57: Yes or No?

57: Yes or No?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Yes or No?

I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out, so I would just scream.

~Temple Grandin

I held the most beautiful list in my hands. Blinking in disbelief, I stared down at what I had just been given. I couldn’t take my eyes off that glorious list.

That morning had brought me bright and early to the office of our older son’s new speech therapist at school. It was his first year working with her, although at ten years old and with very little spoken language, he was no stranger to speech therapy.

We had seen countless therapists since our journey with autism began eight years earlier. In the early days, they were like part of our family, entering our home each morning, sometimes before the frost had even cleared from the windshields of our cars. They worked in shifts throughout the day, saying goodbye late in the afternoon, knowing that the next morning we would start the routine once more.

Over those years, we shared in one another’s celebrations and setbacks, happiness and heartbreak — all spread out among the countless hours of therapy, therapy which I thought was going to cure our son of autism within a few short years.

When our son aged out of the early intervention system at five and started school away from my constant watch, I hoped that some kind soul would find him on her roster, someone who believed in his future the way I did. Certainly, tens of thousands of autism parents out there had the same wish.

No longer in the driver’s seat of his daily education, I sat more on the sidelines, watching therapists come and go. I had no idea who they really were, for that matter, or if they would bother to go the extra mile for our son.

Early that morning, I sat down across from this year’s new therapist knowing very little but hoping for everything.

“You know,” she said, “your son really has a great sense of humor. He’s very sarcastic.”

Her insight caught me off guard.

And then, she placed before me a list of questions she had asked him during their morning session the day before, all phrased so that they could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” by pointing at a picture.

“Do fish fly?”

“Are you patient?”

“Did you go to the mall last night?”

“Did you just get a haircut?”

These questions seemed so simple and yet they weren’t simple at all. They were nothing short of a breakthrough!

For the first time, a method of communication had reached him. She had actually succeeded in establishing two-way communication with him on a level that nobody else had. During her time spent with him, she had somehow managed to tap into our son’s thoughts!

Could this really be true?

It had been a decade — ten long years spent nurturing this special child. We had always wondered when we might be able to catch a glimpse of his thoughts.

I stared down at the answers to these questions listed on the page before me. They were answers that came from our son. He did know things — lots and lots of things! He was in there . . . yet trapped.

Our meeting came to an end, and I walked out of the building in a daze. I fumbled my way to my car, got in . . . and I cried.

I cried for our son who had learned to live life alone with his thoughts.

In the days that followed, I would wait with anticipation for the notes to come home from the therapist in his backpack after school. Our child — the one I gave a book of nursery rhymes to the last holiday — was answering reading comprehension questions on checking accounts, tsunamis and yellow fever. He knew the definitions of words such as “scowl,” “illegal,” “bashful” and “frail.”

How did this happen without my knowing? Thank goodness that it happened in spite of me.

One afternoon, fresh from greeting him at his bus, I pulled the latest update from his backpack while he ran upstairs to decompress, and I decided that I just couldn’t resist the urge any longer. I simply had to try this for myself! Quickly fashioning my own crude “yes” and “no” cards, I made my way to his room.

My heart was racing. It seemed as though we had traveled this road for a lifetime. Sleepless nights, GI problems, ABA, DIR, GFCF, Tomatis, DAN! doctors, homeopaths, colonoscopies, endoscopies, therapy, therapy and more therapy. It had all driven me to the point of insanity and back.

How did my son feel about it?

I reached for the doorknob to his bedroom with a lifetime of questions to ask him. Inside his room, I found him sitting on the floor with his favorite toy, a retired Dirt Devil upright vacuum. He looked at me, immediately seeing the “yes” and “no” cards in my hand.

“All done,” he said.

He was in no mood. Those cards were just like schoolwork, and he was home. Home was not school.

“I won’t take long,” I told him.

He didn’t want me there. He had been with people all day, and he needed a break. I had to respect that. A lifetime of questions would have to wait.

“I promise, I’ll only ask one question,” I said.

He looked at me, awaiting his fate, and for a brief moment, I paused. Looking into the eyes of our son, our partner in the war of our lives, I became aware of the little boy. He was a magnificent boy, one who deserved a childhood free from the emotional burden that his autism sometimes brought.

Holding the “yes” and “no” cards in front of him, I looked him in the eyes and simply asked, “Are you happy?”

Without hesitation, he lifted his right hand and pointed to the card that read, “Yes.”

I choked back my tears of joy as I told him that I loved him, certain that I would always remember the method of communication that allowed me to first talk to my child. There are simply no words to express the feeling a mom has when, for the first time, her child is actually able to tell her that he is happy.

On that day, I caught a glimpse into the mind of our ten-year-old son, whose thoughts have been all but silenced by autism his entire life. And, on that day, I saw hope.

~Amy McMunn Schindler

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