Coral looks right into my eyes as she says, “I have a rash. I don’t like it.”
She scratches her shoulder, and then the words come again- slowly and with toddler-esque pronunciation.
“I have a rash. I don’t like it.”
My heart stops. I look at her and think- these words have been inside of her all along. I knew they were always there.
I start running around to everyone I can find. I practically shout at them, “Coral just talked! Not one word but two full sentences!” Spoken words from Coral. Joy. Pride. Gratitude.
And then I wake up.
As I lay in my bed, it takes me a second to realize that Coral’s words were a dream. I sit there with the lingering feeling of pure joy. As that fades, I think about how amazing it would be for her to say even one single purposeful word, let alone two complete sentences.
I walk out into the living room, and Tom is sitting there with Coral. I relay my dream to him, as I kiss Coral and tell her, “Good morning, Coral.” I can’t help but wonder if I will ever hear her sweet voice tell me, “Good morning, Mama.”
As the morning gets later, I go for a run. On Saturday mornings I often run in the canyon just down the hill from our house. It is more peaceful than the streets, and it looks out to an ocean view. In the rainy months it is green and lush. It is not uncommon to see coyotes pass through from one side to the other. Often hawks fly up above, circling as they look for prey.
A couple of loops into my run the tears start to flow. Over the past three years of Coral’s life I have wet the brown dirt of this canyon with many tears. I have also sent many prayers to God and the Heavens above from this quiet canyon. Today as I cry and pray, I think about Coral’s voice in my dream, the word nonverbal and the day of her diagnosis.
After receiving Coral’s diagnosis of Dup15q, two of the things that sat heaviest with me were the high likelihood of her having autism and being nonverbal. Autism scared me. Nonverbal crushed me. To think that Coral might never speak with words was devastating at that time.
While my perspective of nonverbal has changed with time and I no longer believe it is devastating, it is not without its challenges. Despite the systems we have put in place to help Coral communicate her wants and needs, Coral still has meltdowns and shows frustration. We use picture communication, but it takes a lot of practice and consistency to help her learn how to use it. For now, it is most successful during mealtimes. Cognitively, Coral still has growth to make before she can use pictures with more abstract ideas. We also use some sign language, but we have found that the motor movements for the signs can be hard for Coral to learn and recall. Still, we practice and practice. Then, we practice some more. Speech therapy. ABA therapy. At-home practice in everyday routines. We follow her lead to see what works best for her with communication. We wait patiently, while Coral shows us her path. And we always have hope.
Now I recognize that nonverbal does not mean without communication. Coral communicates with us all the time in her way. However, Coral’s communication could so quickly be lost in the typical world where hustle and bustle dominate most people’s daily routine, where some people talk a lot but actually say very little and where it seems like we opt for quick “likes” on social media rather than authentic face-to-face connection with others.
Coral’s communication cannot be rushed, and it requires the physical, mental and emotional presence of another person. It can be subtle and sometimes quiet, but it is always there. Without words, Coral requires me to step outside of typical communication expectations to meet her where she is- a humbling and beautiful experience. She requires that I slow down and watch, get face to face with her and enter into her space. It’s then that she will look me directly in my eyes. In these moments, even without words, she tells me so many different things.
Sometimes her look tells me, “I want more of that, Mama.”
In other situations when she really enjoys something, she will let out a squeal and frantically move her arms and legs. This tells me, “Give me more now, Mama.”
When she starts to hum and make sounds, she communicates, “Let’s sing more songs.”
When she takes my hand to help her do something or to have me do something for her, she asks, “Can you help me, Mama?”
If I am standing up and she finds my eyes from the carpet below, her eye contact means, “Please pick me up, Mama.”
If we are playing with a toy together and I stop and she looks over at me, she is telling me, “Keep playing, Mama. This is fun.”
One of her favorite things to do is to look me in the eyes and then to lift my hand up to my mouth so I will modulate the sound by moving my hand on and off my mouth. She often imitates this action and sound afterwards.
She can also tell me, “Please just hold me, Mama,” as she turns her head sideways to place it on my chest, using her hand to rub my arm.
And in the most precious of all moments, she looks in my eyes with pure love and tells me, “I love you so much, Mama.”
When I look back at her and stare into her deep blue eyes, I know she understands when I say, “I love you, too, Coral.”
I never knew that a nonverbal child could say so much.
I just had to learn how to listen.
Coral, thank you for being my teacher and for opening my eyes and heart to your very special world.