I spend a lot of time trying to tell people about the similarities between raising a non-verbal child and one that uses words. My boy, Lucas, doesn’t speak but he expresses himself in so many ways that, since it’s our norm, feel completely “normal” in the traditional sense. I don’t mean normal like “our special normal” or “close to normal”. I mean normal in the same way you would mean it for a kid who never stops yapping.
There are, however, some things that make having a non-verbal child more difficult. I won’t pretend like there aren’t. For all the positives like his naturally loving demeanor and his inability to deceive me, there are some tougher aspects of interacting with him. The fact that he can’t tell me about pain springs to mind. There’s his inability, at times, to comprehend things like danger. We have conflict over getting him to understand that the iPad needs to charge or dinner needs to cook. Then there’s the worry about life’s challenges and sending my pure soul of a boy into a world filled with dipsticks as he grows up on the list too. One, however, that some people don’t think about – presents.
That’s right. Gifts. They’re the little wrapped boxes of disappointment that I have to force him to open and watch in agony as he dashes away from throughout the year. They’re toys I was positive he would like when I found them that he couldn’t care less about when he saw them. All of it was presented on a backdrop of Christmases, birthdays, and celebrations where I felt like an utter failure as he stood over the toy straight off the “Autism Friendly” section of Amazon and used a hand motion to ask for his iPad so he could play/rewind the same 15 seconds of Elmo singing with the Goo Goo Dolls on Youtube again.
I’d have teachers tell me about things he loved at school. Sound puzzles were a major one. They couldn’t wait to show me all the puzzles he ran towards during his school day. The horse would go neigh and the pig would go oink as he pushed the pieces into their wooden holes. He loves it! They swore to me.
So I go home. Give him one. Have him stare at me blankly.
Sound board, buddy. Like school. You love them.
With a deadpan expression that would make Jack Benny proud, he’d look up at me with that round little face and double tap it with his hand. It’s his way of saying, “Yeah. Sound puzzle. Great. Thanks. I’ll ignore this.”
I’ve donated unused toys to his school before. There once was a big loopty-loop car drop toy that took up a huge chunk of his room. Plastic and dusty, the goal was to drop little vehicles from the top and watch as they swirled around the track like those pennies in the charity bowls. I saw it slowly morph from expensive toy to useless furniture in his bedroom. So, it went in the donation pile.
Less than a year later, at parent teach conference…
You know what Lucas loves? We have this car toy where he drops the cars and they swirl around the track. It’s his favorite. We keep it there in the corner. You should definitely put that on his Wish List for the holidays.
She pointed. I looked.
We donated that to you!
A part or me wanted to run over, grab it, and dive out the window. Another part of me knew that the second I got it home, Jack Benny would double tap it and look at me like I was wasting his time.
Here’s the thing about my son’s changing tastes, though. Just because he hates something today doesn’t mean he will hate it tomorrow. I know this and I have experienced it, but I forget it. Every once in a while, something will happen to remind me of it.
The other day, he was having a pre-bed fit. The iPad was dying. TV was boring. My little pizza monster just wanted to eat. Fed up, I took him by his hand into his room and laid down the Daddy law. I do that once in a while. Suckas gotta know.
We’re reading a book. No more whining, Lucas. You ate enough. It’s reading time. We need to read stories. It’s been too long.
I went through his toy basket, the same one he uses to find projectiles to toss from his room as my morning alarm, and found a sound book. I remember buying it years ago. The story has pictures of instruments and you press the button to hear them play as you read the tale of the orchestra. He has never – ever – expressed interest in it. Not once.
Until that night.
We spent 20 minutes engrossed in this book he had ignored for years. He focused on how to push the buttons and, when he pressed certain ones, he reacted in certain ways. He clapped for the violin. He stared off in the distance for the clarinet. When he pushed the oboe, he’d lean in and imitate it with a rhythmic “oh-ohhh-ohhh.” It was one of the best bedtimes we had in months.
With that, I set out to buy him more sound books and, with the holidays fast approaching, I have more to pick up. Will he love them? Hopefully. Is it possible he won’t? Definitely. But what he doesn’t love today, he might love tomorrow. He can’t tell me and doesn’t even realize it most times. As his dad, it’s my job to keep checking. Tomorrow’s another day and he has a whole toybox of things he could rediscover at any moment.
(JG Note: For those who don’t know, I am the new Breaking News Analyst and a writer at BabyGaga.com, a site dedicated to pregnancy and new parents. From research studies to Chrissy Teigan, I’ve been covering it all. Please check it out and bookmark my author’s page at this link to see everything that I have been working on.)