It’s not an uncommon part of any conversation involving autism that the word “communication” is mentioned. For a long time, and even currently, some systems and programs place and even classify autistic kids and adults according to how effectively they can communicate needs and wants.
“Non-Verbal”, “Verbal, not Conversational”, and “Fully Verbal” are the kinds of things parents hear – and say – when they find themselves having to classify their kids in order to obtain services or enrichment programs. It’s always a difficult process, because those classifications have the same effect as educational texts that have key pages missing.
They don’t tell the whole story.
David has always had his own way of communicating – even before he ever spoke a word. He used to grab your hand, and walk you to what he wanted, and then he would “throw” your hand at what he needed. Other than that, he didn’t speak a word.
Today he speaks lots of words. Like, all the words; as long as they come from one of his favorite movies or YouTube clips.
David doesn’t have a “small talk” function. He doesn’t randomly tell you he loves you – but he will return your love when you speak it to him. He doesn’t necessarily like or want hugs; he seems to find them uncomfortable. For some, David can seem aloof, unattached, and distant; but make no mistake, he is hearing, retaining, and remembering everything that is said within ear shot of him.
Don’t believe me? Whisper the word “haircut” while he’s in the room.
Now, because of David’s unique way of communicating, you might meet him and get the impression that he doesn’t care much whether or not you’re there. It may feel like he doesn’t even really acknowledge that you exist. It might even feel like he’s somehow rejecting you.
For a long time, this is how trying to interact with David made my mom feel.
My mom and I have gone down some long, uncomfortable roads learning how to communicate with each other. Hell, it’s been 41 years and I just now feel like we’re getting ahold of the concept if I’m being honest. But I can also tell you that our relationship has never been as strong as it is over the last couple of years. I also can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
One of the things that we have had to walk through is communicating with David. It’s not that it’s more difficult; at times it certainly can be, but for the most part it’s just different. That difference was a barrier for he and my mom for a while, and truth be told I think without us realizing it, it became a barrier for her and us as well. She didn’t know how to express that she was having a hard time understanding David’s way of communicating, and I didn’t know how to express that I was noticing it and it frustrated me.
Cue the breakthrough.
During one of our “uncomfortable” conversations, I asked mom why it seemed she distanced herself sometimes. It was tough to walk through, but ultimately it felt to her like she saw a lot of David being close with other people; reacting to others in a way that he’s never interacted with her.
It felt like he rejected her.
I was so taken back by that; not because I was upset with her, because I was upset with myself. I hadn’t done enough to foster communication between them, I hadn’t told her about him constantly asking to go see “Gramma Camping” (because we always set up camp at mom’s house). To her, he didn’t know who she was, and even worse, it felt like he didn’t want to. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is, David is a bit of a Border Collie.
He keeps close tabs on his people, and once you’re one of his people he wants to know where you are and when he’ll see you next.
Like, you can’t even sleep later than him – as mom found out.
We had mom come and stay with us for a little bit – a yearly trip we had to put on hiatus due to all kinds of reasons. A pandemic, a heart attack, take your pick. Obstacles. But we were happy to be able to resume the yearly plan.
Without me knowing it, mom had taken our conversation to heart, and had been applying it and asking questions when she could. I noticed that David seemed a little more engaged with her this time; she wasn’t so quick to send him to me when he asked for something. She calmly and tactfully asked him to repeat himself until she began learning his language. She watched his movies with him, shared her popcorn (and everything else she ate), and even started throwing quotes from his movies into her conversations with him.
By the time she had to go, neither of them handled it well.
Hell, I didn’t handle it well.
So I wanted to tell you all, whether you’re the “David” in the conversation, the “Gramma Mary”, or me… no matter what your ability, communicating can be difficult. It can feel impossible at times. Sometimes, it doesn’t end well, and sometimes you gain the whole world.
But it’s always worth the effort.
Thank you mom, from all of us. You have no idea how much we appreciate you, or how grateful we are for the relationship we have today.