Answering Questions For My Non-Verbal Son

People want to know a lot about our kids. As soon as they arrive, everyone checks in for updates on how they feel about things. You get deep questions about how they like their cribs and which toys are their favorites. Babies don’t talk. Everyone knows that. So you do what most new parents do. You make stuff up.

She loves her new crib. Right, (baby name)? She does. Yes, she does.

It’s a social time-killer that we all have gotten used to. We playact those moments of baby-questioning. You offer guesses as responses and know, deep down, that you really can’t answer for your baby. You’re just going on instinct. It’s all in good fun.

As many babies grow, though, they develop language. Soon, these former infants can answer on their own or, in the least, sheepishly whisper their answer to you. So when someone asks if little Jimmy enjoys gymnastics class, you can say, “No. Jimmy says the teacher spits at them.” Solid answer, based on facts and knowledge. Everyone walks away happy. Well, everyone except the kids who got spit at. What the heck type of gym class is this anyway?

For the parent to a non-verbal child, these social pleasantries can take on a different feel. They may be social, but they aren’t pleasant. They can feel non-stop and torturous. Behind closed doors, you’re wondering when your child will speak. You’re watching, somewhat helplessly, as milestones are left behind and your thoughts of “he’ll be talking by summer” fall like the leaves in autumn. You keep a strong outward face as you internally face frustration and worry. Why isn’t he speaking? Will he ever speak? Is this definitely Autism? Will he grow out of it? What have I done wrong?

Those are some tough questions. Of course, friends, relatives, and acquaintances have pressing questions of their own.

What does he want for his birthday?

Does he like Santa?

How does he like school?

These are all remnants of those time killers that have carried over since babyhood. It’s all harmless attempts to make conversation and, since your child is so special to you, an gesture from others to show you that they care. It’s from a place of kindness. It’s also enough to send a nail-biting mom or dad over the edge. You want to scream.

I don’t know what he wants! I don’t know if he knows what Santa is! I don’t know what he thinks of school! He can’t tell me! For all I know, they could take him in the morning, bring him to eight hours of sweat shop labor, and send him home without me ever knowing the difference! Are you happy!? Is that what you want to hear?!

It’s not. They want to hear what you eventually say with that blank expression on your face.

He seems happy to go in the morning.

Sometimes that’s all you have to go by and, to me then, it didn’t seem like enough. You make educated guesses based on your child’s attitude. Any definites seem out the window.

questionYou don’t want to just make stuff up either. I always hated that, but like most parents, I’ve done it a few times. Someone would ask about my young son’s schooling and I’d try to project my own hopes into his outlook.

He loves it!

Truth is, I didn’t know if he loved it. In fact, I hate myself for making up an answer. That’s a big responsibility and unfair to Lucas. He has his own thoughts and I shouldn’t be putting words in his mouth, even if he doesn’t have any to offer on his own. They’re not my answers to give. They’re his. Assuming that role, even if it’s the right thing to do in that moment, can still make me feel uneasy.

Don’t get me wrong. Screaming “I don’t know” into Uncle Bob’s face when he asks if your kid likes football isn’t the best way to foster family. Sometimes you just have to shrug and say “sure”. The difference, though, is that he’s gotten older, I’ve stopped doing so much guessing.

That’s not because he started speaking. He didn’t. He doesn’t verbalize his thoughts and his communication iPad, while great for requesting items and stating some needs, isn’t something that expresses his deeper internal dialogue just yet. No. Lucas doesn’t tell me whether he does or doesn’t like school with words, phrases, or pictures. In fact, I still offer the same answer now that I did then.

He seems happy to go in the morning.

I know whether or not Lucas likes school based on his actions. It’s the same thing I’ve always done. When the bus comes in the morning and he goes running out to get on with a spring in his step, then I know he likes school. When he comes home giggling and happy, I know he had a good day. I’ve been with him his whole life and, because of that, I’ve learned to read his mannerisms. I know my son because he’s my son. It’s not guessing. It’s parenthood.

Just like his sister, who has more words than a library, I can tell his feelings just by observing him. The irony is that I’ve always done this. It’s just that now, I’ve developed the confidence in our relationship to speak firmly on it. If my son is happy at a particular restaurant and someone asks me if he likes that restaurant, I can confidently say “yes”. It’s not guessing. It’s not made-up baby stuff. It’s real. It’s me, as his dad, knowing what makes my son happy. Neither of my children need to say a word in order for me to know they’re having a good or bad day. There have been some times when I’m wrong, but most times I’m right. That’s part of being a parent.

Today, my boy and I have a relationship that I once thought would be impossible without verbal communication. We work to understand each other better every single day and we’ve come a long way. He didn’t need to develop language in order to do that. With time and like most parents, I eventually developed the confidence to know that I could really read his emotions. Because of that, Lucas is happier than ever.

How do I know that? I’m his dad. I just know.