This “In Their Own Words” is by Debbie Simon Pacholder. She and her husband, Tom, have three children. Their six-year-old son, Matthew, has autism and is non-verbal.
I am home on a Saturday, in the kitchen, with all three kids buzzing about. Allison and Shannon, our two-year-old twins, are teasing each other with their favorite bunnies. Tom, my husband, watches them and laughs. Matthew, our six-year-old, is at the refrigerator. He touches the water dispenser with his finger, then suddenly turns to face me. “Mom, can I please have a glass of water,” he asks, slowly and distinctly, carefully looking me in the eye.
Instinctively, I head toward the cabinet to get a cup. Then, it hits me. My son has spoken – and not just “no”or “yeahhh.” My son has uttered a full sentence! MY SON HAS UTTERED A FULL SENTENCE!
“YAY, Matthew!” I shout, flooded with happiness and relief. He smiles sheepishly and accepts my hug. “Did you hear Matthew; DID YOU HEAR HIM?” I shriek. “He just asked me for a glass of water!” His voice is so full and beautiful. I think, this is what winning the lottery must feel like.
Tom is too surprised to form words, but the girls circle around Matthew and touch him, like he’s a rock star. “Yay, Boy!” Allison sings. “Matthew, talking! Matthew, talking!” Shannon says, and flings her arms around him. He smiles only slightly, but his deep blue eyes are alight with excitement.
Fast forward to the next day. I’m at school, with all three kids. I’m afraid. Afraid Matthew will stop talking, that the day before was just an anomaly. Yet, he’s speaking. Words. Phrases. Sentences. He’s had a breakthrough; he’s come out of it. I hold my breath.
“I strongly recommend you send all three kids here next year,” the director tells me, while they play nearby. She nods her head toward the twins. “They’re doing incredibly well – and I see how much they have been able to help their brother.” She glances at Matthew, who’s playing with a toy truck, appropriately.
I’m about to answer, but something stops me. A sound. Click! The safety gate to Matthew’s room. He’s up, and it’s 6:00 a.m. Rudely, I’m jolted back to reality: I’d been dreaming all along.
Not that I should have been surprised. I’ve had this dream before, the Matthew’s Talking Dream. In the last one, we’re in a room with only a TV, and he tells me he wants to watch Frasier. Totally random. But this one is different; it mimics reality.
Matthew has put words together in real life three times. First, when he was two, at the Noah’s Ark pool – a water Disneyland for toddlers. We’re at a birthday party. Matthew’s playing in the water, which churns like a hot tub, when it suddenly becomes still. We whisk him out and head toward the pizza and birthday cake. “Go back!” he shouts quickly. We’re stunned.
Next, Matthew’s four, and swimming. His instructor, Gina, shows him how to dive in the water for the toy fish she leaves at the bottom of the pool. She’s talking, and Matthew shifts his feet from one side to the other, impatiently. “I got it!” he exclaims. Did I hear right? I look at Gina for confirmation. “He said it,” she laughs. Matthew looks in my direction, then focuses on the water, like it’s no big deal.
The next week, more instructions from Gina. “I’ll do it!” Matthew says. “I can’t believe it,” I shake my head. “Clearly, he can talk.” “Yep,” Gina smiles. “He can.”
I look at Matthew. “I’m on to you, buddy,” I tell him. “Your secret is out.” He pretends not to hear.
That was two years ago. No phrases or sentences since. Not even in the pool. I try not to be upset, but I just don’t get it. Hours and hours of swimming, ABA, OT, hippotherapy, oral motor therapy, reflex integration therapy, and still no more speech. He’s way, way overdue, and I’ve told him as much.
Last week, we’re playing on his bed. He’s laughing and hugging me, like a typical six-year-old. I remember what one of his therapists told us. He knows how to do so, so many things. He’s just choosing not to.
“Matthew, I know you can do it,” I whisper. “You can talk to us. I want you to talk to us. You know Allison and Shannon won’t let you stay quiet for much longer. You’re going to have to make the decision to talk. I hope it’s soon.” He stares into my eyes, surprised. I stare back. He laughs – a deep giggle from his belly – then covers my mouth with both of his hands. I move them away and hold them in mine. “Think about what I said,” I tell him. “Goodnight … I love you.”
The next morning, he’s the first to wake up, and runs into our bedroom. “Good morning sunshine,” I say, melodiously. He looks at me and comes to my side of the bed. “Mommm!”
It’s not a sentence, but it’s a start.
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to email@example.com. 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.