical but figured the kids would enjoy it, so we got out of our car and joined others who were gathering on the sidewalk.

Aaron uses cards to calm himself

The parade certainly wasn’t because we rolled into town, but whatever the occasion the hometown parade had the Boy Scouts, a hay wagon full of kids, fire trucks, the High School Marching Band …. There was even a vehicle from the nearby National Park.

We were watching all the excitement when, low and behold, a six foot Smokey the Bear mascot surprised us. Smokey shakes Tommy’s hand, turns and reaches for Aaron’s hand.

“Who are you?”

In a voice as clear as the mountain sky, Aaron says, “Who are you?”

Now, we all know Smokey is also non-verbal. But he laughed, gave Aaron a hug and moved on to the other kids.

Tom, Tommy and I were gobsmacked that Aaron had talked. “Who are you?” clear as a bell, I’m talking Big Ben kind of ring.

Now, unless you understand how amazing it was for Aaron to say this sentence, you wouldn’t know why–25 years later–this is still a transformational moment and one of the most significant memories of my life.

Remember, the psychologists tested Aaron and pronounced he had an IQ of about minus 15 and a vocabulary of “ball, bus, shoe” and mostly echolalic phrases like: “You Okay?” “Ready, set, go” over and over and over and over. Plus, according to the definition of autism, Aaron is not supposed to be able to pretend, to see things from another’s point of view….

So for Aaron to spontaneously ask, “Who are you?” means he was smarter than we ever guessed.

1. Aaron’s certainly seen characters in costume at King’s Island park, Halloween…. He knew someone was inside this big furry costume.

2. Aaron’s surprise and curiosity somehow bypassed his usual communication block or aphasia or whatever stops him.

3. A Question is a higher form of intelligence and verbal communication.

4. Since his pronunciation and delivery was perfect, his problems are NOT that he couldn’t produce the sounds or words. So for all those years of speech therapy we were on the wrong track to get him to practice saying, “ssss” and “rrrrrr”.

So, with no prompts, no year of therapy identifying a “Smokey Bear picture” and practicing his “wwww” sounds to then build those smallest phonemes into the word “who”… Aaron just looks at Smokey and asks, “Who are you?”

I’m not sure I can explain how this affected how we looked at Aaron’s intelligence and communication skills. I’m not sure I can even explain the impact of the experience. But it does keep me awake nights with other questions like,

What other mysteries can Aaron tell us about who he is and this thing named autism?

Why could Aaron never again say those words? Never.

In Aaron’s whole life, we’ve only had a similar experience one other time. For the curious, it was when a police officer pulled me over for speeding and Aaron looked at the officer and said, “Uh, oh”.

Still cracks me up and took the sting out of the ticket… but that’s another story.


Aaron carries playing cards around with him. He licks them (like in picture), shuffles them, counts them… They are another way he can calm himself. I debated using this picture. I want you to like Aaron and it is risky to show him doing something others would perceive as bizarre. Licking cards is not normal. But, it is a step up from biting his hand and one of my goals of this blog is to tell it like it is, so here’s his picture. I was looking at this picture when the old kindergarten teacher in me thought this would make a great joke.

I imagine Aaron asking, “What is Smokey the Bear’s favorite card game? (answer in the comments)

Tricky eh, I want you to go to the comments and tell us one of your stories about Smokey the Bear? A joke? What experiences have you had with spontaneous communication, vacations?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward.

All the Best,


Check out my challenge partner Alison Golden of The Secret Life of a Warrior Woman: (click here)

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29 Responses to “Smokey the Bear, Aaron, and a joke”

  • I really loved reading this uplifting story. I can only imagine your excitement when he said those words. It is really awesome to be able to read these kinds of stories from a parents perspective. Thank you for sharing this awesome story!
    Julie Farrell recently posted..Autism Awareness Day| Direct Action is Better

    • Mary says:

      I’m sure all moms have favorite stories, but this was a real highlight. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm Julie.

  • Rachel Bailey says:

    This is such a wonderful story! I love reading about Aaron and I can’t even imagine how amazing it must have been for you to hear him say those words. It is also interesting how three words can make such a difference and make you look at Aaron’s intelligence in a whole different way.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      It is amazing. Aaron surprises us all the time. Yesterday we were at the Drs. and Aaron didn’t want his flu shot. We had taken off his shirt and put it on the counter. Aaron bit his hand and then pointed straight at his shirt and said, “Yes.” We all knew exactly what he wanted. We quickly finished the shot and gave him his shirt. He was telling us in his own way. Every time something like that happens we just get choked up with emotion. Thanks for the encouragement Rachel.

  • Kailey Longpre says:

    I remember you briefly talking about this story in class, but reading your blog and feeling your excitement was even better! I can’t imagine how wonderful it was for you and your family to hear those words clear as day. I’m sure that will be an experience you will never forget. I hope Aaron has many more breakthroughs to come!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks Kailey, we think Aaron will have more breakthroughs too. In the meantime we celebrate every little success.

  • It is great that you “tell it like it is!” These blogs are your way of getting your information out about your wonderful son and letting us know about his great experiences. I can’t even imagine how amazing it was for your to hear Aaron say, “Who are you?” That had to be a life changing experience. These blogs are truly inspiring and they are always full of hope!
    Taylor Willoughby recently posted..Kill the Turkeys! Life lessons for people with disabilities.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Taylor. I hope the stories help give a face to the information. Appreciate your kind words–more than you’ll ever know.

  • Jessica Rosselot says:

    I don’ have any stories with “Smokey the Bear” but I can only imagine how amazing it was to hear Aaron say “Who are you?” after what the psychologists has said for years. This story is very inspirational to me. Everything truly does happen for a reason. In this case, your family had no idea that this parade was going on and would have never known if it weren’t for the police stopping traffic. Normally, that can mean a bad day. That is amazing to me.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Jessica,
      All these years later and this story still makes me smile. My husband is looking over my shoulder and says it was in Escalante, Utah which Pres. Clinton made Capital Reef National Park. Maybe some day you will get there and since there is probably only one stop light, you will know exactly where this happened. 🙂

  • Pamela Pinney says:

    spontaneous communication- my 1st 2 yrs. teaching as a new SPED teacher and later in life than the average. Anyways I had this adorable little 1st grader girl with Autism (non-verbal) She was good at patterns & blocks & would line them up, ect, and about twice (in 2 yrs) we heard her counting them out loud perfectly!! Another time she was following along with a book read aloud to her and she repeated aloud a sentence in the book. We all felt she was smart but the difficulty was documenting it. She was able “at times to randomly demonstrated the ability to complete/do_____(task), but never with any consistency to state that she has mastered it”
    Sometimes I think she must of thought we were the dumbies, because, perhaps, in her mind, she must of been thinking ” Hey I did it once correctly, why do I need to keep doing it?”

    • Mary says:

      Thanks for your story Pamela. I think we all wonder who is teaching whom. The neat thing is you recognized the remarkable abilities of this little girl and you keep looking for ways to reach inside her world and document her knowledge for others who only see the numbers and test results. I have no advice but to say, “Keep trying” and to give you hugs for your caring efforts.
      Mary recently posted..Gifts|Grandma Gets a Thong

  • Someone referred your post in a forum to check out regarding more information about this subject. Just want to say, your article is very informative indeed. I will definitely recommend it to others. Take care

  • Good stuff. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  • Cory Klaiber says:

    Astounding webpage! Simply put i appreciated analyzing your entire content.

  • Gary Jordon says:

    Thanks for the compliment Mary. One of these days I’ll record a some video and put it somewhere. Come to think of it I already have one video of me playing my Cedar flute on my facebook profile

  • Gary Jordon says:

    Yep Mary I was pretty content when they told about it. It is always nice to have ones art bring joy to others. That is one of the reason I miss Santa Cruz as a street musician I often got to see the results of my music. That’s great feedback and the many children and adults I whose day I brightened often gave me a good feeling that no amount of money made can.

  • Gary Jordon says:

    No Mary I didn’t get to meet the child. I have no idea if it was a boy or girl. I also have no idea if this person ever verbalized again.

  • Gary Jordon says:

    Hi Mary once again you have brought a great story. I have several thing to note.

    1. It look more like he is biting the cards. All the same better than his hand. I have seen that method done and the damage that can do.

    2. Stomp the blind man day I guess. I can’t think of a communication story I actually saw. But I do have a consolation prize though. When I was in a special adult program at the Foundation for the Junior Blind about 14 years ago for the state Rehab requirement to keep SSI. We had a talent show. I played a soprano recorder doing some Irish tunes composed by the great Turlough O’Carolan. I was later told that one the children in their special ed program briefly verbalized during that performance. Make you wonder about the music of the ancients.

    That’s the best I can do Mary.

    Have a great day.

    • Mary says:

      Gary I love the story about the child verbalizing during your performance. Did you get to meet her and talk to her? Did she ever talk again?
      Mary recently posted..Smokey the Bear- Aaron- and a joke

    • Michelle Sander says:

      That’s really incredible! I’m in an a cappella group, and I definitely appreciate music and the affect it can have on people. Not only do I enjoy producing music for my own benefit, as a stress-reliever, creative avenue, and method of expression, but I like to know that the music I produce makes a impact on other people as well. I think it’s a wonderful gift that a child verbalized during your performance. I wonder, are there any/many therapies that involve music for individuals (specifically) with autism?

      • Mary E. Ulrich says:

        HI Michelle. You are right, there is power in music. That is why one of Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” is music/rhythm. Music Therapy is a major at some universities. Aaron had an opportunity to work with a music therapist a couple times. They had him stroke a guitar, play some organ music and drums. He really enjoyed it. He loves the rhythm. Thanks for your comment and I hope you can use music in your future work with children and adults.

  • I enjoyed reading this story, too, Mary. One of my goals is to tell it like it is. I want people to know what it’s really like, whatever ‘it’ is. Not just the sanitized or sweetened version that a lot of people expect. I appreciate the honesty and the love and authenticity behind your stories. Keep on telling them. 🙂
    Alison Golden recently posted..When Harry Potter Met Warrior Woman…

  • Becke Davis says:

    Mary, your darn blog always moves me to tears. You are a wonderful mother, giving voice to Aaron when he can’t speak for himself. I loved reading about his close encounter with Smokey. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Becke, thanks you are a good friend and listener. I never know if my stories are of interest to anyone but myself–you know mothers talking about their kids can be pretty boring. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  • “Go Fish!” hehehe
    Mary E. Ulrich recently posted..Smokey the Bear- Aaron- and a joke

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