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What My Autistic Son Taught Me About Listening and Speaking

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For the first five years of my son’s life, he never called me Mama, and he only said a word or two without being prompted. When his doctors would ask, “Where’s your mama?” he’d always point to me. He knew who I was, but if he needed me, he wouldn’t say a word. He’d walk over and slide a tiny finger or two inside of my palm and give my hand a little tug. That was his way of saying, “I need your help. Come with me.” Most often, he’d lead me to the kitchen and point to cookies or open the refrigerator and say “juice” so sweetly that it nearly always made me smile.

By the time he was 4 years old, he had trouble moving beyond three-word sentences, even with the help of a speech therapist. She suspected he had autism but couldn’t make a formal diagnosis. Her suspicions were later proven correct. At the time, I wasn’t sure what was happening with my son. The speech delay diagnosis he’d received seemed to fit less and less as time went on, and the older he got, the more my concerns intensified.

My son was very friendly and social and seemed to want to connect with others; he just didn’t know how, so I searched for ways to help. What I discovered blew me away. In a Facebook group for parents of children with autism, I ran into a parent who thought teaching autistic children who struggle with language to communicate was a bad idea. He was even firmly against teaching his daughter how to speak.

He said autistic children should be allowed to be autistic, and if they didn’t speak, no one should force them. Many others in the group agreed, but this just didn’t seem right. For me, the ability to communicate whether with words, or an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, or sign language, is necessary. I believe children with autism have the right and the need to express themselves, and I feel very strongly that it is the responsibility of the parent to ensure their child attains whatever level of communication is possible for them.

The ability to say “stop” or “no” can also protect children with autism from those who would do them harm. I felt this was especially true for my son, who is African American and would need to use his words to protect himself in ways that children of other racial or ethnic groups may not.

My research also yielded results I found helpful. When I learned singing could help my son learn and use language, I sang nursery rhymes and the theme songs of his favorite PBS cartoons to him every chance I got. He’d giggle and hum and even sometimes sing along.

When I read that talking to him about what was happening around him might help, almost like a narrator does in a movie, I gave it a try. If he picked up a brown crayon as we colored together, I’d tell him how much I liked the color brown; then I would name as many brown objects and animals that I could think of and tell him the story of how crayons are made that I learned from watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when I was a kid.

Most of the time, it seemed like he wasn’t listening at all. He’d turn his back, walk away, or get lost in the fun of playing with his toys or watching YouTube videos on his tablet, leaving me feeling like I was talking to myself. I couldn’t tell if what I was doing was working, and even though I believed it was important for him to learn how to use his words, I started losing hope.

One night as I cooked dinner and gave him what had become my daily explanation of what we were going to eat, I stopped mid-sentence and went completely quiet. I was suddenly completely convinced he wasn’t listening, and I gave up then and there.

“Talk, Mama!”

His tiny voice pulled me out of my thoughts. He sounded happy and enthusiastic, almost like he was waiting to hear what I would say next. I rushed to the oversized black chair where he sat curled up with a pillow.

“What did you say? You want me to keep talking?”

He buried his face in my arm and asked me to talk again. I wrapped him in my arms and gave him a big squeeze so he wouldn’t see the tears of joy that filled my eyes as I processed the realization that he had been listening to me the whole time.

That night I learned the importance of patience. I also learned to honor the fact that my son learns at a different pace and displays what he knows in his own unique way. Most importantly, I learned that I should never stop trying to help my son learn and grow.

Getty image by Paul Bradbury.

Originally published: April 7, 2021
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