When you have a non-verbal child, there’s a certain time when you first begin to crossover from waiting for language to accepting that it might not come at all. After two or three (or four or five) years of making deals with yourself that he still had time to say his first word, you come to grips with what, for many, is a harsh reality.
You become good with it, or at least hope you do. I did. My son’s non-verbal autism hasn’t ruined our lives or even changed how we interact. It’s something that’s a part of Lucas and we love him. So, we love his non-verbal autism too. It makes him unique and wonderful in all the best ways.
The problem, though, with that crossover time is that people are all asking you about your child’s speech when he or she is that age. Everyone wants to know if he “says da-da.” When you say that it hasn’t happened yet, you’re suddenly in a long conversation involving their friend’s nephew who didn’t speak until he was eight and advice like, “You just have to keep talking to him.” Thanks. I was giving him the silent treatment. Maybe that’s the issue.
It leads to silent moments at a restaurant when the waiter waves to your child and says, “Hi there”. I remember sitting there, all eyes on Lucas, thinking that this might be the breakthrough moment. Maybe he had been holding out for some random waiter at Chili’s to wave before saying his first words. Is this it?
After a few seconds of awkward silence, we’d all nervously laugh and order.
I hated those awkward moments and, the day they ended, I couldn’t have been happier. I remember it because I had prepared for it. Seriously. I mentally created the scenario and waited for it to play out.
A friend’s husband and I were sitting in the living room, just chatting when my then-four-year-old son, iPad in hand, leaned across the couch clapping and screaming out excited sounds. Mr. Husband asked me.
How’s he doing with the talking? Does he say any words?
I didn’t look at him. Rather, I just stared at the TV and casually answered.
No. Not yet. But it’s, you know… political.
Pause. Confused look.
I continued staring at the TV as if what I had just said made sense. Finally, after a brief moment. he asked:
Yeah. He’s decided to not speak until the voices of all impoverished and disenchanted peoples are heard by those in power who oppress their human rights. It’s really a whole global movement. He’s passionate.
We’re proud of him. It was a big decision.
His stare remained fixated on me. Nothing. It was clear that he wanted to say something but didn’t know how…or what. I broke the tension.
Dude. I’m kidding. He’s non-verbal. He hasn’t spoken yet.
I loved that exchange. It was a topic that felt too sensitive to joke about, so he didn’t want to assume I was being glib. At the same time, the response I offered was so ridiculous that it had to be a joke. I live for those Andy Kaufman moments. Thank you very much.
The thing is, we joke about the things that we are comfortable with enough to talk about freely, but hide those we are ashamed of. You do it respectfully and in a way that doesn’t mock, but addresses it.
If my son was in a wheelchair, I would call him “Hot Wheels” and say things like “roll yourself to the dinner table”. It would be a part of who he is and there would be nothing to be ashamed of. Just like his autism.
I wouldn’t, however, pretend he was walking or tell people he was just tired today so he wanted to stay in his chair. There’s no shame in the things that make us who we are. They are a part of us. To pretend he is anything else would be to close my eyes to the great person he is.
My son might never say a verbal word. It’s a sentence that, just a few years ago, would have caused me to get dizzy upon writing. Today, it doesn’t. I’ve watched how he’s grown into a sweet and loving child without ever needing to speak with his mouth. Words can come from many places. Love can too.
There’s nothing to hide and no reason to pretend. I can talk openly and honestly about him, just as I can talk openly and honestly about my own personality. We’re a family. That’s what we do.
And who knows? Maybe one day, we’ll achieve world peace. Everyone will join hands and the entire planet will learn to sing together. Then, just as they make the announcement at a global press conference, he’ll turn to me and say, “Finally. I’ve been waiting for this moment since I was four.”