From Non-Verbal to Telling Jokes. A Taylor story.

Non verbal autism“Nearly a third of people on the autism spectrum use no spoken language or only a few words.

All of these individuals could be described as having nonverbal autism. Yet the term nonverbal autism” has no official status, and there is no such diagnosis as ‘nonverbal autism.’ In part, that’s because there is no clear line between verbal and nonverbal individuals with autism.”

I have told many stories to friends about how far Taylor has come since he was little. Most of my friends only know the Taylor from today. The joke telling, movie loving, sarcastic but hilarious Taylor. Those that haven’t known him his whole life have a hard time imagining him being non-verbal. Yet, there was a time that he was considered just that.

Do I really mean “non-verbal” when I reference younger Taylor? To a large degree, yes.

I know that there are people with autism that are literally non-verbal, as in “no words can be spoken out loud”. This was the best way to describe Taylor up until the age of 3. I realize this is very young, but if you are a parent of a typical child, you know the words start coming shortly before they turn one year old.

Honestly, there is not a perfect category that he fits into but when Taylor was younger, “non-verbal” seemed to be the best description we had.

By the time he was 2 ½ years old, he had a total of 24 words. I know this because I had a list of his words on the refrigerator. I also know, even though I didn’t want to admit it at the time, that some of those words were said once and not again. We considered this “non-verbal” because Taylor was unable to tell us with his words, his wants and needs.

Being “non-verbal” did not mean that Taylor was unable to communicate. He was actually pretty good at using expression, pointing, jumping and even grabbing adults hands to pull them along and show them what he wanted. Being “non-verbal” also did not mean that he wasn’t a funny, silly, happy or loving little boy. He was all of those things but my husband and I wanted more for him and we longed to one day have a conversation with him. We envied the parents who told us stories about how their child made them crazy because they NEVER stopped talking. Mike and I wanted to be driven crazy, too! Oh, the things we take for granted.

There were no smart phones, tablets or iPads when Taylor was little, so we depended on the old school pic syms and pointing. We started him in speech therapy when he was 2 ½ years old and he remained in speech therapy until he graduated from high school.

This was a journey. It was hard work and I think it speaks volumes for Taylor that people today can’t imagine him not speaking.

We realized that his two visits a week with the speech therapist just wasn’t going to be enough. He needed more and it needed to happen at home. My husband and I knew that if Taylor was ever going to have a back and forth conversation with us, we were going to have to help him every single day.

Around second grade, Taylor was finally talking in broken sentences. He was able to get his idea across but without any of the “fluff”, or what I would call unnecessary details and/or “chit-chat”.

This is where “leading” him would come in. You have heard the term used in other instances, such as “leading a witness”.

Here is the definition for a “leading question” in terms of this example

leading: lēdiNG ˈkwesCH(ə)n/

noun: leading question; plural noun: leading questions

a question that prompts or encourages the desired answer.

“Leading” was the next big step for Taylor in learning conversation skills.

When you pick up your child from school, the car is usually loud and full of excitement as your child tells you all the things they did that day at school. Down to the little details like what they ate for lunch or how they really didn’t take a nap during nap time because they were tricking their kindergarten teacher. (actual conversation with me and my youngest son, Jordan). When Jordan was in elementary school, all I had to ask was “what did you do today?” and Jordan would tell me all about it, without seeming to even pause to take a breath, until I pulled into our driveway.

With Taylor, it was a silent ride home unless he was “watching” a video in his head and speaking the dialogue out loud from his video. Listening to him repeat the script to his Winnie the Pooh video made me think…Taylor has all the words, he can say them but how can I get him to tell me about his day?

autism in toddlers

Taylor, loved people! He loved attention and playing silly games. I had faith he would talk to us one day.

I talked to his teachers first to find out what his schedule was throughout the day. This was HUGE in helping me create a list of questions I could ask Taylor each day. I couldn’t ask Taylor such a broad question as “What did you do today?” or “How was your day?”. I had to be very specific with him if I wanted him to be engaged.

At first, getting Taylor to answer our questions was like pulling teeth. Some days he wouldn’t answer a single one but with my insistence and persistence I think he realized what I wanted. He began to engage more by answering a few questions and soon began to look forward to our questions…most days.

Here is an example of how our conversations may have gone then. You will see that some questions only required him to answer with one word. If I only received a one word response, I would expand on my questions to help him put more words together. Notice how some questions and answers lead to more information for me which helped me come up with new questions for Taylor regarding his day. I also learned that if I asked him two questions in row, I would only get the answer to the last question I asked him.

    1. Did you have a good day today, Taylor?
      “Yes.”
    2. Did you have fun with Mrs. Zager?
      ” No.”
    3. Why?
      —no response
    4. You didn’t have fun with Mrs. Zagar? You always have fun with Mrs. Zagar! What was wrong? Was Mrs. Zagar gone today?
      “She was gone.”
    5. Oh no! Where was Mrs. Zager? Was she sick today or did she work in the office?
      “She is sick.”
    6. What did you do in speech today with Mrs. Liddell?
      “Winnie the Pooh.”
    7. “You talked about Winnie the Pooh with Mrs. Liddell?
      “yes”
    8. What did you have for lunch?
      “Pizza and milk.”
    9. What was your favorite part?
      “computer”
    10. What book did you read today in class? Did you like it?
      “yes”
    11. Did you get to go outside and play on the playground?
      “yes”
    12. Are you sad because you didn’t get to see Mrs. Zagar?
      “yes”

This is just a little example. This is also about the amount of questions I could ask him before he was done with me. Taylor did not answer “why” questions for a very long time, years in fact. The truth I discovered is that all of us have a tendency to ask “why?” immediately without thinking of another possible way to phrase the question. I had to learn to stop using “why”. It was hard and I had to really think about it but it made a big difference in conversations with Taylor. In fact, I had to learn how to ask most my questions in a new way to keep the conversation going with Taylor.

Sometimes, if I felt I knew the answer, I would give him a choice of how to answer as shown in question number 5 otherwise I may just receive a very generic answer.

In our experience as a family, at the table during dinner time was the best time to sit and have these conversations with Taylor. He was stationary and not really distracted. No TV or radio during dinner time. I promise, he got plenty of screen time throughout the day that this didn’t cause too much distress. Again remember, when he was little, there were no smart phones so all we had was the TV in the living room, so bringing videos to the dinner table wasn’t even an option.  Asking his younger brothers the same questions we were asking Taylor also made this better for him instead of it feeling like more speech therapy.

All, that being said, you do what works best for you and your child. I would suggest not disrupting their routine too much at first. Start by asking only a couple of questions each night and then add to your list. Pretty soon the dinner conversation BECOMES THE ROUTINE and it is wonderful!

We also did this Q&A when we went to movies or to the zoo or other fun places. On the ride home, my husband and I would ask the boys, “what was your favorite part?” and they would each answer. As Taylor got better at answering, the questions grew more complex. Since movies were the main thing Taylor loved, the questions were “what part made you laugh the most?” or “what part made you sad?”. My other two boys loved these conversations also. They are now twenty, eighteen and fourteen years old and we still do this question session after every movie we see. My fourteen year old told me the other day that he thought of this as a tradition we have.

I guess it is. It just became a part of what we do as a family and it was the beginning of Taylor’s ability to have conversations. We are still working on conversation skills. This will be a life-long progression for Taylor. As with most people with Autism, he has a hard time listening to others when they converse with him. He hears them but he has a hard time listening because in his head he is already practicing what he is going to say to them. This means that a lot of the time when he responds, it may be to a question the person asked at the beginning or even 5 minutes ago instead of what they just said.
Taylor loves to talk TO people but still struggles talking WITH people. He wants to talk about what HE wants to talk about. He is aware that he needs to listen more to others and not always talk about his favorite things, but it is a conscious effort for him. For this reason, his conversations with others are not very long winded because he really has to focus and concentrate on what they are saying, and that gets old pretty quick. In fact, it honestly wears him out.

It is not uncommon for Taylor to ask “Are we done talking now?” or if someone is long winded telling him something, he might even butt in and ask “can I talk now?”.

“Can I talk, now?”

Oh, I how I prayed to eventually hear him say those words.

Recently, Taylor and I did a fundraising campaign for KultureCity. I had joined the KC NYC Marathon team and had a goal to raise $5000 for tracking devices for children with autism. For every donation, Taylor would send a verbal “thank you” followed by a #taylorjoke. (yes, he has his own hashtag). The more jokes Taylor told, the more people donated.  I would receive text messages and emails from people telling me that they couldn’t wait for their joke of the day from Taylor. For most of these people, they could not imagine that at one time Taylor was considered non-verbal or that he didn’t say his said his first self-made sentence until he was 8 years old.

It took a long time. Hours. Weeks. Months. Years of practice, tears, frustration, laughter, patience and help from all those around us.

It was all worth it. It is worth it. It will be worth it. Keep going.

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