Home > In Their Own Words > In Their Own Words – Silent Language of Love

In Their Own Words – Silent Language of Love

On Monday afternoons, Ethan, our ten-year-old with autism, attends a gymnastics class with eight other children who have a range of different special needs. Today has been a hard day for Ethan—there’s a note from school referring vaguely to “an incident at the computers” and later, a refusal to do any math at all. I’m poised in the lobby by the window that offers a little view of the class, ready for the worst—a blow-up, a melt-down, something—and instead I watch Ethan blink with surprise at a new girl walking into class. Taller than him by at least five inches, she has striking red hair, glasses, and Down’s syndrome. Right away, I can see that, for whatever reason, she has captured his interest. He flutters closer and examines her from different angles, a technique he usually reserves for particularly interesting machines. As they move through their warm-up routine, he positions himself as close to her as possible. A few minutes later, they are partnered to run through some somersaults and cartwheels together.

If I were in the room with them, I’d be barking directions and prompting conversations because I’m his mother and can’t help myself: “Ask her what her name is!” “Tell her yours!” “Find out what school she goes to!” In my heart of hearts, I know he’d probably do as he was told and, I suspect, the interest would die because pushing him into the realm of ordinary conversation has never interested him.

Instead, as she cartwheels, Ethan squeals with laughter, bounces up and down, and then turns serious: “Nice cartwheel,” he says, staring at her feet.

For Ethan, language is a perpetual stumbling block. Asking a question is a dangerous invitation to getting a question asked back, to launching in on the exhausting business of talking back and forth. Recently, though, he’s learned that compliments serve nicely as predictable and brief conversation starters.

“Thank you,” the girl says, nodding and readjusting her glasses.

Usually an exchange like this would do the trick for Ethan and be enough bonding for one day. He’d go off and find a heating vent or a light switch to examine close-up. But today, he stays with the girl, and—I can hardly believe it—never takes his eyes off her.

For the rest of the class they say nothing, but stay in each other’s vicinity. There’s a thumbs up at some point and even, when they get to the trampoline, a smile from her. At the end of class, they are meant to shake hands with their teachers, which Ethan usually does, but today he skips past his teachers to poke his hand out in the direction of his new crush. For a horribly long moment, it hangs there, hovering in the air between them. I send up a silent prayer: let her shake his hand, let her do something. Though he’d probably make a speedy recovery, I fear my heart will break if she doesn’t.

Then she surprises everyone: she looks down at both her hands, chooses the wrong one and gives it to him. As the room empties around them, suddenly they are standing side by side, holding hands, looking—more than anything else—stuck.

Is this terribly awkward? Are they dying of embarrassment? The woman who must be her mother and I exchange glances. Should we sail in and fill this silent tableau with our chatter and the exchange of names? Because she holds back, I do too and eventually they manage to end the moment themselves. Ethan notices a light switch he hasn’t flicked today; she spots her shoes, two ruby-red slippers to match her hair.

After it’s all over, Ethan says only this: “I liked that girl.”

Why, I wonder. Why did my son, who is afraid of new people, who needs to be prompted to notice other kids, take such a shine to her? I can only think he must recognize something in her face about what they share—that he knows, instinctively, the world is hard for her, too.

I’m still thinking about this scene the next morning at the bus stop. In our struggle to help Ethan gain speech, we have tried virtually everything that books have offered us. He’s got some sign language, enough that any time we yell, his hand fly up to his chest and beat out I LOVE YOU over and over. We make him ask questions, two of us at every dinner, two of his brothers; we prompt him through stories, start his words for him. We have forced Ethan to talk every single day and though I’m sure this was right, I also wonder if we haven’t learned something ourselves from his reticence.

When you don’t talk much, there are many things you also don’t do: you don’t make up stories, you don’t lie, you don’t exaggerate the truth to make everyone laugh and/or feel sorry for you. You also don’t manipulate, or bore people without realizing it. I’ve spent years being jealous of parents with chatty children until I got one myself and realized: Ah yes, some children do go on and on, in a way that isn’t always dreamy.

At the bus stop, Ethan’s two younger brothers are infinitely smoother than he. One chats up another mother with a story of closet monster, the other chucks sticks on a roof with his friend from up the street. Ethan as always, stands alone, humming, with a nervous eye on the horizon for the bus. Though he never talks at the bus stop—there’s too much to do, watching for the bus—he’s recently started a new practice of hugging the other mother and me as the bus pulls up. Usually he whispers what we should say before we can: “Have a good day, Ethan.”

It’s inappropriate, no doubt, and something we should probably discourage before he gets to middle school, but for now, the other mom loves it and smiles afterward. And there’s also this; our blissfully typical six-year-old says goodbye by chucking me his stick form the bus steps and calling, “Hold onto that until I get home.”

We have learned that silence is a cloud with its own silver lining. What Ethan manages to communicate in his odd ways—in his gestures, in holding hands with that girl, in his morning hugs—can seem, at times, truer than a half-hour of his brother’s nightly laments about playground popularity. Is Ethan bonded to others? Does he communicate his feelings? Sometimes I think that in the absence of easy access to words, there’s a way he says the real things better than the rest of us.

This “In Their Own Words” essay is written by Cammie McGovern and was originally published on AutismSpeaks.org.

If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to editors@autismspeaks.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.

  1. Kimberly Lewis
    May 8, 2010 at 9:52 am

    This brought tears to my eyes and a light in my heart! I could have written a much similar story about my daughter…actions DO speak louder than words, and the pureness in what our children share with us and the world make all of the struggles worth it! Beautifully written! Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. ilianna romero
    May 8, 2010 at 9:56 am

    What a beatuiful story. In his world, he is saying more than enough words can say.. REmember he does talk in the language of LOVE, which by the story is something he knows that he is full of and has.

  3. Fay
    May 8, 2010 at 10:35 am

    There is a beautiful song by Allison Krauss titled “When you say nothing at all”-that we made a photo slide show of our son, Michael, who has non-verbal Autism. very heart-warming.

  4. Deb Hall
    May 8, 2010 at 10:44 am

    That was so beautiful. Sometimes just a few words can put so much into perspective. Thank you for doing that for me!

  5. May 8, 2010 at 11:00 am

    my Jacob is so much like Ethan. He is a middle child of five, and the only one with autism. His older and younger siblings all talk very much (more than I like at times), and want him to talk back. But Ive always just told them he has important things on his mind and doesnt think they understand. All the other kids are in gifted classes at school and JACOB is what slows me down and reminds me what its like to truly enjoy a child.

  6. Ted Paduck
    May 8, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Thank you for this post my six year old has some expressive language but mostly it’s vocal stimms that we hear daily. I’m hopeful and confident that he’ll get through thus phase and start to communicate better. Your story definitely helped fill up my tank which was running pretty low today.

  7. vivian gross
    May 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

    My tank was running low too. Yesterday was a particularly hard day. I just spent hours crying because I did not know if Logan knew how much I loved him, or if he would ever understand what I mean by the words I love you. The funny thing is that I know how much he loves me just by the hugs he gives me each and every day. I never did realize that Logan is teaching me how to say I love you in his own special way.

  8. Lela Pohlmann
    May 8, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing! This is a beautiful story and helps so many struggling with the same questions!

  9. May 8, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Julissa Valdes :Many times in the midst of a busy day and overwheling feelings with everything thats going on at home, my son, almost six, also diagnosed with autism, and the eldest of three siblings manages to bring me down to earth by just looking at me or putting his hand on my hand…and it really makes me click…that perhaps I need to take it easy and things aren’t as hard as I think…He has really tought me to enjoy the simpler things in life and above all not to be so rigid on what I expect out of everything. He has definately changed our lives as individuals and as a family…in my rare analysis of humanity…I think they are here to steer us to shore.

  10. Joy Campbell
    May 9, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Thank you for your story. My son Sam is alot like your son Ethan. Sometimes he shows more love in his nonverbal ways than his brothers with all their talking. Thanks for reminding me that sometimes words aren’t so important. Beautiful story.

  11. patty
    May 9, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Your story tugs at my heart. My son,Steven,(now 31) is autistic. He went from speaking to non-verbal, to gibberish. So slowly, words started to come back. Sentences made little sense. Trying to explain the ambiguous language we speak was impossible. At age 17, after he had been away for a week to a work camp, he rushed out the back door as I returned from a long day at work. He said, “I have to tell you thoughts in my mind.” WHOA!! Where did he learn that? He had my undivided attention. His lip quivered. ????? And, then, for the first time, he said…I love you, Mom. I get chills to this day!
    Then, he met Joanna. They have been “boyfriend and girlfriend” for 13 years. They spend hours on the phone watching “Blues Clues” together. I know they’re ecstatic ,as I hear Steven shout “A clue. A clue!” Others might see them as an odd couple,but, they feel a dedicated love most of us never cherish.

  12. JW
    May 10, 2010 at 6:47 am

    A cure for Autism sounds unethical, monstrous and fascist, for all but the most low functioning autistics.

    • concerned parent
      May 14, 2010 at 11:20 pm

      Interesting interpretation of bioethics. Count me as a fascist monster.

  13. CS
    May 15, 2010 at 8:30 am

    This is a story of hope and understanding. I am a mother of two boys none of which are autistic, however our very dear friends son is, he too is non verbal as well. He has given my children the ability to respect people for who they no matter how different they appear. Cody has given us the gift of respect and understanding, something that can be very difficult to teach. He is always smiling and the biggest gift of all is when he hugs us and shows us how much we mean to him. The funny thing is that he has more love and respect from our family and every person who has had the honor of meeting him, just for being who he is, a WONDERFUL PERSON. Thank you Cody!!!!

  14. autismspeaksfan
    August 29, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Google: “challenging behaviors in autism” on you tube under “kgaccount” and you will see example of incessant vocalizations, or humming that is typical among non verbal autistic persons. And surely, this is a case of LF autism that would warrant the understandable desire to “cure autism” but ironically these parents don’t push or advocate for cures, but rather treatments to get their son to his “highest functioning level.” Truly inspiring. Creative.

  1. January 18, 2011 at 6:55 am

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