Speaking
By Cynthia Laughlin

 

I was no different from any other mother.

When my little boy, Skyler, was born, I longed for the day he would talk to me. My husband and I dreamed about the first sweet "Mama" or "Dada." Every cry or coo was a small glimpse into my son's mind.

My baby's noises were even more precious to me because Skyler had been born with several health problems. At first, the problems had delayed his development, but once they were safely behind us, I looked forward to my son's first words. They didn't come.

At age three, Skyler was diagnosed autistic, a developmental disability destined to affect his social and emotional well-being his entire life. Skyler couldn't talk - wouldn't talk. I would probably never hear any words from him at all. In a store, I would hear a child calling "Mommy," and I would wonder if that were what my little boy might sound like. I wondered how it would feel to hear my child call out for me.

But I could have learned to live with his silence if it weren't for another hallmark characteristic of autism: Skyler formed no attachments. He didn't want to be held, much preferring to lie in his bed or sit in his car seat. He wouldn't look at me; sometimes, he even looked through me.

Once, when I took him to the doctor, we talked to a specialist who was my size, age and who had the same hair color. When it was time to go, Skyler went to her instead of me - he couldn't tell us apart. When Skyler was three, he spent three days at Camp Courageous for disabled children in Iowa, and when he returned he didn't even recognize me.

The pain was almost unbearable. My own son didn't even know I was his mother.

I hid the pain, and we did the best we could for Skyler. We enrolled him in our local area educational agency preschool, where the teachers and speech pathologist worked hard to help Skyler connect with the world around him. They used pictures and computer voice-machines that spoke for him, and sign language. These devices gave me little glimpses of who Skyler was, even if he didn't understand who I was. "He will talk," the speech pathologist insisted, but inside, I had given up hope.

The one dream I couldn't let go was to have Skyler understand that I was his mom. Even if I never heard him say, "Mom," I wanted to see the recognition in his eyes.

The summer of Skyler's fourth year was when it started. A smoldering ember of understanding in him sparked, and fanned by our efforts, steadily flamed. His first words were hardly recognizable, often out of context, never spontaneous. Then, slowly, he could point to an item and say a word. Then two words together as a request. Then spontaneous words. Each day, he added more and more recognizable words, using them to identify pictures and ask questions. We could see his understanding increase, till his eyes would seek out mine, wanting to comprehend.

"You Mom?" he said one day.

"Yes, Skyler, I'm Mom."

He asked his teachers and caregivers: "You Mom?"

"No, Skyler, not Mom."

"You my Mom?" he said back to me.

"Yes, Skyler, I'm your Mom."

And finally, a rush of understanding in his eyes: "You my Mom."

"Yes, Skyler, I'm your Mom."

If those had been Skyler's only words ever, they would have been enough for me: My son knew I was his mother.

But Skyler wasn't done.

One evening I leaned against the headboard on Skyler's bed, my arms wrapped around him. He was cozily tucked between my legs, our bodies warm and snug as I read to him from one of his favorite books - a typical affectionate scene between mother and son, but because of Skyler's autism, one that I could never take for granted.

I stopped reading. Skyler had interrupted me, leaning back his head so he could look me in the eye.

"Yes, Skyler?"

And then the voice of an angel, the voice of my son: "I love you, Mom."