A sea change

Boston Globe Magazine, August 7, 2011

The first time my autistic son’s language came alive was nearly 20 years ago, on a trip to Cape Cod. Nat was 2 years old, and up until then he had mostly stared at everything from the sidelines, sucking his thumb in silence. He could recite whole sentences from books like The Velveteen Rabbit, yet could rarely answer “yes” or “no” to simple questions. But that day at the beach was different: A flood of babble came suddenly rushing from him, unintelligible but for the word “ocean” salted in. This new kind of verbal outburst continued to occur, and I soon labeled them “silly talk,” although I did not find them funny. Those sounds sunk me into a familiar swamp of despair and fear.

Why was this happening? I would rail about Nat’s gibberish to my husband and Nat’s teachers. It had to signal a regression, because not only was it like baby talk, it also made him stand out and made people stare. Inclusion being the pedagogical rule of the day, Nat’s teachers said the more we could all model correct speech, the sooner we could quash this new eccentric behavior. Nat would fit in. Maybe he could even pass as normal.

Over the years, I was not very good at forcing Nat out of this habit. Just being the mom of two sons was exhausting enough. We took him everywhere: the beach, the supermarket, the movies, but it was often excruciating when the silly talk erupted. I just hated people staring at him, my golden boy, and I couldn’t make them stop, because I couldn’t make him stop. My husband and I could see that Nat needed the silly talk, that it comforted him somehow, and so we compromised by telling him to use “quiet silly talk” or “silly talk after the supermarket.” He didn’t like suppressing these impulses, though, and would sometimes begin to scream or pinch us.

Not that long ago, Nat and I were at the dreaded supermarket checkout line, getting our stuff packed into my pile of canvas bags. As I paid, I noticed Nat wringing his hands and walking and talking very fast. I have become an expert at reading these signs, and this one heralded an approaching tantrum.

As we loaded our groceries into the car, I could practically feel the waves of frustration rolling off Nat. From the back seat, he began to cry, and his silly talk grew louder and louder. I started the car, in a hurry now to get home. I began to feel that decades-old stress creeping up my neck.

And then I heard it, through the maelstrom of noise, a single word: “bag.”

Bag? Bag! A sudden realization crashed over me — Nat wasn’t soothing himself, he was trying to communicate. He was reaching out to me.

“Nat!” I shouted. “Is it the cloth bags? We used cloth bags instead of plastic!”

Silence. And then a single pearl: “Yes.”

Relief and a flood of explanations poured out of me: Cloth bags are healthier for us, I said. They’re better for the world, they’re cleaner. I reassured him that even though the bags were different, our routine would remain the same; we would still unpack the food when we got home. Then I stopped talking.

“OK,” Nat said.

And, like that, it was over. No tantrum. No panic to find my husband to help me subdue him.

At home, we brought the bags in, my head reeling with joy and the same thought, over and over: The silly talk means something. Just as Nat had once told us in his own odd way that the ocean excited him, so had he been trying all these years to tell me what was on his mind. He had been scattering the rarest, most beautiful of treasures right at my feet — clues to his thoughts — but I had been stepping right over them.

If only I could have stopped and held Nat’s precious first words to my heart, like shells to my ear, how much more we could have enjoyed each other, mother and son. Why did I have to struggle so much against his glorious, autistic exuberance, to try to force him into normal? Why hadn’t I listened?

Well, I’m listening now, my beautiful boy, and I want to tell you what you’ve taught me: Normal is overrated.