Speaking Through The Silence: Helping My Autistic Son Communicate

WBUR Cognoscenti, September 24, 2013

The silence that comes with my son’s autism has always been hard for me, a pathological talker. Nat does not like to talk; communicating is as challenging for him as doing algebra is for me. And when you struggle with something that others seem to do as easily as breathing, it can make you hate that thing — and probably hate yourself a little. I don’t want Nat to feel that way. Nevertheless, he lives in this world, and he does need to talk. So we practice regularly, in five-minute spurts, because that is all he can manage. I push him to keep trying, and one recent weekend was no different.

We sat down side-by-side on the couch with Facebook open on my laptop. Somehow the pace of the site suits Nat, probably because of the way you can connect with people while still taking time to respond. We opened up two chat boxes. Nat read a friend’s typed questions, and I repeated them, giving him that important and quiet pause, allowing him space to unpack the information. As so often happens, I was struck by how tentative, how unsure he was, picking his way through all the words coming his way as well as his own thoughts. I could feel how difficult it was for him. But he kept at it, without complaint.

I am saddened by Nat’s language deficit, but I have to admit I am also intrigued. When he is tuned out, if I can pull him back to the lively, living world of language, I feel a sweet sense of accomplishment. I try to imagine what it’s like inside his head. And when I do, I am moved again and again by what a conversation must look to him: its microscopic complexity, the mysterious flow of dialogue, line-after-line. I imagine the words, images, and sounds buzzing around his face like a cloud of flies. Most of the time I think he does a mental swat and wants to move away from the irritation of it all.

That sunny Sunday was softly quiet, but I never know what subtler sounds might be disturbing Nat, things I don’t even notice, like the low rumble of the central air, the rusty calls of the crows. I watched him and tried to hold him on track, the question-and-answer rhythm of the words in the boxes.

Suddenly, a third message box exploded on the screen: it was my Aunt Georgia, asking Nat what he was doing today. He was about to type something, but then he noticed the light-colored words underneath her question, identifying where she was at the time. He was distracted — and derailed. He saw, “Hartford, CT,” and said, “Connecticut.” I pushed my way around his mind, imagining what he was seeing. Leafy green Connecticut, where his grandparents live, and all that happens there. Family faces, food. I felt the gossamer thread linking him to my aunt’s question start to fray. Fighting frustration, I gently but deliberately tried to pull him back, to grab hold of the conversation floating away from him.

“Nat,” I said slowly, “She asked you where you are going today? Today, you are…”

“Going with Dad.”

His words came out so quickly, it startled me. And then, to my surprise, he started typing those very words, without any prompting. From his mind, to his lips, to his fingers, to Aunt Georgia’s eyes. There it was, his reply, that beautiful lob back over the net.

I sensed his energy flagging — mine was too. Heart in my mouth, I closed the laptop, wanting to trap this beautiful fluttering triumph inside. Wanting to quit while we were ahead, rather than push for more and more. I felt a little guilty, cutting our session short. But maybe it was okay. Maybe we both needed a little time for silence and reflection. In fact, it is possible — and I will always fan that tiny hopeful flame — that his silence is not an absence at all, but simply a very still, very deep listening.