A nonfiction short story by Tea Jay
It’s always the little things we take for granted.
Like hearing your child say, “Mom,” for the first time. You think after they’ve said it once they’ll say it for a lifetime. But what happens when a child’s words vanish? What do you do when your child is nonverbal?
Life with Jack is a never ending question game. Guessing what his favorite color is, trying to get him to spill a few words from his lips to hear what he did in school that day. He’s turning four in a few months. Our conversations consists of hand movements and pointing, little yelps and giggles. And sometimes words, but hardly words.
It’s something you become familiar with when your child is autistic.
You have to dig a little deeper to get some answers, using context clues and everything around you. I’ve become so accustomed to the secret language we speak at my house that I’m thrown off guard seeing my friend’s kids on Snapchat, Jack’s age, talking in full sentences and cracking jokes. I stopped looking at this app; comparison is the thief to joy, and God knows my life is full of joy being Jack’s mom. I’m not willing to gamble any of it for a video story of someone else’s child.
But in his silence comes my wonder. I want to know what motivates him, what moves him, what connects with his soul. I observe as though he’s a wild animal, keeping a safe distance as to not imprint or to distract. It is hard to let your child be when there is so much you want to do to help. I’m learning that sometimes helping Jack comes in just being silent and taking in his cues.
How do you learn about the person you love when they can’t tell you about themselves?
There are times that rather than stark silence, Jack will get stuck on one of the few words in his vocabulary; NO. Every question asked is answered no, be it do you want to go to the park or ice cream for dinner. I try to think of creative questions to ask to get him “unstuck” and to move forward from the no’s. It’s funny; people will joke about their child always saying no but don’t quite understand when their child is in a trance, unaware of the world around them, repeating the word as a stim, comforting them as they rock back and forth, twisting their hands into each other.
It’s funny; parents will talk about their child’s love for the word no, and when I tell them how Jack gets stuck they say they can relate. They can’t; their child’s aversion to things and stubbornness is not the same as an autistic child getting stuck. When Jack says no (over and over and over) it’s because there isn’t another word that he can repeat on end while trying to bring him back to baseline. It is a tick; he is a record stuck skipping and all you can do is encourage it to play on and hope he can flow into the next track.
People are so quick to dissolve atypical behavior into neurotypical things. This is the wrong answer; it is important to note that these people are different and come to conclusions in unique ways. It is even more important not to erase autistic behavior at the comfort of someone who doesn’t understand.
One night, as I threw out questions to get Jack back to the present moment, I asked a question at random; Do you want to go to the moon? Suddenly, the trance broke, his eyes lighting up with a fire I’ve never seen burning in his hazel orbs before, racing to the window. Moon! Moon! He points as he looks lovingly into the sky.
This was the day I learned that my child dreamed of being an astronaut and his love for the galaxies above.
Through series of questions I learned more, not by his answers (because there rarely are verbal ones) but through his reactions. Jack started waving goodnight to the rocks in the sky, going out late at night to stargaze. He was most relaxed looking at the clouds, the space, the air above us. A comfort washed over him when he saw photos NASA would put out, watching videos of the Mars rover. When I tell him he can grow up and go to space as an astronaut he looks like he has hope. When I tell him he will be an astronaut and someday he can learn and maybe go to space, his body fills with ease and I know, I just know, that we are on the same page of understanding.
And although Jack has always expressed his interests in unique ways (lining up dinosaurs together, pointing at pictures of him on the swing to ask to go to the park, bringing out his ukulele when his favorite songs would come on and attempting to strum along to the songs) I had never seen him so at peace with himself than when I was telling him tales of outer space.
I’m a talker. I always have been. In the seventh grade my math teacher nicknamed me The Mouth Of The South and quite frankly that title hit it on the nose. I sing, I perform Shakespearean monologues, and I never shut up. The biggest challenge I have ever faced is learning to talk to the person I love more than anything without relying on tongues and vocal boxes.
No one knows when or if his speech will develop. I have made peace with this. If Jack and I never have a verbal conversation, that will be fine. Just as there are stars in the sky, there are infinite ways we can and will communicate, my little astronaut and I. As he grows older we will discover new ways, and I cannot wait for the stories he shares with me in the future, perhaps on his trip back from the moon.