He wanted to say something.
He was staring at me with those big, grey eyes, blinking like a baby kitten. He had even made noises like one, a mewing sound I’ve heard before from voiceless young children.
His mother told me how she had never heard him speak. She said he likes to play, especially outside, and how he laughs and points and looks, but never speaks. I could tell how much they loved each other in how she said his name, how he looked to her for approval, affirmation, praise. She said he likes to be physical, running and throwing himself into the sofa, squeezing and rubbing her face, laying down on his wagon to feel the vibration.
I have been in similar experiences many times before. This is my job, the part that is scary and intoxicating at the same time. I am here because he doesn’t speak. Besides the love for her son, I hear the desperation, the tearful hopelessness that’s edging into his mother’s voice. I imagine her watching her friends with their little ones, babbling eagerly, first words emerging to say things like, “mama,” “ball,” and “woof woof,” indicating the first thoughts and most urgent desires of our youngest humans.
But her boy mews like a kitten when pleased, screams as if in agony when dis-pleasured, and otherwise remains silent. She’s scared. I hate to admit it, but I’m scared too. What if this time, the silence wins?
I speak with compassion, how I would like to be spoken to if I was feeling vulnerable, unsure of myself and my next steps, wanting so desperately to hear that I am fine, everything is going to be ok.
I explain to her how we bridge the gap between not-speaking and communication: using sign language, pictures, objects. I also explain what might underlie his overly-physical play. I tell her that we all experience our sensory world on a spectrum: on one side, some of us recoil at touch, grimace when someone tries to pat our back or pet our hair. We loathe tags, and every itchy article of clothing is immediately replaced on the rack with disdain. It is as if the world is encroaching on us, too close for comfort. On the other side, there are those of us who adore touch. It as if this world holds us too lightly, and we crave more. We hug, kiss, cuddle, pay large sums of money to be rubbed, squeezed, caressed. We wrap ourselves tightly in blankets just to feel the reassuring weight upon us. I explained children like her son might be referred to as, “sensory-seeking,” or on the second end of the spectrum. I explained how there is nothing right or wrong about this behavior, only that we seek to find socially appropriate expressions of this need. I demonstrated the hugs, and as I did so, embraced myself tightly with both arms.
Suddenly, the boy made a gesture. He embraced himself with his arms, just as I demonstrated. His first word, and his word was, “hug.” His mother and I looked at each other. “Give him what he asked for!” I instructed, and she immediately began hugging her son. He grinned and giggled. When she let go, he looked pointedly at her and hugged himself again, with the clear message, “I want more hugs Mommy.” She was floored. “I’ve never seen him do that before. He’s never imitated any signs, gestures, or words.”
I smiled, because these moments are why I do my job. Dear Mother, that’s why I’m here. Your son will talk. He’s been waiting two years to say something, and what he wanted most was a hug. There is hope ahead. It will be a long, slow, rocky road, probably different from the one you imagined. But I can assure you, the road will be filled with an abundance of loving embraces.