Teaching My Non-Verbal Son That His Sister’s There For Him Too

I remember being surprised when his teachers mentioned that they were teaching my non-verbal son to request things from his peers. It didn’t seem like it should even be an issue. After all, we spent so long getting him to ask us for his wants and needs through his communication device and hand gestures. It felt as though the groundwork was already done. He was already asking. What was the point?

The explanation they gave made sense and was something I hadn’t yet considered.

He sometimes sees potato chips or something in one of his classmates’ lunches and wants one. So, he would ask us. We’re trying to teach him that he can ask them too. He doesn’t just have to ask an adult or an authority figure.

Unexpected, right? Some life skills are easy to spot. Tying shoes, using forks, brushing teeth – all simple to understand. Not asking the teacher to help him steal snacks from another kid? I hadn’t considered that one.

So, I started trying it at home with his sister. The two of them have always been great together and I figured it would be simple. He had come to me looking for a mini-cookie in an oversized snackbag I was holding. The approach was familiar. He double-tapped his chest. So I gave him one. He shoved it into his face whole and continued on his Chromebook, excitedly watching Sesame Street and clapping with glee.

At that point, I flipped the bag to his sister, who was seated next to me on the couch, and asked her to hold them. I explained that I’d direct him to request them from her, rather than giving it to him myself. She showed me she was on board like any 13 year old would – with a smirk and slow half-nod.

After a few minutes, he turned to me with another chest tap. This kid is like the Cookie Monster in human skin. I looked at him and said:

No. You have to ask your sister. Here. Ask her.

I gestured to my right. He glanced at her face and looked back at me. Eyes locked on mine, he did another tap. Again, I repeated.

No. You have to ask her. Ask. Say “give me”. (chest tap) She’ll give you one.

He gave me a look that said, “What nonsense are you going on about?” Then he went back to his video. I realized this was not going to be as easy as I thought.

I looked over at her and she looked back at me with an eyeroll. Whatever. So, he doesn’t get a cookie. A few missed chocolate chips won’t kill the kid.

A minute later, he was asking again. Once more I passed his attention to his sister on my right. He stood up, apprehensive about what to do next, and looked at me sheepishly. I tried to give him every signal I could. It was like the scene in Naked Gun when the third base coach does all sorts of crazy signs before the ball comes whizzing at his head.

I put my hand to my chest for “give me”. I pointed towards his sister. I did the eating motion with my hand. I practically flapped my arms and flew away. Finally, he stared into her face and offered a timid “give me”, although with less vigor than I had seen before. It was kind of a double handed finger tap just below his neck like WC Fields going, “Ahhh yessss.”

And she gave him a cookie. He did it. Success. It doesn’t seem like much, but it was a step forward. Giant leaps start with tiny steps.


A lot of my daughter’s life has been spent with me trying to make her see Lucas as her brother, not her burden. I want her to know that, when they’re in my home, I will be the one tasked with caring for him. She’s not expected to do any sort of assistance that would be over-the-top. I bathe him. I cook for him. I pick out his clothes and help him get dressed. All she needs to do is love him.

As he gets older, though, certain realities are important too. He needs to know that she’s a part of his life and a person who can be there for him, when needed. I want them to be close, but I also want him to trust that she, like me, knows best for him and can guide him in the right ways.

I want her to realize that he needs her too. He can’t always get his own things or voice his own concerns. If I am not around, there’s a definite need for her to understand that he might require her help. It might be minor, but it’s still needed. It can be as simple as tying a shoe or as big as making sure he doesn’t go hungry.

It might be hard to teach him certain aspects of it, but it’s easy to teach her. She loves him. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of her for. She has never complained about his lack of speech, autism, claps, screeches, or other behavior that a lesser sibling might. She is absolutely amazing with her little brother and it fills my heart with more love than anything else on Earth.

The day may come when my ex-wife and I are gone. When that happens, I hope my children still have each other. There might be decisions to be made and best interests to look out for. While it feels strange to think of that now as she’s barely a teenager, it’s a reality that has potential to come true. She’ll need to understand her place in his life and that we’ve always trusted her to do right by him. She always has and we know it.

The relationship we foster today will only evolve tomorrow. I’ll never put demands on either of them. Love and family aren’t about demands. They’re about knowing in your heart what the right thing to do is. They’re about being the best person you can for the person who needs you. They’re about showing you care in any way possible, whether through words, actions, or both. Whatever we can do, we do.