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Speaking without words

Book with flying letters art. Vector Illustration

Book with flying letters art. Vector Illustration  

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In her struggle to make her toddler twins pick up language, a mother discovers new ways to connect using stories, games and pictures

“That cloud over there is a bear,” my son commented from the back seat as we sped through a California highway. His words, to me, were a butterfly net that scooped all the excitement out of the road trip and replaced it with something more permanent, palpable. I was thrilled, because my son spoke in a metaphor.

It is not unusual for a five-year-old to do so. But for us, this called for a picnic and ice cream. We celebrate words, every turn we take towards discovering them, because two-and-a-half years ago, a doctor told us that our twins, the boy and a girl, might be facing autism spectrum disorder. Ruling it out depended on how early they would talk.

The children sat in the other corner of the room, exploring the play area, blissfully unaware of how much anguish their vocabulary of just about 20 words was causing their parents.

The doctor’s surmise thrust us into uncertainty. It would take a few months to find out what the future held for us. We had to wait for the diagnosis that would define our children.

Accretion of words

It marked our entry into a world replete with appointments, assessments, evaluations and therapy. It also marked the beginning of my struggle with words, as I relinquished everything I could afford to, to take over as the therapy parent. I picked up words for my children, one by one, wrapping them up in stories, playtimes and pictures, until these would enter their selves. We celebrated every word.

It was an excruciating time, but it was also enlightening. In the absence of words, I realised that eyes are all that children need to convey their joy, the overwhelming quality of their sadness, their elation, their excitement, and their unbridled, immeasurable love. Even as one half of me desperately trained them to use words, the other half was constantly researching, contemplating and living a life that terrified me with its absence of words. The experience completely reshuffled my expectations of my children, and saved us all from being shoved into any compartments and conditions for growing up.

And now, as they are slowly but surely treading down the world of language, I revel in the realisation that my children know exactly as much as they should at their age. They sometimes remember a joke and laugh as they gently slip off into sleep. A trip to the library and new books are their idea of a good day. They have an intense ability to care. They greet people with a smile and a wave. They will compliment a delicious meal. They will tell if they are hurt or happy. They know enough not to bully. They can hurt and they can apologise. They can forgive. They can forget. They are fiercely possessive and helplessly sensitive. They learn ruthlessness as they venture further and further into society, and at home, we together unlearn it all.

They have taught me many lessons in love, but the biggest is that a five-year-old only has to connect — with a touch, word or look.

smithavallathol@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 5:00:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/speaking-without-words/article30307133.ece

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