How I Communicate With My Non-Verbal Son

I used to have dreams that Lucas could talk. Most of them were fairly routine and ended when I woke up to reality. The sun had risen, I was awake, and he was still non-verbal. That stung the first few times it happened.

I remember the last dream I had like that. Out of all the sleepytime scenarios where my son with Autism was able to speak to me, this was the only time that really stood out. When I opened my eyes, I could recall every detail.

In the dream, we were preparing for a “movie night” in the house. Friends were coming over as everyone ran around frantically getting things in order. From the living room, Lucas was shouting out, “Movie snacks. I want movie snacks.”

People were responding to him as if it was routine.

Just a minute.

We’ll get you some snacks. Don’t worry.

Stop, Lucas. We’re getting it.

Suddenly, my dream-state alter-ego had a moment of clarity. With a sense of shock, I turned to everyone and exclaimed, “Hey! He’s talking! Lucas is talking.”

Standing in stark contrast to my overexcited discovery, my wife and others in the room were nonchalant. The statement offered in response was one that I couldn’t get out of my head for days.

Oh. Yeah. Guess he has been this whole time. We just never noticed.

I struggled with that dream for days. At first, I couldn’t understand it. My immediate reaction was cynical. It was a reminder, much like many things at the time, that he wasn’t able to speak. I saw it as a kick in the head before I even got out of bed.

mebeanAs the days went by, though, I started to analyze exactly what it really was. That last line stuck with me. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a cosmic gut punch after all. Maybe it was my subconscious telling me something I already knew. Maybe it was reminding me that Lucas and I had been talking this whole time and I, in all my hope for verbalized words, had missed it.

The truth is, I was communicating with Lucas at that time and, despite the fact that he is non-verbal today, still do. We’re able to understand each other in ways that transcend spoken word. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.

While he uses an iPad at school and for certain things at home, our preferred form of communication can best be described as baseball signs. To see us together, you’d think he was on the verge of stealing third base.

Our go-to sign is “more”, which is done by bumping your fists together. Lucas will use it for TV, water, food, or anything else he wants restarted or filled. A double tap of the chest means “give me”. A raised hand means “wait just a minute”. There are many others that have evolved through the years and, when mixed with pointing and other motions, it appears we’re doing a synchronized interpretive dance.

His expressions play a major role in our interactions too. I can tell his mood by the look on his face. It’s not special. In fact, every single parent does it whether they have a kid on the spectrum or not. The only minor difference in my case is that while a verbal child can confirm their parent’s concerns, a non-verbal child can’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t still get those internal reactions to when he might need something. I do and, just like many of you, I’m right most of the time.

One thing has become clear through the years too. While my son might not be able to offer verbal speech, he’s able to understand more than many people realize. Calling him for bedtime is always met with a big laugh and a drop to the floor in protest. Telling him that he’s about to be tickled causes him to cringe in anticipation. Informing him that he needs to have a bath allows me to see the arm-waving bath-dance that we created. As we work on the areas that need improvement, it gives me piece of mind and helps me realize that everything I’m doing isn’t for naught. Sometimes, especially early on, it’s hard to tell if what you’re doing is making a difference. But it is. It all is.

It sounds like this type of communication is hard. Sure, it can be. Then again, it’s not as bad as you might think. The fist-bump “more” hand motion, for instance, is an awesome addition to our family language. It’s so awesome that my nine year old overly-verbal daughter has adopted it.

I was on the phone in the kitchen as she was eating her dinner when I learned how convenient the sign truly is. Mid-conversation, I looked down and there she was, fists extended and exaggeratedly hitting them together. I gave her a weird look, began to fill her plate, and hung up the phone.

As I brought it to the table, I asked her why she did the hand-motion rather than using her words.

Lucas does it.

Yeah, but you can just say “more”.

Did you understand what I wanted?


With that, she took a big bite of chicken and, with an unforgettable tone in her voice, replied with something that summed everything up.

So what’s the problem?

I haven’t dreamed about Lucas talking since that last one. My guess is that it’s because I realized that he always had been in his own way. You don’t need to actually speak in order to make yourself understood. My son taught me that… and he didn’t even have to say a word.