Non-Verbal, Crossed Signals

My son and I have had a lot of victories. I’m proud of them. Learning how to communicate with a non-verbal little boy isn’t easy. Hell, learning to communicate with a verbal little boy isn’t so much easier. It takes a lot of patience, familiarity, and care. That goes both ways.

When these breakthrough moments first happen, I shout them from the rooftops. I knew he liked pizza before he had a communication device to tell us himself. I know his favorite breakfasts and his favorite shows. Even without him telling me, I nailed it. 

Then, there are the times I don’t. He’ll take me by the hand to the cabinet and then, as he sometimes does, he tosses my arm into the cabinet like it was a bocce ball, implying that I should fetch him something. I have no idea what he wants.

I have no idea what you want. Show me.

To this, he again grabs my arm and chucks it into the pantry. Again, I stare at him.

No clue, buddy. Do you want cereal?

I take out the cereal and now he’s really annoyed. The look on his face always makes me feel a bit sad.

The fact is that sometimes he doesn’t have the words to tell me what he wants. His communication device might not feature it and he doesn’t have a PEC for the issue. In this case, it can be an item that I don’t even have in the house.

Maybe he’s jonesing for some gummy bears he remembers from Halloween. Another nine-year-old would whine, “Do we have any gummmy bayyyyyyersssssss? No?! Mehhhhhhh!” My boy doesn’t. He just does the whine.

I’ve had him use his PECs board, which is actually more of a collage image on my phone showcasing TV show choices. But sometimes he’ll point and ask for the same show he’s currently watching. He’s pointing intently to the Wiggles image and there, on the screen, is ol’ Whatshisname in the Big Red Car. It took a while to learn that he either wants me to turn the volume up or put on a different episode. I’m surprised I ever figured that out at all.

I could gloss over my own missteps on my part and only focus on his, if I wanted to. As a dad, I strive not to do them, but they happen. The truth is, I’ve frustrated him as much as he’s frustrated me, at times.

Lucas reminds me of children’s book folk hero Amelia Bedelia sometimes. Mr. Bossman would tell Amelia to take out the garbage and she’d return in a flowing gown from a night on the town with the bag of trash. Technically, she took it out. But come on, lady. Really?

My kid does that to me sometimes too. We’ll be on the same page for so long that it throws me for a loop. There are definite scenarios where he is the one standing confused before an open cabinet and I’m the one pitching his hand into the abyss.


Yesterday morning, it happened. We were in my still evolving basement and he saw that my candy machine was back on display. Lucas loves the candy machine and although he knows I can easily take the top off of it and grab a handful, I make him put the quarter in to get his treat. We go hand over hand to turn it, teaching him OT like a boss, and he gets a handful of candy in the tray below. It’s a delicious learning experience.

We did that. I took a quarter from the tiny container beside the machine, had him turn the handle, and a small pile of peanut butter M&Ms fell out. Score. He took a single M out, popped it in his face, and leapt away.

I went to the opposite side of the room to start gathering wires and clear away packing stuff when he came to me again. He made the hand motion for “more” and, in this case, I totally understood. So I pointed to the machine across the room.

Over there. There’s candy in the tray.

I made a forward over the rainbow motion with my hands. It was stupid, but in my head, it mean in the tray.

Lucas half-moonwalked over to the machine, never taking his eyes off of me, and stood there as if he was ready for whatever I had planned next. I had nothing, but more of the same. I did the rainbow motion again, urging him to look in the tray…and he started trying to take the top off.

No. No. Lucas, no. In the tray. Look. Look down. It’s right there. There are a bunch.

He stared at me blankly for a moment and then – yep, you didn’t guess it – he wrapped his arms around the machine and attempted to carry it to me.

No! Stop! Put it down. No! Lucas! You’re going to get hurt.

I ran over, took a single M&M from the tray, and held it in front of his little round face.

Tray. It’s in the tray.

He gave me an expression that said, “Ohhhhhh. Tray.” Then he ate it.

We have a lot less of these interactions as time goes on, but they still happen. He’s using his device more and, although I sometimes still forget it’s a viable option, he gets better with it every day. The more he learns to let himself be heard, the more he’ll understand my responses in return. Of course, there are going to be some candy machine carrying moments here and there. Those, however, don’t make the success stories any less sweet.



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