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This is one of those stories where what you choose to do in that one split second changes the trajectory of someone else’s life.

After a sleepy Saturday morning on my son Andrew’s 15th birthday, I whisk him off to do a quick errand, just down the street. He needs summer sandals. We know the exact style and size, and go right when the store opens. Andrew is non-speaking autistic and prefers to go when it’s not busy.

“Size 41 of those black slip-on sandals, please.” I announce.

Andrew swiftly slips his socked feet into the shoes, with no protest, head-banging or distress (as in the past), a perfect fit. We box them up, pay and I thank the two staff members who helped us on that quiet morning.

As we head toward the door, I say, “It’s Andrew’s birthday today. Fifteen! Got our new shoes and now we’re off to celebrate with family.” They reply, “Oh, happy birthday! That’s great, have fun!”

And what happens next only happens when you act on intuition. When you listen to the voice inside that says to stop and do it differently.

Instead of dashing out the door, I pause. And instead of making Andrew quickly point to the “thank you” symbol on his picture chart, I stop. I hold up his letterboard instead.

For 10 years, we have carried around a rudimentary picture chart – a compilation of words with symbols and pictures for Andrew (and anyone he’s with) to quickly reference as a means to communicate. It contains his most important and most used words: people, places, food, greetings and activities. Neighbourhood kids, friends, cousins and classmates have studied its pictures over the years, flipping through the strips at the top of the chart which contain even more “representations” of Andrew’s life. This chart gets banged around, it’s dirty, it gets lost, found and has been replaced over the years. He also uses an iPad with a text-to-voice-output app that conveys his needs and wants, again, through words with picture symbols. These tools offer Andrew the simplest, quickest way to communicate. But, of course, they are limited.

Years ago, we were introduced to a method that uses spelling on a letterboard to communicate. Simple but profound, this tool gives Andrew access to an effective and reliable means of conveying more than just his basic needs and wants. Having decided we should be carrying around his letterboard, too, we affixed a version of it to the back of his picture chart. No more fumbling with multiple charts and boards; now it was all in one place with a carrying strap. Brilliant.

But we must offer it to Andrew for him to use it; letterboard initiation is not automatic for him. As his parents, we need to remember to offer, take the time and then respect Andrew’s wishes if he pushes it away. (It requires significant time and effort for Andrew, too.) We persevere because we know it gives Andrew an opportunity to share far more of who he is than can be conveyed through basic pictures and words.

And so I offered it to him.

I held up the letterboard on the back of his picture chart and I asked him to reply. He wrote, pointing to each letter, one by one: “Thank you.” And that was that.

We never know what the receivers of Andrew’s words are thinking – what they make of it – while he is writing. We’re so focused at that moment on all that goes into “spelling to communicate” using the letterboard – the regulation, the concentration, the transcribing. But it is always worth it.

I could tell that the store staff were quiet, watching. When we looked up, they were stunned. I smiled and turned to leave.

“Um, can I ask you … What is that? How does he … What are you using there?” One store clerk, about my age, asked. “Because I have a brother-in-law … and he doesn’t talk, but …”

“Oh! This is an alphabet board that Andrew uses to communicate. Right, Andrew? We’ve practiced it for years – it’s quite incredible as we just didn’t know Andrew was so “in there” – we didn’t even know this tool existed – it’s relatively uncommon, grassroots – but it’s changed everything for us, for our family, for Andrew …”

I go on.

This is what happens when we show up – in all of who we are – in our light, our strengths and in our “deficiencies.” We invite others into our humanness. And we allow them to share theirs.

“Here. Let me write down a website,” I say, “and my contact info because it’s always good to go through people who are actually using the method. And I can connect you with a local practitioner. Are you on Facebook? Because our family writes a blog and shares stories all about our journey with it …”

Of course, I ask the clerk about his brother-in-law.

He is 30, he doesn’t talk but is able to do a lot for himself, on his own, but perhaps no one really knows him or much about him or what he knows. Maybe there’s more there, his family member wonders. Maybe they could look into this …

“Amazing!” I say. “We’ve met people – haven’t we, Andrew? – who were 50 and finally started using this method. What’s your brother’s name? Jason? Hey Andrew, what do you think? Maybe you have some words you want to share here?”

I quickly hold up the letterboard, concerned that our time might be running out, but Andrew very calmly and willingly starts pointing to letters:

“Tell Jason …”

And I immediately choke up. I forget, sometimes, just how powerful this tool is. Just how powerful Andrew is.

“Tell Jason he will change everyone’s opinion of him in 26 letters.”

And we are all moved, awestruck, thrilled.

“Wow,” they say. “Thank you.”

“I know!” I reply. Andrew smiles. “So, definitely reach out. Happy to connect. It really does change everything,” I say.

And we leave.

And I am floating. And Andrew is singing (as he does).

This is how it happens. This is how you start a movement: by vulnerably leading with your own life.

And maybe Jason and the store staff are reading this. I hope so. I hope his whole family’s life is changed because Andrew showed up on his 15th birthday to buy a pair of shoes.

Susan Baker lives in Toronto.

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