So much of the work I do with my non-verbal son centers around understanding. There are a lot of words to learn and many different ways to communicate them. From matching pictures of animals to identifying parts of the body, the lessons he does deal mostly with verification. What does he know? What doesn’t he know?
Nine times out of ten, we’re pleasantly surprised. Lucas, at nine years old, has picked up far more than we ever realized. It may take the promise of iPad time to create the motivation that gets him to complete his teacher-assigned Boom flashcards. But when he does, he breezes through them like a whiz. Pretzel, backpack, cat – he knocks them out like Glass Joe…but only when there’s apps waiting for him to play with afterwards. Regardless, he knows them, shows them, and we couldn’t be happier.
Identifying pictures and showing he can identify what they are is great. It’s one of the most obvious obstacles a non-verbal child has to overcome. Matching and identifying common objects is probably where the minds of most family and friends go when they picture the biggest struggle must be that we face with his education.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big part of it and it’s tough, but it’s far from the biggest. The biggest one is far more dire.
Let me give you an example of the larger struggle. Lucas, who is not only completely aware of what pizza is and how much he loves it, knows how to find us and ask for it with his device. “I. Want. Pizza.” It’s something we never imagined years ago and a major step in the right direction when it comes to communicating his wants. We couldn’t be prouder.
So, because he asked so nicely (we even tell him, “You asked so nicely”) we take out the frozen pizza, place it on a baking sheet, and slide it in the oven. We crank the oven up to a smoldering 400 degrees and wait for his dinner to be ready.
Don’t worry. We’re getting to the struggle. You see, there was a time when Lucas would become instantly upset over the lack of immediate pizza. It was something we dealt with for years and sometimes do today. He had a hard time grasping the concept of cooking time. So, requesting chicken nuggets, even if they took one minute, was one minute too long. As time went on, though, he learned to accept that patience is a virtue. It was frustrating for him and for us, but even that lack of understanding wasn’t the biggest struggle.
No. The greatest struggle right now is all about safety. It’s when, after ten minutes, he will casually approach the oven and go to open it up to see how his upcoming pizza is doing. That’s the biggest struggle and it scares the hell out of us.
Keep in mind, he’s a pint-sized person who could tumble into our stove like Hansel. Because of him, we all hover around it until the cooking time is done. The moment he starts to tip toe in, glancing over like a supervisor at Applebees, we immediately rush over and tell him it’s almost ready. If satisfied, he might give a clap and walk away. If not, he might try to see for himself. When his hand reaches out for the door, we lunge to stop him.
And he cries.
And then we tell him, “We’re saving your life, kid! Jeez!”
Safety. That’s the biggest issue we face. If he were to open that oven door and roast his hand, then he would know it’s too hot to touch. The trick is getting him to learn that without the third degree burns. Therein the problem lies.
When I used to talk about his aversion to haircuts, people thought the major issue was keeping him still. It wasn’t. Sure, it was part of the puzzle and tough to make it straight, but if it was just about him bobbing and weaving like Mohammad Ali, that would be fine. It was how he would use his bare hands to grab the buzzer or scissors by the sharp ends with no care for losing his fingers. It was how he was scared to death to have his hair cut, but had no fear of cutting his hand off. I stood in awe of this every time. I wanted to pull my own hair out by the time we were done.
I used to tell people that my son almost died a hundred times each day. Between eating things he shouldn’t and standing on our beds to touch the ceiling fan and walking up the stairs sideways with his eyes closed, Lucas has no fear. Do you know why?
Because he gives it all to me.
Yeah. As his dad, I’ve winced in worry through the years when he would dash away down the block, pull his TV off the nightstand, or try to submerge his face in the bathtub. Him? He’s cool. He likes it. In fact, he hardly ever gets hurt. I don’t know how he does it, but he does…for now.
Tomorrow, though, could be a different story. I’m aware of that every day. So, I do what I can to teach him. It may be a big hurdle, but we’ve jumped over higher ones. I need to teach him because I’m a dad. That’s my job. He needs to make me tremble with fear because, well, he’s a kid and that’s his.