About three years ago, we took a rare family day in Brooks’s favorite Central Park playground, the one with the big stone slide. It was one of the first beautiful summer days, and Brooks giggled and cooed all the way down his umpteenth turn on the slide. Giggling and cooing was his primary means of communication back then, because Brooks, at almost 3 and a half, still had practically no language.
Since he wasn’t yet toilet-trained, I took him aside for a diaper change. As he was standing there naked in a perfect summer breeze, he looked at me, right into my eyes, and said very slowly and clearly: “ha – ppy.”
“What?” My response was all reflex: My son was not able to use the muscles in his mouth to produce words. He did not have enough social awareness to initiate a spontaneous conversation. This was obviously a random, meaningless verbalization. Except that Brooks said it again: “ha – ppy.”
In that instant, I tried to wrap my head and heart around what, possibly, was happening here. My son, who had been primarily silent for the first three years of his life, was perhaps starting to talk.
I thought about the hundreds of mornings I had spent with him watching specialized videos, pausing them until he verbalized the first sound of the object on the screen. I thought about the other thousands of hours therapists and teachers had spent with him, gently pushing and prompting and cajoling him into speech. We were terrified that he might not be able to do it. No matter how many compassionate, caring, smart professionals tell you point blank that he will develop speech, you can’t really permit yourself to believe it. Because you’ve never heard him talk. Because so many of the notes in the therapists’ communication books describe a mostly silent child who has never, not once, initiated communication with language.
“Do you mean you’re feeling happy?” I asked him, my heart overflowing with hope. Brooks’s eyes lit up, and he gave me a big hug.
Over the next weeks and months, this tiny, sublime moment opened up a floodgate of words, and many in my son’s professional team responded as emotionally as I did. We shared our tears of relief that the little boy had managed to figure it out, and in those tears, we forged a bond. The unique richness of our relationships with these teachers/friends/heroes is the yin and yang of autism: if we had never experienced the challenge, we would never have experienced the unprecedented gratitude we feel for those who pulled Brooks through to the other side. Not to mention the unprecedented joy we feel on some level every time he speaks. The everyday stuff: “Daddy, I want to go on the big bed and play monster and then the wompers” or “Can I have hot dogs for dinner but just the hot dogs without the bun?” We can hardly even bring ourselves to correct him when he says, in public: “I need to make a poop.” Subconsciously and in muted tones, we simply can’t bring ourselves to stop celebrating.
But I have to admit that as time goes on, we celebrate less. I suppose it’s human nature to take things for granted, to forget these hard-fought gains. Truthfully, I hardly think about the frighteningly-silent child Brooks used to be. That’s why I write down these stories. Because it’s too easy to forget. And because I need to remember.