Like every mum, I was terrified when my baby started full-time school. Even as I dressed her in her shirt and tie, I wondered yet again if mainstream was going to be the right place for her. She left that day still unable to dress herself and not yet potty-trained. She has autism and selective mutism, and despite having had an extra year at nursery, she’s still one of the smallest children in her class. My beautiful blue-eyed girl is also the twin sister of a boy with complex needs. He has tumors, autism, behavior challenges, global delay and is nonverbal.
I wondered — how would she manage without him, as his school is 14 miles away from hers? I worried — how would anyone know to meet her personal needs if she was unable to talk? Would her anxiety, vulnerability and tiny size make her an easy target for bullies? Would her stress cause learning issues?
I wondered. I worried.
But something changed that first week she started school. One day, her classroom assistant told me my special, fragile, silent girl had actually taught her whole class a lesson without even saying a word.
It turns out, two other children in her class were also silent but for a different reason: they didn’t speak English. One assistant sat next to these two and my daughter so she could help them all, but none of the teachers spoke Russian.
On this day, while the teacher taught a lesson, the children sat on the floor. My baby girl sat and listened intently and returned to her seat. The class had been asked to draw a picture and write their names at the top of the sheet. As all the eager children started to pick up pencils and pens, Naomi just sat there. She watched as the classroom assistant struggled to help the two others who had no understanding of what had been asked of them.
As another child momentarily distracted the assistant, Naomi got up from her seat and walked over to the two children. She took the water bottle holder, which had everyone’s name on it, and pulled it beside them. And silently she took each child by the hand, pointed to their own name and then pointed to the top of their paper. She then picked up a crayon and began to mark their paper ever so slightly and pointed to what the others were doing.
She waited while they took in her attempts to communicate, and slowly they began to copy down their names and draw. She looked at them and smiled. Only then did she return to her own chair to try and write her own name.
The classroom assistant cried. The teacher watched. The most unlikely child in the class had taught them all a lesson that day. The child with a communication disorder actually showed them all how to communicate.
My daughter still does not know one word of Russian. But living with a nonverbal brother with complex needs taught her something: you don’t need words to help people.
I still worry. But I know my daughter will be OK. And I could not be more proud of her.
A version of this story originally appeared on Firefly Friends.
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