Understanding (Not Assuming) What My Non-Verbal Son Wants

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I’m exhausted. It’s midday on a Sunday and my son is hopping all around with excitement. The movie reel of this scene plays out every weekend. This is a familiar situation in my life.

Of course, every time I sit down, he immediately comes over and taps me for something. Almost as if my seated position makes him believe I am ready to serve him, he comes skipping over just as my body hits a cushion. 

Tap, tap, tap. I try to dissuade him.

No, buddy. I just sat down. Just wait.

Tap, tap, tap.

Please, kid. What do you want? Juice? No more juice. Too much juice. You’re going to pee juice. 

Tap, tap, tap. He touches his mouth. Food. 

Food? No food. You just ate. Please, kid. Stop eating.

Tap, tap, tap.

Where is your device? Where’s your talker? Upstairs? Come on. You’re killing me.

That thing is always in another room. They even put on a strap on his AAC device so he could carry it. Nope. Upstairs always. Unless, of course, you’re upstairs. Then it’s downstairs.

Tap, tap, tap. He grabs my arm.

Stop. Please, give me a minute. No more food. You’re getting too round.

He kept tapping my arm and pointing to his own mouth until I finally gave in. I knew where he was going with this.

It’s a familiar situation, as I said earlier. This is when he leads me to the upstairs pantry for Pirate Booty. Or maybe he will take me to the fridge, where he opens it and we stare at the food together. My personal favorite is when he brings me upstairs, with his iPad in hand, and leads me to his talking device…where he asks for “iPad”. Yup. He may be holding one, but he doesn’t what this one. He wants the other one. It’s one that’s exactly the same as this one, only with a red case. Give it to him and in an hour, he’ll be repeating the process for the blue one. Prima donna.

non verbal son ipad

Despite knowing the probable answers, I gave up the ghost and went quietly into that last goodnight. As I began to stand up, I turned my attention to him.

Fine, buddy. What? What do you want?

To my surprise, he didn’t lead me anywhere. With my body hunched halfway up, he leaned in and pulled me close to his cheek and neck. I was confused but did what I normally do. I started tickle-kissing his cheek and making bear growl noises. He laughed his face off.

Then he left.

Yeah. That’s what he wanted. The mouth wasn’t about food. He was asking me to kiss him. It’s something that I have been doing to him since he was a baby, but he’s never asked for it before. The whole thing was adorable and put a huge smile on my face, but left me with things to ponder.

Obviously, there’s the whole “I didn’t thing he cared, but he did” thing. We hit on those a lot here. As the parent of a non-verbal child, I see many shared moments that feel like throwaways. An activity or event will sort of happen around my son, rather than with him. He will stare into space and put the basketball in the hoop as if appeasing me.

Then, a week later, he’s doing it on his own or leading me to it. I’ve seen it with tee ball. I’ve seen it with catch. I’ve seen it with the arcade basketball in my basement. These might not be his favorite things, but they registered with him. I could have written them off, but he showed me that you can’t write anything off with a child like him. You have to keep doing the fun things, whether he looks into it or not. You never know what’s making an impact until he shows you.

My other lesson from all this might feel a bit more negative, but is it really a special needs parenting moment if there’s not a second lesson that makes you beat yourself up, no matter how much you did right? 

Most of you probably figured it out already.  I feel like a jerk because of the whole “no food, no juice” assumption.

Look, I’m the dad. I know what my kids want. I can read them well and, with a non-verbal child, that’s pretty important. I know when he’s thirsty or tired long before anyone else. Facial expressions and instinct were the building blocks of our communication. In many ways, they still are.

This was an example of me using those building blocks wrong. My brain defaults to the idea that he wants me to deliver him something. I feel like a servant, especially on exhausted afternoons like that, and react accordingly. The master is tapping my arm, he must want food.

It’s a hard one to really fault myself for. After all, nine times out of ten, I’d be right. I could say the same thing for my neurotypical daughter, though. Sometimes we assume the worst intentions of our children, only to find ourselves holding a freshly picked flower or personal poem written in crayon.

The kids can throw you for a loop with those things. Maybe they do that on purpose. There I go again on the negatives. I’ve got to work on that.



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