Beauty – How My Son Speaks Without Words

Published September 12, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
-William Blake

In our side yard, there is a giant maple tree. Two things make this tree special: 1. It has dark crimson leaves that stand out from the green of the surrounding trees. And 2. My boy loves this tree and thinks it is beautiful.

Truth be told, this tree isn’t in OUR side yard. It’s actually in the neighbor’s yard, but its lower branches reach out over the fence into our yard. And, truth be told, I really have no idea if my boy loves this tree or thinks it is beautiful.

My son has autism and is non-verbal. He cannot express himself through words or language at this point, and it was only a little before his fifth birthday that he showed signs of understanding what others were saying to him. Something as simple as following a request to “pick up the ball” or answering “yes” or “no” to a question are skills he has not mastered yet.

To know that my son loves the crimson maple tree in the neighbor’s yard, I need to interpret the clues he gives me…like the fact that he sometimes stops running and stands staring at the tree as its branches sway in the wind…or the way he sprints through the yard with his head tilted up towards it shouting, “I-yeee!” with a huge smile on his face…and how upset he got when he found one of its leaves on the ground and handed it to me, indicating that he wanted me to put it back on the branch from which it had fallen.

Yup, I’m pretty sure he loves that tree.

One wish I have always had is for the ability to climb inside his head – to see what he’s thinking and understand how he sees the world. Ever since he was first able to pick up and observe objects, sprinkle sand, and pour water, my son has, at times, become fixated in these activities, performing them over and over. I find myself wondering what he sees, what he’s thinking.

Why does he bring toys close to his face, moving them from the middle to the very periphery of his vision field?
What does he see when he scoops a handful of sand, lifts it to his eyes, and allows it to slowly trickle back into the sandbox?
What observations does he make as he watches a handful of pebbles bounce off the plastic table, the rubber ball, the metal railing?
What questions fill his mind as he drives himself crazy trying to catch a drop of water between his thumb and forefinger has it falls from the end of the hose?

Without language, without the ability to communicate, the workings of his mind remain inaccessible to me.

I’ve been told that he focuses on tiny grains of sand, water drops, toys, and other small objects to block out a world that is overwhelming to his senses. I have no doubt that this is true. But autistic people who have found language, like Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida, lead me to believe there might be more to it.

Maybe it’s not just blocking out the world, maybe it’s also appreciating the world in its most minute detail.

Children his age are usually full of imagination and questions. I would think he is just as creative and curious, but without language he must make sense of his world through observation alone. His brain must find a different way to think thoughts, organize them, and learn from them. I’m guessing his imagination and the stories he invents must be quite unique, indeed!

At a recent play date, I watched three children the same age as my son running from the sandbox to the porch where they sat with their feet dangling from the edge as they sprinkled handfuls of sand onto the cement sidewalk below. Chatting happily with each other, they repeated this over and over, until I finally asked what they were doing. “Feeding the sharks!” they said.

Huh! Well, of course! The clues were there, weren’t they? After all, the route they took from the sandbox to the porch always avoided the cement walkway. And they were being very careful not to dangle their feet too close (although apparently the sharks were of a friendly variety). And how else would you feed sharks but to sprinkle food from above?

See, a child’s mind works differently from an adult’s mind…an autistic child’s mind, even more so. I was able to put the clues to the shark story together only after they had explained with words what they were imagining. With my son, however, there are no words for him to explain his thoughts. And the clues he gives to the inner workings of his mind can be as frustratingly elusive as that water drop that he just can’t capture.

But sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I feel like clues ARE there.

Like when my boy scooped up a handful of sand and ran across the yard, opening his hand and releasing a sand trail into the air as he went, I saw the joy on his face and tried to imagine what he was seeing. Perhaps he imagined something far more beautiful than just sand. Maybe to him it glittered and sparkled as it fell back to the ground, a tail for my little “comet boy” as he flew toward the sun.

I’m a writer, a lover of words and language. But I’m learning that thoughts can be conveyed in much simpler and subtler ways. It’s a form of communication that requires me to pay close attention, to act as an interpreter, to give words and meaning to the clues my son is sharing from his inner world.

On a sunny afternoon not too long ago, my son ran around the corner of the house and came to a stop. He was staring at his tree. I walked up beside him, and he looked up at me, his eyes shining. I sat down next to him in the grass, and he climbed onto my lap, and there we sat, gazing at the crimson maple tree, listening to the sounds of the birds and insects. His little body, usually bursting with movement and energy, was quiet and relaxed, watching.

He was smiling.

He was communicating.

He was sharing with me, the same way another child might point and say, “Look, Mommy! That tree is beautiful!”

He was telling me to stop, to pay attention, to not just acknowledge the tree’s existence, but to experience its beauty.

And it really IS a beautiful tree.

You know? Maybe my son CAN see heaven in a wildflower.


12 comments on “Beauty – How My Son Speaks Without Words

  • You know what is really beautiful?? You are, and you share your special beauty in your words. Edward is so lucky to have you in his world to give voice to his silence. And so are we who read your blog and are touched by your gentle, loving beauty. I am sure Edward will find his voice when he is ready.


    Sent from my iPad


    • Thank you so much, Kate, from the bottom of my heart. Honestly, your words mean more than I can say, and I’m so honored that you read my blog and that you’re sharing the journey with me!

      I agree – someday one of these posts will be a celebration of him finding his words!!

  • Jen – this is exquisitely written. Once again, you might feel like you are in an alternate universe, but your writing invites us in and we become completely encircled by your experience. I cannot imagine how difficult many of your days are, but you are to be commended for your sensitivity, your curiosity and your acceptance to try to comprehend how differently your son experiences world from his view.

    I was struck by similarities to my first reading of Helen Keller as a child and how closed off she was from “normal” senses. Kind of the opposite of some of the overabundance of senses described with some who live with autism. I also wonder – just as experts say other senses heighten when we lose one – if maybe your son is heightening his sense of the infinitesimal as a way of blocking sense that overwhelm him.

    Keep writing. And take care of yourself.

    • Wow, Sammy, your comments are so thoughtful, insightful, and inspiring. I love that you make me think even deeper about something in a way I never considered, like the idea that my son is “heightening his sense of the infinitesimal” – making an overwhelming world smaller. That is just brilliant!! I, too, have often thought of Helen Keller, locked inside her confusing world until her teacher gave her the key of language. And I also understand her parents’ tireless search for help for their daughter. Hmm…Maybe that would make a good blog post someday!
      Thank you so much for your thoughts, Sammy!! Take care!!

      • 🙂 thank you for your compliment, Jen. You make me feel good! But I’m really just re-phrasing what you write – i guess that’s one of the true riches of this mutual blogging/reading relationship. Often someone else expresses something in just the right way and a light bulb goes on.

        Your son is very fortunate to have such a sensitive, determined Mother. And I’m not coloring you a saint. Motherhood in its best moments is still really, really demanding, and your patience is tested even moreso.

        I hope you have a lovely weekend.

  • Just a thought – would he be receptive to you preserving some of the fallen leaves? Either ironing in wax paper like we used to do, or I have placed one between paper towels in a heavy book and left for a couple weeks and it will dry flat. It crumbles if handle but does retain its color.

    • Oh my gosh, I remember ironing leaves between wax paper!! That is a great idea to try this fall! I think my son would love it, since he enjoys picking up and carrying leaves of all kinds. I’ll preserve a few leaves from “his tree”, as well as some other pretty ones that he finds, so he can enjoy them when winter rolls around. 🙂

  • Oh, Jen from Universe B…you are so talented. So well-written, so beautiful! I love this one so much. It makes me think that he must be able to see every leaf, every grain of sand, every drop of water! He’s amazing and you are an amazing mom! 🙂 It’s so cool the way you just “get” him!

    • Thank you so, so, SO much, Angarchy!! 🙂 I wonder the same thing – like maybe he sees the world in HD, while we’re seeing it on one of those old TVs with rabbit-ear antennas. Just wait until he finds a way to tell us all about it. Or SHOW us – maybe he’ll communicate through art or something. Either way, it will be exciting to see what he has to share!!

  • Your writing amazes me each time I read a post.

    Your boy is so lucky to have you as his momma. You are incredible perceptive of what he is commucating and sharing with you. You are reading him by observing his observations so carefully. And as the momma of two of those shark feeding children, I’m often not clued into their world unless I ask questions, and then I feel like it should be so obvious to me. Thank you for making me reflect on how I need to be an observer more often of them. Although, I’m not sure I would have figured out they were feeding sharks 😉

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Kim! It means so much to have you along on this crazy journey, lol! Who would have thought your adorable, shark-feeding children would end up in a blog post, but that memory just popped into my head at the perfect moment. It makes me smile every time I think about it!! 🙂

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