Liam, my 6-year-old who has autism, may not talk but he still has a lot to say! He communicates his basic needs in different ways: with a picture communication system, a Yes/No board, hand signs, and a few sounds. Here are the important messages he tells me every day.
"My behavior is communication."
For a kid like Liam, behavior means actual communication not aberration. If he's pushing his tummy against the side of the couch, he's not being weird— he's trying to tell me he has a stomachache!
"I'm always listening."
It took a life-changing visit with my friend and her non-verbal son for me to understand this lesson: just because Liam doesn't speak doesn't mean he can't understand what I'm saying about him. (My friend's son had burst into tears and typed out "I hate it when you talk about me like I'm not here" while she was explaining his therapies to me.) How do I test this lesson? I just mention the word "ice cream" and watch Liam's reaction. He's most definitely listening!
"Don't underestimate me."
Although Liam struggles with tasks that younger kids can do easily (like completing three-piece puzzles, dressing himself, putting on his shoes, holding a marker), he's not dumb. He's constantly problem-solving (you should see him move furniture to get to food kept in high cabinets!), and we've discovered (through RPM therapy) that Liam knows all his letters, numbers, and colors, and he enjoys doing age-appropriate math problems.
"I'm making progress."
Yesterday, during his gymnastics lesson, Liam looked up at the parent area. We made eye contact right as he scaled the top of a narrow ladder. Holding my gaze, he waved and grinned. I waved back and was reminded again of how very hard he works each day, and how much progress he's made in school and at home.
"I love you."
There's a long story behind the first time Liam said these three words, but after the first time, Liam used a Yes/No board to say he loved us. My husband and I then realized Liam had been saying "I love you" all along through snuggles, hugs, kisses, and dozens of other small moments of affection and connection.
Non-verbal kids like Liam may not use words, but they are always, always communicating. I've realized over the last three years that my job as Liam's mom is to be patient, to be open, to read what adults with autism have to say, and to never, ever give up believing in his ability or desire to communicate with me.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton).