It used to be all about words. My son is non-verbal. Not only was getting him to talk the number one priority, it was also the only priority. When he was small, it came up whenever a teacher or therapist asked that all-important question.
Is there anything you want me to work on with him?
That’s the same thing.
Having a non-verbal eleven-year-old was the worst-case scenario for me when I was the parent of a non-verbal three-year-old. Going that long without hearing his first word was a literal nightmare to me.
I’m not misusing the word “literal”. I mean it. I had actual dreams about him becoming verbal and they’d leave me shaken to my core. One that has lived in my brain for nearly a decade saw Lucas telling us he wanted “movie snacks” before we sat for a film. Excitedly, my dream state alter ego ran around telling everyone, “Look! Lucas is talking!”
My dream state companions responded with, “Yeah. He’s been talking this whole time.”
OK, so maybe nightmare was a bad choice of words. Anxiety dream? That might be more apropos. I woke up in a state of panic, crushingly disappointed that this vision wasn’t true. It did, however, fill me with a sense of comfort knowing that maybe he had been speaking this whole time. He was just doing so in different ways. That was the silver lining takeaway that turned that vision from depressing to inspiring.
It ended up being true too. Today, at eleven years old, Lucas communicates with me, but not through language. We use communication devices, hand gestures, and non-verbal understanding. He gets me. I get him. There’s nothing worst-case about my best-case boy.
That said, I still wish he would speak verbally. I don’t wish it for me, but for him. The squeakiest wheel gets the most grease and my kid barely squeaks. I know the world I am sending him out to be a part of and I know how little regard they have for those who don’t push their way to the front of the line. With words, his life would be easier and his needs would be more easily met. As a parent, I want to give him the best tools possible to live the best life possible. I want him to talk. I don’t need him to talk. That’s the difference.
The difference today is that when therapists and teachers ask what he needs to work on, I have a list. It’s no longer just limited to language. There’s a big picture of what makes him a complete person. I can see the importance of all the moving parts.
For many parents, making that jump is difficult. How could you ask a teacher to waste time teaching tooth brushing skills or clearing the table when your pre-adolescent kid doesn’t even say “da-da”? It feels like you’re shirking your parental responsibilities. My house is on fire but help me plant a garden. It doesn’t make any sense.
Yet, it does. My son doesn’t speak. Honestly, I’m not even sure why. I try to get him to imitate sounds, but he never really has. Having him repeat motions is doable. Watching him struggle when asked to imitate sounds, however, can be heartbreaking.
I will say something along the lines of, “Lucas. Say Daddy. Go ahead.”
He will look at me with an expression of deep thought and respond with nothing. If I persist, he aggressively taps his hand against his mouth in frustration. It’s at this point that I stop. I know my kid and I know he’s upset. I let it go and try again another day.
If words were still my only priority, though, then that frustrating exchange would be an everyday thing. My son would live in a constant state of agitation and I would constantly be pushing him to become something that, frankly, he might never become.
When it comes to dealing with the acceptance of having a non-verbal child, getting over this hump is not about anything your child needs to do. It’s about something that I, as his father, needed to do. It’s about something I needed to say out loud.
My son may never speak and that’s OK.
I didn’t write that sentence easily. Even now, years after coming to this place of acceptance and understanding, it still hurts to express. 99% of me knows it’s the right thing to say. Yet, there’s that one percent that says, “You’re giving up on your kid. Do something.”
Most people would hear that and tell me, “Oh. Forget that one percent. It’s just negativity seeping in.” Those people would be half right. It might be negative, but I should never forget it.
It’s that one percent that keeps me trying. It’s that one percent that never lets me forget how important it is to work with him as much as possible in order to give him the best possible life. It’s that one percent that stops me from giving up and sending him into the world with nothing more than a pat on the back. That’s not the parent I am because that’s not the parent he needs. We need that one percent to keep us trying.
It needs to only be one percent, though. There was a time when it was 100. It was everything. I devoted all my thoughts and effort to language and nothing else. It may have been the right thing to do at that time. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, today, it’s not. Today, it’s about accepting who he is while trying to make him better. My house isn’t on fire. My garden is beautiful.
One day, my little man might have an overflowing vocabulary. One day, he could do many things. It’s my goal as his father to lead him down the best paths we can find. He has a world of knowledge to learn. I’m no longer putting all his eggs in one silent basket.
It makes no difference whether he says “I love you, Dad” or simply blows me a kiss. As long as he reaches the best heights he is capable of, that’s all that matters. If that happens, it will be me who has no words to express how proud of him I am.
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