When I was a child, I was "selectively mute" from preschool through second grade. I talked, perhaps too much, at home. But in school I did not utter a word and if I did, it was a whisper in the teacher's ear. I'd walk the perimeter of the playground during recess instead of playing with the other kids. At some point, the school psychologist was called to test me for what they referred to then as "Social Retardation." Now, they call it Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
I am not on The Spectrum, by the way. Just in case you're wondering.
My soon-to-be 14 year old is non-verbal. However, there is nothing "selective" about her lack of speech. She's not the type of kid with Autism who can talk, but just doesn't unless really pushed. Nor does she type out her inner most thoughts on the computer, construct sentences via PECS cards, or use sign language. Her expressive and receptive language skills have been assessed at about a 10-18 month old level. She has a handful of word approximations, but mostly just speaks "Jabberwalkie"... a combination of grunts, squeaks, trills, sing-songy vowels and consonants strung together to sound much like a baby babbling.
Often times, people ask me how I know what CB wants. They are seeing communication in the "typical" sense - Talking. But there are so many non-verbal ways to communicate, which, when we think about it, we all know. I guess it is much like the way a mother knows what their infant wants, or when she deciphers her toddler's attempts at first words. I think of little Rella, age 17 months now, saying only "Ma" "Da" "Bah" and "Buh" and doing a lot of pointing, gesturing, and voice inflection. I know when she takes my hand, she wants me to walk. I know when she clutches my legs with a begging look in her eye, she wants up. I know when she approaches the refrigerator, she wants food. I've translated her cries and coos. The same holds true for CB at 14. I can read her like a book. More than most mothers of teenage girls, she and I are in absolute sync. I often think how lucky I am to share such a basic, instinctual connection with her.
It's interesting what happens to a person when one of their senses is taken away; sight, sound, speech. How when one sense is muted or gone, the other senses take over. Without sight, for example, smell,taste,and sound are all amplified and hyper-astute. The body compensates. I believe the same holds true when you are the PARENT of a child with Special Needs. When there is a situation that affects your child's ability to communicate or function in the world; when there is something that places a wedge in between your relationship, the other parental senses kick in - Primal senses. You learn how to interpret moods and needs and wants and distress from a child who may not know how to verbalize them, or do so appropriately.
Though CB doesn't speak to me in the "typical sense" our communication has known few limits. How do I know what she wants? I look. I sense. I intuit. I just know.