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Learning to Listen

Like many moms, I subscribe to those parenting emails that pop into my inbox every Monday – you know, the ones with subject lines like, “Here’s what your 19-month-old is doing this week!”  When Archer was a baby, I loved to read these, because he was hitting all the milestones on target: Lifting his head during tummy time, sitting without help, pointing to objects that he wanted me to see.  As his first birthday came and went, though, and he still was not talking, I felt a sense of panic set in, and sometimes I deleted these emails without even reading them first.

But inevitably, I would scroll through my deleted messages and read them anyway.

Apparently, most twelve month olds say at least three words, use gestures like waving “bye-bye” or shaking their head “no,” and follow simple directions such as “sit down.”  By eighteen months of age, they should be able to say roughly twenty words, point to body parts when asked, and respond to questions like, “Where’s your teddy bear?”  Archer was doing none of these, and, despite the fact that my friends encouraged me not to worry, and despite the fact that I knew a couple of other babies who also had not reached all of these milestones, I still felt nervous.

And with good reason.

My six year old, Fletcher, has autism, and he always has been delayed in all areas of development, especially language.  It took years of extensive speech therapy before he learned to communicate without throwing loud tantrums that could drag on for an hour.  His speech therapists wanted to teach him sign language, but he refused.  He wanted to talk; he wanted to say actual words.  I knew he did, because sometimes he would seem to break out of the world inside his mind and look right at me, right into my eyes, and try to speak.  I wanted desperately to understand him, if for no other reason than to send the message that he was special and important, that he mattered to me.  I did not care what words he said; I would take anything I could get.  I attached a bumper sticker to the back of my car that read, “Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.”  Fletcher had so much to say, but his brain could not send the appropriate signals to his mouth, and he was left feeling frustrated and helpless in a world that flourishes through communication.

Fletcher finally did learn to talk.  It did not happen suddenly, but during his preschool years he started to acquire new words, one by one, which he then used in three- and four-word sentences.  The day he said “Mommy” for the first time, I held him close to me and cried.  This is not to say life suddenly became easy for him, though.  The world didn’t suddenly embrace him overnight.  I remember one time we were at a fast food restaurant, and four-year-old Fletcher ran ahead of me into the play place, where one other little boy was playing.  Fletcher climbed to the top of the enclosure and started talking to the other boy, but he still had trouble pronouncing words, and apparently the other child did not understand him.  Then I overheard the other boy saying, “You sound stupid.  What’s wrong with you?  Are you a dummy?  Get away from me, you dummy!”  Fletcher kept talking, oblivious to the other child’s cruelty, but it was an eye-opening experience for me.  It made me realize for the first time that I could not shelter my son for the rest of his life, because bullies exist everywhere, and at every age.  And this realization brought with it a feeling of terror, because if I could not protect my son, then how would he stay safe in this world when he was on his own?

I have written in the past about making peace with Fletcher’s autism, and I have indeed made peace; I love my son’s quirky behaviors, his obsession with clocks and timers, his appreciation of gluten-free food, and the fact that when he tells me he loves me, he really and truly means it from the very depths of his heart.  Yet I also have seen him suffer, not only because of other children’s cruelty but also because he cannot do all of the things that his mind wants him to do, or that society expects of him.  It is perhaps for that reason that I panic when I think of my toddler Archer’s milestones, because even though I of course will love him no matter what delays he might have, I do not want to see him suffer or struggle even a fraction as much as Fletcher has.

Fortunately, experts have determined that nineteen-month-old Archer’s language delay is mild.  He has undergone three evaluations and is eligible for speech therapy, but in the past month he has acquired half a dozen words, so I feel less worried now than I did just a few weeks ago.  His smile is contagious; he seeks out other people to play peek-a-boo; he tells his big brothers and sister “Go!” when he wants them to chase him through the house.  Best of all, he has taught me that I cannot always be in control; I cannot know why things happen the way they do.  But I can trust in an all-knowing God who has both Fletcher and Archer – and indeed, all of us – in his hand, and who speaks his will to us exactly when we have learned to listen.

Jessie Tucker Mitchell

Jessie Tucker Mitchell graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with Honors in English and Creative Writing. She has written dozens of articles for various publications, including Carolina Alumni Review, Our State, Business North Carolina, Cat Fancy, and She lives in Winston-Salem with her husband, Robert, and their children Elsa, Truman, Fletcher, and Archer. Fletcher has autism, so autism awareness is an important part of their lives. Jessie and Robert feel incredibly blessed to be members of Reynolda Church.

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