Why I Say “Bless You” When My Non-Verbal Son Sneezes

I remember that I was in the kitchen when I heard Lucas sneeze from the living room. Instinctively, I yelled out, “God bless you!”

A response came from my daughter, who was seven at the time and sitting at her desk just outside the kitchen door. She didn’t look up but simply spoke matter-of-factly.

 That wasn’t me. That was Lucas.

Confused, I looked at her. I genuinely didn’t understand why she told me that. Did she think she had a monopoly on house blessings?

“I know it was Lucas.”

Then why did you say God Bless You? He doesn’t know “God Bless You”.

jaimee-phone-1-5-17-3650I paused for a moment to process the question. It wasn’t said in a way to be dismissive of his disabilities or present him as less of a person. It was asked in the way that a then-seven year old asks in order to better navigate the world ahead. She genuinely wanted to know why I would be offering a social nicety to a boy who doesn’t outwardly understand it.

Lucas may be able to recognize some words and directions but, as a non-verbal five year old, the concept of “bless you” isn’t one of them. Hell, as a verbal adult, I don’t fully understand it. I think it’s something about people in olden times being afraid that sneezes meant your soul was escaping your body. It sound ridiculous when you really analyze it but it’s something we all just do.

Despite never thinking about my reasons for blessing my son’s sneezes before, I was able to offer her an automatic explanation that made sense. In fact, it all came as news to me since I had never given it much thought. As it came out of my mouth, I listened like someone else was explaining it.

“I say it because you never know when he does understand it, especially since he doesn’t talk. It’s like when you were a baby. I’d say “good morning” to you every day when you woke up, even when you were just a day old. As you got older, there was one morning where you went from having no idea what I was saying to understanding what “good morning” meant. I didn’t know when that day was. I still don’t. But I know it happened because you understand it today and I knew you would eventually. So I said it all the time to be sure.”

I could see the wheels turning beneath her giant curly hair. The look on her face told me that she was processing a totally new concept.

lucasblanket“We do the same with Lucas. Lucas understands some things, right? There was a time when we had to scoop him up to bed. Now we tell him it’s time to sleep and he comes right up. He started understanding that one day, but we don’t know when. He couldn’t tell us. He didn’t get it for a long time and then he just did. It’s the same thing with “God bless you”. I’d hate to think that one day he understands that people say that after someone sneezes, but no one says it when he does. That would be sad for him. You know?”

Olivia nodded and I could tell that my words affected her. To be honest, they affected me. As the parent of a child with autism, I’m constantly doing things that might seem strange to an outside observer. I don’t always get angry with Lucas when he can’t handle something. Other times, I’ll hold him to a standard that people think he’s incapable of because I know he’s not. Then there are little things as simple as acknowledging a sneeze, even though it may appear that I’m simply saying “bless you” into empty air.

But I’m not. I know that inside of him is the capacity to understand everything I say. He might not understand it right now. He might not understand it tomorrow. If I do it enough, though, and say it enough, one day, he will – even if he’s not able to show it. I know that this is true.  Since that day, his sister has known it too.

Now, she says “God Bless You” when he sneezes also. It may never happen, but the day that he finally says back “thank you”, we’ll be ready.