As the mother of a non-verbal child with autism, I know lots of other mom-friends of children who don’t speak. We seldom discuss it. But, oh, how we all long to hear,
“I love you, Mommy.”
For my son, it took years of intensive speech and behavioral therapy before he could even identify me as Mommy: He paired my laminated picture with the word on a flash card.
I’ll take it.
One night, I tucked him into bed and flicked off the bedroom light. As I turned to leave, he whispered — barely, imperceptibly, but unmistakably,
I froze in disbelief, fighting the impulse to leap out of my skin. After a stupefied second, I flew to his side and climbed into his bed. I sidled up close to cuddle, affirm and savor the moment.
Over the last 12 years, Jeremy’s speech has evolved. Slowly. Torturously. Laboriously.
As his desires, interests and frustrations quickly outpaced his verbal output, he developed coping skills: minimally efficient workarounds for his limited speech.
He would run silently to the dining table, and yank it open to insert the extension, when a beloved auntie came by.
Translation: I really like you. I’m happy you’re here. I want you to stay for dinner.
“Jaaaaaaadaaaaaan! Jaaaaaaadaaaaaan!” A teary meltdown when Daddy and Mommy return from date night.
Translation: To you, this is a babysitter. To me, he’s my friend. I don’t have any friends. And now, the only person willing to play with me has to leave. I am sadder than you can know.
“Mommydaddyairport!” Howls of outrage as soon as Mommy and Daddy return from a two-week vacation.
Translation: Go away. Go back to the airport or wherever you came from. I want my grandparents to stay.
“Say Hi to! Say Hi to!” the moment Daddy walks into his surprise party.
Translation: It’s fun to have everyone who accepts and loves me, all together at our house. Please tell me they’re staying. I don’t want to “Say ‘Bye to ____” anyone. I want to “Say Hi to ____” them instead. Like when they come in.
To this day, Jeremy doesn’t say, “I love you,” on his own. Although he will readily echo it back when prompted.
We’ll take that. Gladly.
He may not say in words, but he expresses his love by leaping into our bed every Saturday morning at 6:35 a.m. amidst a fit of giggles. I project he’ll be doing the same, launching and burrowing his face between our pillows, when he’s a full-grown 18, 28, 38-year-old man. And beyond. Until one of us dies. Or until he breaks the bed.
We’ll take that, too: A grateful improvement after years of our child never leaving his room until someone went to retrieve him.
“All done no more scary.” He’ll intervene and interject whenever Mommy and Daddy argue, constantly requesting hugs, pats or back rubs. Anything to distract, deflect or defer.
Translation: Mommy and Daddy, SHUT UP. Who cares who started it? Just end it.
If communication is 90% non-verbal, there’s more than one way to get a point across.
When words are not enough
It’s not that Jeremy doesn’t say, “I love you.” More often, it’s that I haven’t been listening. Or because I’ve been insisting it transmit on a particular frequency or dialect of my choice. Regardless what love language my child speaks, I ought not discriminate, much less reject his efforts. All are valid efforts to connect, to communicate. When he puts forth his 90%, can I not yield from perseverating on my 10%?
An old, beloved song by Steven Curtis Chapman goes like this,
How do you explain?
How do you describe
A love that goes from east to west
And runs as deep as it is wide?
You know all our hopes
You know all our fears
Words cannot express the love we feel
But we long for You to hear…
We will use the words we know
To tell You what an awesome God You are
But words are not enough
To tell You of our love
So listen to our hearts
Does Jeremy say, “I love you”? Yes. Does he need words or conventional means to express it? No. To resign myself to despair, “I’ll never hear my child say, ‘I love you, Mommy,’ is to swallow a lie of the devil. I refuse to listen to a liar who has never said, “I love you,” and will never even try.
Fluent in Jeremy-ese
This past weekend, we threw a surprise birthday party for Daddy. Whenever guests come over, Jeremy has a peculiar habit of pulling off their shoes. He hides them. He knows that guests can’t leave without their shoes. For them, it’s being held hostage. But for Jeremy, it’s covert means to extend a rare play date.
Translation: I’m happy you’re here. I don’t want you to go. Stay.
Jeremy speaks fluent Jeremy-ese, a private language known only to him, his Creator and the angels. But for us, our child’s native tongue for, “I love you,” has taken years to decode. And we’re still learning.
“I love you,” doesn’t have to be rendered in words to be expressed or received.
Words are overrated. The world does plenty of talking, anyway.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; No sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
~ Psalm 19:1-4, 14
In what unique ways does your child communicate and connect with you? When or how did your child first express, “I love you”?
If you know someone with a non-verbal child, share this to encourage them to dial into their child’s native love language.
It’s not that they’re not saying it. We just have to listen… with our hearts.
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