When I learned that my non-verbal son might not have traditional communication skills, my mind naturally went to the places you might expect. I worried that he would never be able to articulate his wants and needs. I imagined a future where he would be left hoping that others might figure the world out for him.
I wish I could go back in time and show myself a video of Lucas today, circling the kitchen like a predator in the jungle, opening and closing cabinets on the hunt for his next piece of sustenance. I wish I could watch as he asked, through motions, gestures, and devices for whatever food he wanted next. I wish I could see myself, fully aware of what this nine-year-old boy most desires, looking at him with an expression of frustration, and exhaustedly shouting:
Lucas. No more. You’re all done eating!
For the most part, I know his wants. The main one? Food. My boy is hungry. Like many kids his age, eating is his favorite pastime. When the mood strikes, he comes calling and the mood is always striking. It doesn’t matter the time.
There have been nights where I’ve heard him wake up at two in the morning, break free from his room, and dart down to the pantry to fetch a box of crackers. If it’s unopened, we’ll find it laying on the floor the next morning. There have been many sealed containers of cookies, cereal, and Ritz Bitz waiting to be discovered laying along the path between his room and the fridge like a scene from Hansel and Gretel.
There have also been many empty containers too.
Meals don’t end when he’s full. Meals end when we insist that he stops. We firmly tell him “No more, Lucas. You’re all done.” He will appear to accept his fate, take his iPad and run off…and then return within minutes, tapping his chest to ask for whatever morsels remain. We sometimes only know he’s back by catching him, from the corners of our eyes, wandering through the kitchen, looking in the sink and on the stove for draining pasta or wayward leftovers. We tell him “no more” and he lets out a whine that I call his “Michael Jackson.”
It’s kind of adorable, but I stand my ground. You can’t keep letting him shove food into his face. He already eats more than anyone else in our house. I don’t know how he fits it all in, but he does. It’s like a magic trick. He lives for it.
They see it at school too. His work always seems to go better when there are snacks used as a reward. Sure, toys and devices do the trick too, but nothing gets more mileage out of a learning session than a piece of Pirate Booty or M&M. His teachers will often tell me, “He works better when we use food as a reinforcer.”
And I’ll think, “I know. That’s why he’s starting to look like a lowercase O.”
I know he will probably grow out of it. Hopefully as he gets taller and his body stretches out, his metabolism will come together. I’m already starting to see it in his stature. In the meantime, though, I search for silver linings. That silver lining is his communication. My goal might be to stifle his insatiable appetite, but while it’s here, it seems to jumpstart his attempts to express himself.
Two nights ago, we sat down for dinner and, when he had eaten enough, it still wasn’t enough, so to speak. Lucas paced the dining room on the hunt for more, even standing on his tip toes to look into my dinner bowl. I worried he would reach in and help himself, as he has done in the past. Instead, he did something that would be considered a win. He retrieved his communication device to tell me what he wanted.
Communication device or not, I wasn’t giving him Ritz Bitz. So I said, “No. Lucas. No Ritz Bitz.”
He upped the ante.
“I. Want. Ritz Bitz.”
He knew that pushing the buttons for the full sentence usually earned him his request. Still, I wasn’t having it. This kid had eaten enough for a full-grown cowboy and his horse. He was all done. So, I showed him.
No, Lucas. All done. Look.
Then, I pulled his talker towards me, scrolled the menu, and found the button corresponding to the stick man with his hands in the air. I pressed it. The robotic voice spoke the words.
To this, my boy sat at the table and rested his head in his hand. He looked like an agitated night manager of a failing hotel. The expression on his face seemed to say, “I can’t believe this freakin’ guy.” That’s when, while barely moving his body, he lowered his hand, extended his finger and pressed a button on his device that I had never heard him use before.
And that’s how Lucas got Ritz Bitz.
I get it. I can’t let him turn into a little Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and I won’t. His appetite might be over the top, but it’s the one thing that he really goes out of his way to communicate to us. In a world that I was afraid my son would never be able to express himself, these times of hunger are when expresses himself the most. They just happen to come up much more than they probably should.
So, I’ll appease him one Cheerio at a time. It’s hard to overdo it when you have to ask for each one individually. I may be overwhelmed by his appetite, but I’m also overwhelmed by my pride for his communication. This is the kid who I was afraid would never be able to express his wants and needs.
Now I know. He wants food. Does he need it? That might be a different story. But, it’s up to us to make him work for it and to make it work for him. The more it helps him communicate, the more it will.