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.
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