When Acorns Become Ninja Turtles: One Mom's True Story

It started with Lego’s. It seemed innocent enough. In fact, Nate started it. Two green square Duplo blocks stacked and topped with a red square. Three more similar stacks, each topped with an orange, a purple, and a blue Duplo. 


Ta-da! Four Lego Ninja Turtles! Let the fun begin!


Sam constructed the same four mini-towers and it kept them both busy for hours! Or at least twenty minutes. Sam even slept with his Lego’s for a few nights. And brought them to the dinner table with him. And toted them to the car with him when we ran errands.


Slowly an obsession was forming. And when the excitement of the Lego’s began to wear off, new objects replaced them. Soon everything was sorted into groups of four. Bouncy balls, puzzle pieces, matchbox cars, leaves falling from the trees, even pieces of clean laundry tumbling out of the dryer as I rushed to fold them….EVERYTHING. And Sam considered it an extra-special bonus if the four items happened to be colored red, orange, purple, and blue—the colors that represent Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo, respectively.


And if you didn’t already know that fact, then you obviously don’t live with Sam.


Last week, while he was sitting on the toilet refusing to poop, I offered him a bribe. How about some Skittles after you poop?”


“Skittles?” he repeated.


“Yeah, why not? It’s almost 9:45AM.”


“I have four? Red Skittle? And orange and purple and blue?”


“Yes, you can have four Skittles. But there’s no blue.”


“No blue? No Leo?”


“No, no Leo. You can have a yellow or a green instead. Or maybe two reds?”


“Two reds?” he was incredulous, like I was the crazy one. “No.”


And he never did poop that morning.


“Sam! Are you finished your lunch?” I called to him one afternoon, as I heard him slide off his chair and bounce into the other room to play.


As I went to clear his place, the symmetry of his plate made me pause with concern. He had eaten everything, except for some very intentionally arranged leftovers: four almonds, four chips, and four baby carrots.


I snapped a picture to document the insanity, rolled my eyes, and tossed his lunch remnants into the trash.


But a few minutes later I heard the anguish, “NO! Mikey, Donnie, Raph, Leo! You no throw them away!”


 I might as well have killed his actual friends. It reminded me of the suicide scene from Dead Poet’s Society.


At dinner, while Nate is busy requesting extra butter and ketchup to spoon into his mouth, Sam is requesting an extra apple slice—so that he has four.  When I slide it onto his plate, he immediately positions them so that they’re facing the same direction and lightly touches each one, announcing, “Leo, Raph, Mikey, Donnie!”


It’s starting to be a bit much—even for Nate. “They’re just apples, Sam! They’re not Ninja Turtles!” he screams across the table, standing on his chair, fists clenched. It’s like having Thanksgiving dinner with a Hillary voter and a Trump voter—both your relatives, both crazy, and both fired up.


As we walk the block and a half to school each morning, Sam often pauses to squat down and arrange four rocks or four acorns in a line, baptizing each one a Ninja Turtle. The walk—which takes me four minutes when I’m by myself—can take fifteen minutes.


Earlier this week, I let him have some peanut M&M’s from his trick-or-treat bag. He immediately dumped them onto the table and began to list them, “Blue is Leo, red is Raph, orange is Mikey…”

He trailed off realizing there was no purple. Thanks a lot, Mars Candy. But he quickly problem-solved and regrouped.


“Green is Donnie. Hmm…”


There were more than four. What will he do?


“Brown is Splinter! Yellow is April!” Good thing he’s quick on his feet.


Yesterday, I had Sam with me at Home Goods. First, he arranged the scented candles into groups of four. Some thoughtful employee had already organized them by color, so Sam had to do some light lifting and transporting. He carried an orange candle from the orange section—mostly pumpkin spice and fall harvest—down to the red section—cinnamon, apple cider, holiday fair. He added a blue from the other end of the aisle and surprisingly, was able to dig out a purple candle from the back of the shelf.


As we perused Christmas decorations, he was drawn to an Advent calendar, opening and closing the small, numbered doors in groups of four, mumbling the Turtle’s names to himself.


I watched and tried to drown out my worried inner monologue with the One Direction that played over the store’s speakers. Is he high-functioning autistic? No, maybe he’s just a math genius. He just likes order. I gotta talk to the pediatrician.


As we left the store, he hopped over to the threshold where he knelt down, still clutching my hand. Four blue floor tiles made a larger square amidst the off-white ones.


“Leo, Raph, Donnie, Mikey!” He pointed emphatically to each one.


“Let’s go Sam.” We were blocking the foot traffic in and out of the store.


One recent evening, I sat on the sofa as Tighe came down from reading Nate and Sam bedtime stories.


“That took longer than usual,” I observed.


“Yeah,” he replied. He was speechless—a rarity for Tighe.


“What happened? Are you okay?”


I waited while he searched for words.


“They just—Sam…he labeled the dialogue bubbles as Ninja Turtles. On every page!”


“He’s a strange guy.”


Fearful, he rested his head on my shoulder, fighting back tears.


“It’ll be okay,” I said, patting his hair. “It’s just a phase. We’ll get through this. Let’s watch something funny.”