My Non-Verbal Son’s First Words

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When professionals would suggest things like communication devices or pictures to point to, I would roll my eyes. My son, barely two, was just lagging behind. He would speak. The words would come. These accessories were no more than white flags. No one was being patient.

I was the only one being patient. I was being so patient, in fact, that I had even made deals with myself and granted extensions. He would talk by 14 months…then 15…then 16. The timeline would shift and we were always right on the cusp of conversation.

Every wayward “uh oh” was a major deal. It had to be the start of speech. Everyone talks eventually, right? Everyone in my orbit, up until then, spoke. My son would too.

To give him an outlet besides actual verbiage was a mistake, in my mind. He would rely too much on those devices and, because of them, he would never speak. Devices were diversions and the real issue here is getting him to recite poetry or something. Teaching him to tap a pizza icon was just a waste of time.

I have to be honest. Saying that, even in my head at the time, felt a little silly. I know because Lucas was also delayed in walking. He was pretty much delayed across the board. In order to help him get from place to place, I had to carry him quite often. One day, a family member made a comment.

He doesn’t walk because you carry him around all the time. He doesn’t feel the need to.

As I held my boy in my arms, I thought it was the most ridiculous opinion imaginable.

No. I carry him because, if I didn’t, we’d still be back at our house sitting in his room. He doesn’t walk yet. He can’t get from place to place. When he is ready to, he will.

And he did.

And now here I was, saying the same nonsense about communication techniques that might allow him to be heard.

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There were so many things I didn’t realize at the time. For starters, language is more than just saying a word to someone. The ability to communicate doesn’t end with the spoken word. I’ve interacted with many people who speak many words, yet communicate far less than my son does.

Language is about comprehension. It’s about the ability to understand. Anyone who has ever listened closely to a foreign tongue, trying to catch the few words they know, understands the importance of receptive language. Knowing what words mean and how they play into a typical conversation is much more vital than simply saying sounds out loud.

Devices also help my son to understand words. Today, when I introduce a new food or item, I find it on his iPad and press the button. The robot woman will say:


Or whatever. I don’t know. Insert new food here.

From there, I will have him press it too. The hope is that he will know what it is and, when he hears it said, will understand what is meant. He has proven many times that this method works and that his receptive language is far deeper than we ever realized.

Realizing what he does and doesn’t know would have been impossible without his AAC device. The day we handed it to him was the day the floodgates opened. Pizza. Orange Juice. Pirate Booty. IPad. Computer. You name it, he asked for it. That was the day my son truly said his first words.

Honestly, it’s a strange feeling to know that your child’s first true communication came at a later age and that he had about ten different first words all at once. At the time, eager for him to speak one day, I didn’t fully take it all in. Today, I do.

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Initially standing opposed to these vital alternate forms of communication is kind of an embarrassing memory to look back on. Knowing the success he’s had with them does make me regret not “getting it” in the first few weeks.

That said, I am able to forgive myself. It’s OK to worry about your child’s autism or special needs.  It’s the job of every parent to go into battles on the side of their children. As the parent of a non-verbal boy, I have to be the one who takes in the information, assesses how valuable it will be to him, and goes from there. That’s what I did in this case.

I wouldn’t want to be the kind of dad who just shrugs and goes, “Whatever. Give it to him or not. I don’t care.” There aren’t too many parents who would do that.

We question professionals. We search for the best options. We champion our children. That’s what I was doing then. That’s what I still do now.

My non-verbal child may never speak one word in the traditional sense. Luckily, I’ve learned that traditional senses are overrated. He doesn’t have to speak to be understood. I never need him to tell me he loves me. I already know.




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