There are stages to finding out your child is going to be non-verbal with autism. For parents, the entire idea behind it can be overwhelming. There are too many issues to process and too many unknowns to weigh on your mind.
I went through that too. The early days of the autism diagnosis were swirled in a haze. I played video games, went on autopilot, and spent a lot of time looking at his eyes as he played, usually in a different way than intended, with his toys.
If only I could get into his head, I could understand. How do you teach words to a child who doesn’t seem to understand that he’s supposed to be a part of our conversations? Doors could slam and he wouldn’t look up. He wasn’t even doing sounds. Words? Come on.
Often, I credit the day I went to his school and overheard him in speech class matching pictures as the day that turned my thinking around. Yet, it could have been a number of things. My life plays out in before and after moments. I do things a certain way until it feels wrong and then I usually pivot. It has brought me to some of the best decisions of my life.
That happened with my son. I went from difficult denial to overwhelming acceptance. Suddenly I didn’t doubt that he would ever understand anything. Something inside me knew he could. I just had to figure out what those things were.
The earliest thing I remember was the Cheerios. His speech teacher had said that we needed to make him ask for things. Rather than plate a sandwich and put it in front of him, I should present options. Let him gesture and choose. If he sees something he wants me to give him, he needs to “ask” for it. I should have him double tap his chest for something he wants.
I loved when he did that double-tap because it was one of the first times my son had ever interacted with me. Even when he was barely acknowledging my presence, he would come to me and tap to ask for something.
When it first started, he didn’t even realize it “meant” anything yet. He would come for a snack and I would stop and tap my own chest while saying “give me”. He looked at me, mimicked the motion, and got his treat.
Practice makes perfect and I drilled this home to my kid through the best possible enticement at the time – a bowl of Cheerios.
Lucas did “give me” for every single one in the bowl. It went on for like half an hour. A confused relative, looking on, said, “Are you really going to make him do that for every single one?” Yes. Yes, I was and yes, I did.
And, yes, today he knows it.
For those looking to build receptive language, it feels like the secret key. My boy gets it after a while. It’s my responsibility, as his dad or any caregiver, to do that repetitive thing. It will get boring. It will get tired. It would get annoying. But, in the end, he will get it. That’s the most important thing of all.
This lesson set the pace for many more to follow and genuinely changed my relationship with my son. I saw my child’s capabilities for the first time and knew that he wasn’t unable to do anything. He could do lots of things.
Suddenly, the non-verbal autism thing wasn’t so scary. It was manageable. I learned to understand him more through ways other than words.
We had PECs, the picture system that showed me his wants. We used it for food, TV shows, and toys. I mounted these little images on magnets and set them on a small living room whiteboard. I even bent the corner so that he would have to use his pinchers to get them up. Little O.T. thrown in there. Bam! What?
There was his AAC communication device, which is a computerized version of PECs with a robotic lady to badger me for snacks. I sometimes have nightmares about a computerized army of ladies stalking me for Pirate Booty.
Exchanged glances, looks, and body language are all big parts of our communication too. Add to that the “only a dad would know” parts. It’s knowing how he gets hysterical laughing when he’s overtired or his exhausted emotional output when he’s forced to walk against his wishes or how if you wake him up from cold sleep to do something, he will flip out. I know these things because I know my kid.
Verbal language wasn’t needed for those things. We figured them out together. My son is like a friend sitting across the room from me in a big meeting. I shoot him a look and he shoots one back. Maybe he motions that he wants a drink. I know what he wants. I get him. He gets me.
There’s nothing to fear about having a non-verbal child. The only limitations you’ll face are the ones that you put on yourself. It comes down to finding out what your child is capable of doing and going from there. Me? I know my son can do anything, I just have to show him how.