“Use your words”

Philip and I arrived at the library this morning for our customary Saturday visit. After returning our books and stopping by the fish tank, we headed to the children’s play area. A woman and boy were already reading books in the two armchairs. Philip immediately moved to the Duplo blocks, pulling out the cars with wheels. He vocalized as he pushed the cars across the carpet.

“Use your words,” I heard the other mother say to her son.

I glanced over at the pair. The boy was smaller than Philip, but I was guessing they must be relatively close in age. The boy had a picture book open and the mom was pointing out the picture of a frog and its corresponding word.

I suddenly felt . . . anxious? Annoyed? Jealous? Judged? The phrase “use your words” sparked a negative response in me.

Does she think I should be instructing Philip the same way? I wondered. Is she irritated because my son isn’t modeling that which she is requesting of her son? Does she think I’m a bad mom? Are the noises that Philip is making bothering her?

Philip’s play attracted the attention of the other boy. I could see him lean forward, eager to join Philip. He sat back as his mom read with him. Soon, however, he couldn’t resist the urge to play. He came over and picked out a car, trying to play with Philip. Philip was more focused on the toys.

The boy returned to his seat and his book. A few moments later, I heard the mother repeat the phrase, “Use your words.” I noticed that she paired her words with a gesture of her fingers closing on her thumb, imitating the movement of a mouth with her hand.

Meanwhile, Philip’s vocalizing was becoming louder as he happily found a round toy to roll across the floor. At this point, the little boy gets out of his seat, comes over to Philip, makes the closing gesture with fingers and thumb and says, “Oose or ords.”

Use your words.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at this point. Bless his heart, that little boy understood what his mom wanted him to do. He also recognized that Philip wasn’t “using his words.” The mother looked at me, then smiled at her son and said, “Yes, use your words.”

I might have left the library indignant, in tears or both had it ended there. Instead, as the boy turned back to his chair he spotted a Curious George hand puppet on the floor. He picked this up and took it to his mom. She decided to find a Curious George book to go with the puppet.

That’s what started the conversation with the other mother. I helped her find a book. She explained that this was her first time at the library in many years. I mentioned that Philip and I come almost every Saturday.

“Does he go to school?” she asked.

When I told her yes and identified the preschool, we discovered that her son is in a class at the same preschool just across the hall. In keeping with my earlier tendency to jump to conclusions, I found out that her son attends full day, five days a week.

Why didn’t I ask for full day? I admonished myself. Maybe he would be farther ahead. Maybe he has missed a valuable opportunity. I haven’t been doing everything I could for him.

I stopped berating and second-guessing myself when I thought of all the progress that Philip has made. I reminded myself to focus on the positive.

Next Saturday night, there will be a PTO event at the school. I asked the other mom if she and her son were going.

“I saw the signs, but I don’t know what it is,” she admitted.

I told her what I knew of it, including the time. I could see her hesitating.

“Well . . ” she began.

That’s when she told me her story. She and her son are homeless. They are currently being sheltered in a network of local churches. I deduced that the timing of the PTO event conflicts with meal times.

She shared more details. I had explained that Philip is autistic and non-verbal. She confessed that her son is not developmentally delayed, but that she just hadn’t provided him with the environment he needed. In addition to being homeless, she herself is disabled. Suddenly, I realized that “Use your words” wasn’t a dig at me. It wasn’t about me at all.

I was no longer indignant or jealous or depressed. I realized that here was a child that really did need to be in preschool all day, every day. I realized that here was a mother, having been told the importance of reading to her child, had brought her son to the library. Here was a mother taking advantage of the resources available to help her son in any way she can. Here was a mother trying to implement the suggestions of teachers. Here was a mother doing the best she can for her child under very trying circumstances.

Suddenly, I respected this mom and mentally applauded her phrase “Use your words.”

7 thoughts on ““Use your words”

  1. That is something. I got teary eyed reading your post. In fact, I actually spent some time recently researching autism so I could have a better understanding and be more supportive to friends, etc after reading one of your posts. I commend you for not being completetly reactive in the encounter at the library. From that you gained wisdom and taught me a little something too! Thanks for sharing and spreading the message.

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  2. A very poignant post Cyn. I cannot imagine being homeless with my children but she is doing an amazing job trying to still get her son what he needs and you did a wonderful job sharing your interaction with her. When I saw the title “use your words” I flashed to how I am always reminding my son to move from sounds to the words I know he can say now. Not very long ago I was like you when I was at playgroups and my little guy would vocalize with sounds with his cars, trucks, and also trying to get my attention. I would sit and listen to the other mom’s around me that had children who were learning to talk and wonder what to say when their children tried to initiate play with my son. Heck I still fumble over what to say sometimes….I think you are doing an amazing job with Phillip and reading your blog I love reading about his accomplishments. All day vs full day? I have been going back and forth on that too over the last 2 years and wondering am I pushing too hard or am I pushing hard enough. One of my son’s teachers pointed out that with all the challenges my son has plus trying to learn the same curriculum as the other children that I should aim for him to be successful for half the day. I was a bit shocked but she pointed out that with ASD you want to build confidence as well and if you wear a child out they can’t move forward and you build anxiety. I second guess myself too but in the end trust your gut and as long as Phillip is moving forward and is happy that’s golden. BTW I love that he is making vocallizations while playing…that’s a really good sign.

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      1. no problem 🙂 His SK teacher, his paediatrician, and an early child consultant have all now told me that this was the best choice for him. Set him up for success, build confidence and “good patterns” and then use the afternoon to give him some much needed “down time” or target some challenges. ie 45 min speech therapy class, 45 min private OT. For 2 afternoons I have him eat lunch with his friends at school and then head to a special communication playgroup for 2-1/2 hours and so far he seems happier.

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