By Cynthia Patton
From Mom Egg Vol. 11 “Mother Tongue”
I was in bed when Katie slipped past, heading for the stairs. My slender, caramel-haired daughter didn’t look at me or speak. She was a shadow, receding with the dawn.
I huddled beneath the down comforter, filled with foggy, nameless emotions. I knew I should go downstairs and engage her as the specialists instructed me. Make good use of our precious free time. With an autistic child there’s always something to work on: social skills, sign language, speech. Instead a prayer rose unbidden. Please give me words. I can do without hugs and kisses, but I need more words, need them like air.
Katie was five yet spoke like a two-year-old—when she spoke at all. A knot lodged between my shoulder blades. What if conversation never came? Katie was smart enough, but speech remained a challenge. Her mind was a secret garden, the thoughts overflowing with nowhere to go. I wanted to hear her stories, her emotions, her feeble attempts at jokes. I wanted her to look at me, smile, and say Mommy.
I released the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. My tears rained down as I prayed for the day the words broke free, flooding fallow fields.
Katie was nonverbal for two years, eight months. At three, after a year of intensive therapy, she had a spoken vocabulary of 50 words. By four she used two-word phrases. By five she assembled short sentences.
Special needs parenting is often a strange blend of gratitude, sorrow, pride, and guilt. I was excited and proud when Katie mastered a new sentence. Yet I was sad she had to work so hard and guilty I wanted more. Why couldn’t I simply be grateful? I was, but when I looked in her eyes I saw an IQ boiling, just out of reach, and wanted to smash something on her behalf.
It’s hard to watch your child struggle, especially when there’s nothing to do but wait.
At six Katie answered simple questions. By seven she used adjectives and worked to master possessive pronouns. I fought for additional speech therapy and finally the long, slow slog ended. Her speech gained momentum.
One night shortly after she turned eight, Katie asked for the blue dolphin as she climbed into bed. Her words were crystal clear, so I praised her as the therapists trained me.
She asked again, and I showed her the blue cat.
“No,” she said. “Want dolphin please.”
“We don’t have a dolphin.”
“Dolphins swim in the water.”
“You’re right,” I said. “They’re good swimmers.”
I reached into the basket that contained her stuffed animals. “Do you want the lobster?”
Katie smiled and reached for the toy. She played with the pinchers while I felt smug about discovering the glitch where her brain veered off course.
She looked up. “This is red. Red lobster.”
“I know, but it lives in the water.”
Her pained look said I was the one with the neurological problem. “I want blue dolphin.”
She clenched her teeth—the beginning of a tantrum. I thought fast. “Why don’t you pick the animal you want to sleep with?”
This wasn’t the routine. After a long pause she rolled out of bed, rooted in the basket, and yanked something out. I laughed when I saw Eeyore. “That’s not a dolphin. It’s a donkey.”
“Blue donkey,” she said, climbing into bed.
Katie knows the difference between a dolphin and a donkey. Sometimes her brain scrambles the words.
We recited Goodnight Moon while Katie stroked Eeyore’s ears. I said, “I love you” as my hand automatically made the sign.
She signed I love you as Max, our cat, entered the room. “Good night, sweetie. Max says good night too.”
I froze, unsure I’d heard correctly. Katie had never spontaneously greeted anyone. She could say the words, but I needed to coax them out.
Max meowed, and Katie giggled. “Good talking, Max.”
She’d done it, twice in one night. I wanted to cry and shout and jump on the bed.
So what if it happened a few years late? So what if it wouldn’t happen again for months?
These moments sustain me.
A few months later, I was reading yet another progress report. Katie was in the kitchen studying cookbook photos. “That’s soup. Soup is hot. I like soup. Soup is good. I can make it. I’m stirring soup. Let’s make chicken tortilla soup.”
She flipped the page and talked about pumpkin pie. I didn’t know she knew what pumpkin pie was. More pages flipped, followed by a long discourse on chocolate cake, then meat, then pasta, then salad with cranberries. It was as if she wanted to say every sentence she could that included the particular food item.
To say I was stunned would be an understatement.
It went on for 15 minutes, maybe longer.
I listened as the words poured out, barely breathing. Then it hit me. This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for. The words were breaking free, spilling into the kitchen and filling up the room.
They filled me up. Better than any meal.
Cynthia Patton is an award-winning author, speaker, advocate, and attorney, and founder of Autism A to Z, a nonprofit organization.