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Some say that deeds speak louder than words, but one can argue that it is only through words that we have a voice and can make our thoughts and intentions palpable. Words have the power to teach, inspire, enrage, comfort and hurt. The right combination can motivate grandiose actions, sway deep-rooted convictions or induce you to buy useless hygiene products.
I am drawn to those who have mastery over language, the articulate wordsmiths who can weave abstract thought into something tangible. I see quick and witty one-liners as a test of personal worthiness, and verbal sparring gives me a cerebral thrill.
For someone who relishes the infinite beauty of words, it was a surprising irony to discover that the greatest love of my life, my son, had none.
I had always considered Simon to be the strong, silent type, if babies could be thought so. He was not one to waste the slightest effort on seeking approval or performing for attention. I didn’t see anything wrong with his impassive bearing, and found it endearing when he would point to the things he wanted with cheerful grunts, even while other toddlers were articulating their requests. I felt sure that in his own time, he would eventually reveal the mysteries inside his head.
By the time his first word came, he was 2. Standing by a lake while watching the silent progress of a solitary canoeist, he pointed his chubby little finger and casually uttered “boat,” as if the sudden shattering of his pervasive silence was an everyday occurrence.
Shortly after, words started tumbling out of his mouth. Surprisingly, these words came from instruction manuals, ingredient lists on soup cans, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly TV broadcast – all before he turned 3.
Then he began writing out words: “Articulated bus,” “tree cutter with mulcher” and “telescoping forklift” accompanied meticulously detailed drawings, presumably from the recesses of his mind’s eye, which acted as a camera for everything he observed.
And during the wondrous discovery of his talent for reading, writing and remembering, we failed to notice something about the hundreds of complex and perfectly-spelled words he produced: They were never his own. He was essentially a sponge for other people’s words, soaking up the jumbles of phrases, exclamations and slogans he overheard in the classroom and on TV and echoing them.
I feared that no one else would ever come to know his true voice: his endearing quirks, his clever humour, his wonderful “Simon-ness,” and that his personality would be lost to the world, hidden under the layers of impressions from others.
Meanwhile, I struggled with his autism diagnosis. I worried that he would be labelled, cast aside, misunderstood. Worse, the doctors played down his amazing, hyper-developed skills, forcing us to acknowledge that academic prowess did not in fact cancel out communication difficulties. No matter how astounding his intelligence, it would always be overshadowed by his social ineptitude unless he could learn to express himself in ways that were meaningful to those around him.
By the age of 4, Simon could describe, in nauseating detail, the entire path of the human digestive system, but when asked how he felt he would shake his head dismissively. He could regurgitate the lyrics of a song he’d heard months ago, but when asked what prompted his fearful cries in the night he would silently burrow his head into my shoulder.
Though I was proud of his amazing uniqueness, I longed to hear his deepest and most secret thoughts. I realized that although autism gave him an unusual gift for learning, it also withheld from me a very important means of knowing and understanding him. And it was robbing him of the chance to use his brilliance, of the ability to fit in with other kids, and – most importantly to me – of his capacity for self-expression.
Despite my worries, his speech is not a deficiency in my eyes. On the contrary, each hard-won word he utters holds immense weight. If he can answer my question about how his day went with a decisive “good,” I’m pleased. If he answers with several descriptive words (“story on the carpet, snack and a racing-modified Kawasaki motorcycle made from Lego”) I am ecstatic.
Just as there are days when his moods swing to higher or lower extremes, there are days when his words flow and others when they simply trickle. Each day, my challenge is to search for ways to unplug the blockage in order to help him articulate how he sees the world.
Every day he divulges a little more from the recesses of his cryptic mind, not necessarily in what he says but in how he lives. His open heart, sense of honour and inherent kindness tell me who he is more succinctly than anything that could be vocalized.
Simon will always be the strong, silent type. He may never be one to speak at length, but when he opens his mouth people will listen. He is fluent in a language of his own, one that transcends words and phrases.
He doesn’t need to be vocally articulate to have a voice. I just need to remember that there is more than one way of listening.
Jennifer Doelle Young lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.