Receptive Language And The Things I Didn’t Realize My Non-Verbal Son Knows

It was like déjà vu all over again. I was on the sitting room recliner, listening to Lucas work with his new in-home therapist in our breakfast nook one room over. She was having him use his communication device to see if he could identify objects they were using.

Lucas, what’s this?

That device has been a Godsend for my non-verbal child. I have heard it say “pizza”, “iPad”, “apple juice”, and a myriad of other wants that he had in the moment. The requests have all been for things that he needed right there and then.

Since I couldn’t see into the room, I had no idea what object she was trying to get him to identify. I didn’t smell pizza, so I knew that was off the list. Then, suddenly, I heard that robotic communication device voice ring out.


That’s right, Lucas. Chapstick. Good.

Chapstick? Really?

For starters, when your kid uses a device like my son does, you get used to the robotic inflection it has for certain words. “Oar-inj Juice” or “I need help” with “need” being higher-pitched for some reason both immediately spring to mind. There are a number of phrases that are said strange.

So when a new one comes along, like “chapstick”, it’s surprising to hear the way it screams the word out. As I was pondering all of this, his therapist pulled another surprise and had him identify hand lotion.


Lahh-shin? Yup. That’s how it pronounces the word “lotion”. You learn something new every day.

All robot pronunciation aside, the bigger story here is that my boy knows lotion and chapstick. What?

Lucas has been knocking me for a loop when it comes to his receptive language long before lahhshin. The ability to understand and process language is, at least, just as important as the ability to verbalize words back. He “gets” a lot more than people realize. Through the years, we’ve gone from worrying if he knew who any of us were to being able to wave my hand, point to stairs, and mimic a cup motion with my hand.

Lucas. Go downstairs and get me your cup.

A grumble and a shuffle later, he returns with a cup. Knowing how far we’ve come, actions like that are huge.

smile around the corner

Those early days, however, were scary. My son was framed by experts and professionals as something to manage. He was one of those wonders, God’s own creation like they sang about in the 90s. There were few explanations and a lot of hope. “Maybe one day he’ll do this and maybe someday he’ll do that.” 

It was around that time that I went up to his preschool for one of the earliest meetings with his speech teacher. Specializing in children with autism, the school had done right by him at so many turns. They introduced us to songs he still loves to this day and games he’d play back when he seemed to shun everything else. I was grateful to have them. Still, though, at just about three years old, I doubted he understood much if anything.

As I stood in the hallway, waiting for his speech session to end, I stood outside the tiny window on the door and heard him working inside. The teacher was placing cutout animals on various pictures of locations. The cows were on a barn, the dog was on a house – that sort of thing.

Look, Lucas. The cow lives here. The dog lives here. Now you show me. Where do we put this cow?

Admittedly, I scoffed at the concept. At this point, he barely looked up when I entered a room. There was no way that he knew where the cow…

Very good! Yes. In front of the barn.

What? I looked in the window and, sure enough, there he was. My son was putting the animals where they belong and I was shocked.

annoyed lucas

That day changed a lot for me. I realized the importance of assuming he knew everything. Every word and phrase that I would say to a verbal child would be said to him. Whether I was giving him a “God Bless You” after a sneeze or presenting dinner options, my son would be given the benefit of every doubt whether he showed he understood or not.

As I explained to his sister a short time later, “The day may come where he understands certain things like “bless you” but can’t tell us. I’d hate to not say it to him, but everyone else, and have him feel bad.”

Since that day, it’s been a succession of surprises. Some are positive, some are negative. Either way, he’s always showing me that he is processing things in his own way. Don’t mistake non-verbal with non-understanding. My child understands a lot. He understands more than he can communicate as of yet and more than most people would realize. Assuming otherwise would be a disservice to him and to the world he interacts with.

It fills me with hope for the future and pride for his present. There is so much he might know that we don’t realize because we never ask. Who asks about chapstick? It never came up.

But he gets it. He gets a lot. I mean, come on. – “Chapstick”? He understands chapstick, for crying out loud.

There’s a lot of work still left to do for his team. Moments like this show me that he’s working just as hard, if not harder, than any of us.

Chapstick – I couldn’t be prouder.