Teaching Him “Hello”

There was a time when Lucas didn’t greet anyone. No waves. No nods. No acknowledgment at all. Folks walked in. Folks walked out. He didn’t give them a second look.

That didn’t stop every single person he came across from wanting a greeting. Friends, acquaintances, and waiters at Chili’s all eagerly anticipated an answer to their oh-so-important, “Hi, buddy.” None of them got one.

Even worse were those who put their hands up for high fives. Everyone wanted to slap my kid’s palm and, as they soon learned, he wasn’t down with that. Sometimes they’d realize right away and turn their rejected slap into a pat on his shoulder to alleviate the awkward tension. Those were the good ones. Other folks would freeze their hands in mid-air and then turn to look at me with a confused stare. I’d shrug and say something like:

He’s not really a high five guy.

I always felt guilty when I’d receive that look. It was as if I did something wrong by not teaching him the ancient art of high fives. This was part of that big mental beat down I had been giving myself as Lucas began to fall short of expected milestones. I still understood next to nothing about Autism and even less about what it would be like to have a non-verbal child.

wave2All I knew was that he had to start being a part of the group. He might not care about that stuff, but I did. I wanted guests to say hello to him and I wanted him to try to acknowledge them back. My fear was that after being ignored for so long, people would eventually stop saying hello to him. I hated the thought of my little guy being ignored and wouldn’t allow it to happen. He might not understand the importance of “hello” now and, as I thought at the time, he might never understand it. But that was beside the point. The point was that he’s my son and I don’t want him to ever be overlooked – even if it’s something as casual as a greeting.

So we started a crash course on waving. Rather than swing my hand back and forth, I scrunched it open and closed to make the movement easier. I showed him with my hand and I did it with his. That was it. The introduction to waving was over and now it was time to jump into the Hello world.

Lucas had little interest at first. Sometimes he wouldn’t even look up from his iPad as I opened and closed his hand for guests while shouting “Goodbye” from the living room floor. It wasn’t a fun thing to do and, again as a new Autism parent, I wondered if this was all just a big show for myself. That nasty little voice inside my brain would nag me about it.

This is just playacting. He doesn’t get it. People think you look silly doing this. You do look silly doing this.

We all have a mean voice like that. Sometimes you listen. Sometimes you don’t. When it comes to my kids, I don’t. Besides, even if it was just for me, so what? It was making people say goodbye to Lucas, even if it was just to appease this cringe-tastic Dad on the floor. That was the goal, right? Getting greeted? Right. So I pushed forward.

I began making Lucas wave to everything. We said goodbye to his toys and to his books. We waved goodnight to the cats. We waved when people came over. We waved when they left. Before long, he was waving like a pro.

It more than worked. In fact, today he waves…a lot. Most non-candid pictures have my son’s hand outstretched in front of him as his automatic response. His sister is constantly tapped on the shoulder and greeted with a scrunched up palm. She says hi back…and then he does it again a minute later. Sometimes he’ll breathe out a prolonged H sound for “hi” which always makes me smile.

The most important part of it all? You need to wave back. He will stare you down until you do. Most people would find it maddening.

I, however, find it to be one of my favorite things in the world.

Every time he greets someone with a big smile on his face, I silently cheer. The whole family does. Giving hellos has just become a big part of who Lucas is today and he loves it. Any worries that he might never appreciate the importance of greetings are erased by moments like the one that happened last weekend.

My wife and daughter had gone away for a Girl Scout trip. In their absence, I planned some things that Lucas and I could do together. One of the stops – Tanger’s Outlet stores.

waveI didn’t take him there to shop, though. I took him there because he loves to walk on his own without someone holding his hand. We arrived just as the gates opened so he was free to stroll independently without a big crowd around. Swinging his arms from side to side, my little man walked with a sense of pride that you could read in his face.

Just as we passed the movie theater, he took a slight turn and began veering towards the sitting area. I couldn’t tell where he was going but I followed closely as he targeted a bench with some big dude, maybe in his early 20s, talking to his friend. I assumed Lucas was going to take a seat.

I assumed wrong.

Instead, my son walked straight up to this guy, tapped him twice in the chest, leaned in close, and waved in his face, complete with the hard “H” hello sound. Then he turned his cute little round face up and looked at me with a giant smile as if to say, “You see that? I just said hi to this guy.”

I was speechless and so was the bench man. He glanced up at me with a confused look similar to those frozen high fivers in the early days. Then he looked back at Lucas, who was still about three inches from his face and waiting.

Uh. Hi.

I laughed and nodded a “hey there” of my own, acting as though everything that just happened was completely normal. As Lucas and I trotted off, we left a pretty confused man there to ponder what exactly had just happened.

Just as we were out of earshot, I leaned down to my strutting son and told him what we’re all thinking.

Hey. That was pretty adorable, buddy. Good job on that hello.

Maybe he thought this random man looked like someone we knew. Maybe not. I’m not really sure. The one thing I am sure of? My son, who I worried would be overlooked by the world, is now spreading some happiness into it. I’m glad each day that I didn’t listen to that voice and that we continued on. Sure, there will be lessons that might not stick, but this one did and there will be others as well. They’ll stick because, as he I saw here, he’s always willing to try. And if he is, then I am too.