When Your Non-Verbal Son Will Talk to Everyone but You

Alternative title: Pre-teen drama from a five-year old.

After we maneuvered the highways and byways and concrete jungle of the hospital for Charlie’s speech evaluation, I had a dream. And I don’t mean the figurative, Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream.” I mean the literal, went to sleep that night and entered some form of R.E.M. state that led me to a vision. It was a picture of the future. It wasn’t sci-fi with impossible happenings and the bending of space and time. It was ordinary. Charlie and I were in the living room. He was to my right, in his supported chair and I was on the couch with my arm on the coffee table between us. I leaned in to ask how his school day had been. He looked at me distractedly, like I had interrupted him from major, code-cracking thoughts and then used his Tobii (the speaking device recommended by the therapist that very day) to type out exactly how his day had been in rapid-fire syllables. And then he turned back to whatever deep thoughts had been brewing.

Deep thoughts.

That was it. That was the dream. But I woke up euphoric and then told Jody over breakfast the next day with all the zeal of a prophet. I’d had a vision. Jody was non-committal. Charlie continued to eat his yogurt without protest, which I decided to take as silent consent that he would indeed follow the path of the dream. And then six weeks passed and we plus the insurance company paid up and the Tobii arrived. Beyond carrying the sealed box into our bedroom out of the prying hands of the twins, I did not touch it. It remained at the foot of our bed until Monday morning when I carted it off to school to be programmed by his speech therapist. It already held too much import. I was afraid to jinx us before we even began.

But I needn’t have worried. After assigning response times and pictures per page and page per level of learning, he was off. He had entire conversations with his therapist. He introduced himself to strangers in the hall touring the school: “Hi, my name is Charlie. This is my device I use to speak.” And if he noticed a kid crying in his class, he’d access the appropriate pictures and words and in his new Tobii voice, would say: “That boy is sad.” Yes. Yes, Charlie. Thank you for noticing and thank you for telling us.

Getting to know his new voice.

Except he doesn’t tell me. Whenever we try to work on the Tobii together it ends in a very expensive piece of equipment getting flung towards the floor. Don’t worry, I’m so on edge the process that my reflexes are catlike. Tobii has never touched ground. Maybe there’s too much weight there. He senses my jittery excitement and retreats. Maybe it’s because we already have our unspoken language that I know best of all so he doesn’t want to try with me. Maybe it’s because I have a ridiculous cartoon vision of full conversations floating in a bubble above my head and he sees it and digs in his heels. No mom. I will not fulfill your dreams. You can’t make me. I’m five. Deal with it.

Whatever the reason, my son is not speaking to me. Not out loud anyway. I’m taking my frustration out on the chicken over dinner and the sheets that become a Gordian knot in the dryer. And then I’m trying again. I’ll keep trying. Because heaven help me if my son talks to everybody but me.

We will get there, he and I. We will find a way to use his voice so that we can bring our silent understandings out into the open. So that I can ask him how his day was and he can type it and speak it and we will nod to each other over the coffee table. “I have a dream…”


Have you found that other people are better at getting your kids to “perform” than you are?