Non-verbal communication and the whispered secret - Part 2

Liz Becker


Today was the big day – the day we would go in search of the Books-a-million (BAM) store in Bristol. Matt had expressed his immense desire to find this particular store in an excited whisper that told me just in the sheer expressiveness of his body language that this specific store held something immensely powerful for him. Today was the day the wish, the desire and the longing would all be fulfilled. Today his secret would see the light of day.

Matt had gone to bed early last night – a very difficult change to his night-owl routine. He knew we would be leaving at 9am and therefore going to bed at his usual time (7am) was not a good idea. We made a plan. He would get up early the day before so he could be tired enough to go to bed early later that night. I hoped he would get at least a few hours sleep. Amazingly, Matt willingly changed his own routine and was in bed early (12 midnight), a whole 7 hours earlier than normal. Unfortunately his excitement hindered his wish for sleep and he only managed a few hours before rising at 7am. That’s when he jumped out of bed, got dressed, put his hat on, put his wallet and camera in his pockets and grabbed one of his favorite Van Halen CDs for the travel music.

I caught him coming down the hallway and reminded him to brush his teeth. He set his CD down and headed straight toward the bathroom – mumbling, “OK, one last thing before we hit the road.” His desired trip just minutes from becoming a reality had ramped up his outer monologue - it was continuous. The “outer monologue” is what I call Matt speaking his thoughts to himself out-loud, something he has done most of his verbal life. When he is excited the words pour forth, in private and to himself. How I wish he could speak to me as well as he can to himself! Although I wish for more I am grateful for what I do have. I know so much about my son simply because I have learned to listen to his outer monologues discreetly from another room. They have given me insight into areas of my child’s thoughts I would not otherwise know of. This morning, his outer monologue continued on even with the toothbrush humming and with a mouth full of foam – a sign that his excitement could not be contained even for a few minutes. I wish I knew what he had said but the foam impeded the clarity of his voice and I was left not knowing the gist of the conversation, only that he said it excitedly.

Finally, everyone was ready and we headed out the door and toward Tom’s car. Matt was so light on his feet he was floating, the smile on his face stretching from ear to ear. That beautiful smile never dimmed during the entire 1.5 hour trip to Bristol. In addition, he sang with his favorite Van Halen songs, laughed, and excitedly counted the mile-markers on the interstate. The closer we got the more excited his voice. He spotted our exit and immediately sat up straighter and stared out the window as if he were trying to force the BAM store to come into view by sheer will power. There it was! Hurray! And then as we pulled into that magical parking lot I heard him exclaim, “Dream come true – since coming home on my birthday from Montgomery, Alabama!”

What? That was January of 2011! OMG! Has Matt been thinking of this trip for over 2 years? I was astonished. “Matt, do you mean you have wanted to come here since 2011?” I asked. “Yes!” he replied.

He popped out of the car as soon as it stopped, leaving me to wonder why he could not tell me sooner. What magical draw did this particular store have on my son? Matt headed for the door. He paused, knowing we wanted a picture first, turned and smiled for the camera, then hurriedly entered the store. He took only a few seconds to get his bearings and then proceeded down the aisle as a man on a mission. Not wanting to hover, Tom and I went to get coffee. With hot coffee in hand we leisurely strode in the direction Matt was last seen taking and found him in the comic-book section. Upon seeing us he exclaimed, “Mission Accomplished!” and held out his arms. In each hand was a book - I recognized the cover art for each immediately. His favorite animation characters graced their covers – Rurouni Kenshin (Manga series, volumes 8 and 9). That is when we finally learned the story behind the desire of the whispered secret.

Matt talked a mile a minute, leaving words out, mispronouncing a few more in his rush to release the long awaited information, and this is what I learned:

1. The BAM store closest to us in Blacksburg closed in 2011. Matt had read about the closing in a newspaper at his grandma’s house that same year.
2. On the way back from Montgomery, Alabama, where he had been on an adventure with Tom (Tom’s work assignment was for 13 weeks and Matt had gone for the last 4 weeks), Matt had seen the sign for BAM at the Bristol exit #1.

3. Matt’s favorite store was Barnes and Noble where he bought his favorite animation books, volumes 1-7. They did not have volumes 8 or 9 – the last 2 in the sequence. Each time we had gone he searched for them. He realized that he would not be able to complete the set by shopping at Barnes and Noble.

4. Last summer Matt had seen a BAM tractor-trailer headed for Bristol. He knew his best chance to complete the set was to go to BAM. He remembered there was one in Bristol - exit #1.

5. Wanting to go but unable to convey the information to me, Matt was stuck with a desire and a need and no way to fix the problem. His communication deficit – bringing up a topic, asking a question, saying what was on his mind, all prevented him from conveying these things to me. Matt held a secret because he had no choice.

6. A few months ago his thoughts-to-words neural highway unblocked long enough to allow a glimpse of his desire to come rushing out in a whispered secret to me on our way to town.

There’s more. I learned something too. I learned that Matt can push himself to tell me something he needs me to know - that it isn’t impossible. I heard an entire explanation today. I pieced together his statements, reiterated them back to Matt and asked if they were correct. He corrected a few points I had gotten backwards and when I had it correct, he smiled real big and said, “Yes!” like I was his favorite pupil ever!

With our mission accomplished we headed out toward more shopping and lunch and I thought about what I had learned today. I turned and looked at Matt. “You will need to do this more often when you live on your own, Matt. You will need to say, ‘Mama, I want to go to the store, I want to go shopping. I need to get something’ so you will need to keep practicing this.” Matt took only a second to digest this information, then looked at me and said, “Mama, I need to go shopping.”

“Excellent practice, Matt!” I replied. Matt’s face beamed with pride.

He will practice – we will practice. The words will come. It will get easier – for both of us. I won’t need to wonder constantly and he won’t need to hold it all in. It’s a great goal - a goal that I had thought so much about over the years. We have such a unique way of communicating, using body language, facial expressions, behaviors and nuances and it has worked well but I have known all along he needs more. Our communication had gotten to be so ingrained that I had to force myself to start asking him questions I already knew the answer to just to get him to practice speaking. Now I realize that this strategy has worked. This wonderful young man has thoughts he would like to share if he could just find the right road on the thoughts-to-words neural highway. He has road blocks and obstacles on that road that still need clearing away – but it is something we can do together, slowly, and we can improve as we continue to practice.

It’s scary being a mom of an autistic child because I know it’s all on me to be the best teacher and mentor I can possibly be to this wonderful son of mine. Today I was blessed to witness the result of all those years of prodding him to speak, to answer questions, and to share himself with me as best he can and I feel victorious!

All those days of asking the same questions - “What are you thinking about, Matt?” “We’re going shopping today Matt- what do you need?” the kinds of questions that forced him to complete a sentence, express an emotion, and think about the immediate future. I must have asked those 2 particular questions thousands upon thousands of times over the years. I realized today, just this minute, that it was all that practice that allowed Matt to whisper a secret months ago, and to explain to me today about why he needed to go, what he was looking for, and how long he had been thinking about it.

So maybe, just maybe, there will come a day when my son will not be "mostly non-verbal". Maybe, just maybe, all that practice will pay-off like the lottery – speaking on a daily basis and me watching communication get easier for my son. But for today I feel tremendously blessed as I shared in his joy, learned the mystery behind the whispered secret and found myself hopeful for a future where the words will come exactly when he needs them too.


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