There are things my non-verbal son is capable of that many people don’t realize. Some see him at his best and some never see anything. His skills, in many cases, are wrapped around the expectations of others.
For example, through a series of words and mannerisms, I can send Lucas down to the basement to fetch a cup of water he left there. Nine times out of ten, he returns with whatever I asked for and I give him a big hug to celebrate.
He does many things with me that might shock people he interacts with outside of my eyesight. He sits at a restaurant without his iPad and doesn’t melt down. He stares out the window of the car peacefully without demanding a device. He puts on his own shirt, removes his own shoes, and can use a fork at a much higher level than he could last year. I see this when he’s with me.
He does these things because I expect them. I know he can do them. We’ve worked on them together. I don’t hand-hold him through the process. Get a cup. Put on this shirt. Eat your food. Done.
Lucas, however, is still a person and people like to slack when they can. So, when he is around people who aren’t aware of his skills, he defaults to bump-on-a-log mode. The less he can get away with, the better.
I’ve told the story many times about the bus matron who was literally carrying his body up the steps to load him on the bus for school. This went on for a while until the day I saw him looking boneless and oozing up the small staircase with this woman holding him around the waist like the Heimlich Maneuver.
When I stepped in to stop her and had him go up on his own, he quickly sprang up the steps like a track star. The matron was astonished. I felt like one of those preachers who randomly heals people in the crowd. It was a miracle on the school bus that day. Praise Heimlich.
Since Lucas is non-verbal, people have to assume what a lot of his abilities are and, in many cases, they round down. As his father, I appreciate the kindness they offer by trying to help him in all of his situations. However, also as his father, I hate seeing him regress because someone who underestimated his capabilities is doing the life skills he has been painstakingly taught.
Not only that, but there is a world of skills we might not even know about. We chase those unknowns. School said he liked tee-ball – we bought tee-ball. He started using a piano app on his phone – we bought a keyboard. He might be a yo-yo prodigy, but we’ll never know if we don’t put one in his hand. I never round down.
The importance of this was drilled into my head early at his special needs preschool. It happened one day when I went to pick him up early. Seated in the waiting area, I watched as a father wheeled his daughter through the front door.
All indications were that the girl, a few years older than my boy at the time, was non-verbal and disconnected from those around her. Her gaze was elsewhere as her dad pushed her chair to the front door and past the security guard. He looked down at his daughter as they did.
The security guard paused to allow the small salutation token, but nothing happened. It was a brief pause in time that all the parents in the vicinity were familiar with. We have all had that awkward moment of silence where an outsider waits for some sort of acknowledgment from our children. The air gets thick and the mood seems to drop. The seconds last for years.
After a drawn-out moment, the guard waved and told the father, “It’s OK.”
But it wasn’t. He replied loudly and sternly.
No. It’s not OK. Say goodbye.
The waiting parents and I all stopped pretending to not notice and watched. This was a big moment. What was happening? How could this man demand that his daughter say goodbye when it was obvious that she couldn’t? Why was he putting her through this? Why was he…
And that’s when she waved and uttered something that sounded a lot like “bye.”
You could hear an audible reaction from the parents sitting around. One woman gasped. The guard, beaming, said “goodbye” back and the dad, content with his girl’s response, wheeled her out of the building.
I never forgot that day. It was one of the most important in terms of my outlook on Lucas. No matter what others may think of my son’s ability, the only thing that matters is what I know. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much easier it is to just do things for him. The most important thing is to show him that I know what he can do and I look to him to do it. He has to know that I believe in him.
I do. Are there some things that he may struggle with? Sure. In those cases, I help him and give him leeway. Yet, I always make him try. That way he knows that when he’s with me, he does the best he can. That’s all that matters.
Will there be some things that he never learns? Sure. There are things that many of us will never learn. But, for a boy like Lucas, the most important thing is to give him the chance to show how much he can do. The only way to do that is to expect him to demonstrate it. Spoon feed him every meal, dress him like a Cabbage Patch Doll, and find his cups, and you’ll never know. He’ll let you do it for him forever. Most people would. We’re a lazy species.
I believe in my son and he knows I do. That’s how I get the best of out of him. I’m proud of him for it.
And he knows that too.