The Long Wait for First Words
I remember the moment of Tristan’s first words clearly. He was in my aunt’s garden in Pune when he came face-to-face with the family canine.
“Dog,” he said.
We were delighted. We practically threw a party. He was two and a half, and it had taken many, many, many renditions of Old MacDonald with animal hand puppets to get here. It was a success, an achievement, a milestone.
But it wasn’t “mum.”
Mothers all over the world assume they will hear their child say “mum.” First words usually include a variation of mum or dad and are documented lovingly, painstakingly. They often become the seed for the kind of family lore that tells us who we are. Unless you are a mum to a verbally challenged child, you cannot fathom the despair, the fear, the inadequacy one tiny word (or lack thereof) can prompt. I tried not to dwell on it; I felt inconsolable; I told no one.
Instead, people saw me tireless and optimistic. Tristan was learning things at his own pace, in his own time, and there was no book, no chart or guideline for me to refer to – so what? It would happen. We cannot use the typical milestones to predict autistic children’s language development. I made a choice not to be helpless – or at least, not to show how helpless I felt – and instead decided to take a proactive and invested approach: I would give Tristan what he needed to optimise his autism; I also would give him what he needed as a child.
Then, my mum casually asked if he had called me mum yet.
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. All my strength and stoicism fell away like a husk, exposing something raw and delicate. I was so filled with sadness and disappointment by her off-handedness that I told her I couldn’t speak to her for a while. I knew she hadn’t meant to hurt me, but my sorrow was too intense. I had been hiding my own desperate longing to hear that word for so long and couldn’t hide it any longer. Tristan was 3 and he hadn’t learned to speak in sentences or call me mum. I almost drowned in the fear he never would.
Months later, and Mother’s Day was just days away. BabyTV had lots of songs about mums, and that word hung heavy in the air long after the light-hearted jingles ended. I was going about my daily chores, not thinking of it, when in the middle of a diaper change, Tristan pulled me down, looked me straight in the eye, and sang one of those songs to me. Fully. With a simple melody, he had told me he knew who I was to him and how much I meant to him.
He was also telling me that he was listening and learning and to keep talking and listening to him, too.
There were no witnesses, no one to see my tears of joy. It was and will likely remain the most priceless Mother’s Day gift ever. It would be a few months until he said “mum” again, but I held onto that memory, and it still makes my heart smile.
Tristan wasn’t non-verbal, because he did speak – he just chose when he wanted to engage in conversation or share his thoughts, feelings and accomplishments. I learned to give him time to process instructions and questions and to frame sentences based on his growing vocabulary. I celebrated small moments like when he verbally identified the “crocodile,” “duck,” and other animals he played with at bathtime, which I had spent countless baths naming for him.
I hummed my Mother’s Day song when I got discouraged.
He was telling me that he was listening and learning and to keep talking and listening to him, too.
Tristan’s language development occurred slowly, in very interesting and distinct phases:
First, he learned words and the alphabet at the same time, visually and phonetically, but rarely used them to speak. Second, he learned to sing to communicate his wishes, wants and needs. Third, he learned and reluctantly began using concrete questions like, “May I,” and “Can I.” Fourth, he learned to ‘script,’ which means using dialogues and sentences from Pixar and Disney films in the right context at appropriate (and sometimes hilarious) moments. (More on this in an upcoming column.) Fifth, he began to explore the differences between English and Dutch and other languages, which has led to a few “literal” understanding of metaphors and some funny moments. And finally, he began forming questions and initiating spontaneous conversation through the knowledge he was acquiring from books, TV and the Internet.
Today, at age 7, our son is bilingual; he speaks, reads and writes in English and in Dutch, though we have selective and short conversations because back-and-forth communicating has always been challenging for him.
The Dutch language has a wonderful term for parents of autistic children: ‘ervarings deskundige;’ literally, ‘an expert at experience.’ I like that term; it is respectful and true. As a parent of an autistic child, you learn to communicate in a way he can understand, while helping him communicate in a way the world understands. The knowledge you accumulate while doing so, and the experience it becomes, is what eventually teaches and helps you and your child on your au-some journey.
I was speaking with Tristan’s PRT trainer, once, about how to help him learn to name a shape as well as its colour. Tristan would say, “That is a circle,” or “That is red,” but never both in the same sentence, no matter how many times we asked “What is that?” and “What do you see?”
While we were brainstorming other ways to ask “What colour is that shape?” (we had assumed his vocabulary was too limited for the question), Tristan wandered over, pointed to the shapes on the table and said,“The circle is red. The square is blue.”
We were left laughing and shocked – Tristan had been listening to our conversation and had understood what was expected of him all along. It hadn’t been a problem of him not knowing, but rather, of how we had framed our questions.
My son is always listening and learning, even when I least expect it. His first words may not have been “mum”– but the words he has spoken since, and will keep speaking, enrich our family lore so much more.