A piece of abstract art on the wall

I found the only open spot on the couch, but opted to sit on the floor. The living room is always packed at my in-laws’ on family dinner nights. About once a week, my husband’s parents and siblings and their significant others all gather together. 

Tonight was like any other, or at least I thought it would be. I planted myself on the carpet leaning my back against the sliding glass doors. I liked being near my 3-year-old nephew, Barrett, or as we like to call him, Bear. 

He was sitting close to the TV, playing with two dinosaur toys that were almost identical. He does this a lot, playing a matching game by digging through his basket of stuffed animals and plastic figurines. I watched him, waiting for him to make sounds, to make the dinosaurs talk to each other, but not with words. 

Then, the unexpected happened. Bear began to speak. 

I sat in awe as he turned to me and said, “Hey, Aunt Nat.” 

My mind couldn’t communicate fast enough to respond. I was frozen, watching him and hearing him say those words for the first time—hearing him say my name. Everyone else acted like this was a normal occurrence. I blinked a few times, trying to wrap my head around it all, only to realize I was in my bed back at home. It had been a dream. A beautiful, frustrating dream.

A deep longing grew inside of me, wanting to hear my nephew say my name. I tried my best to focus on the day ahead because that night I was going to family dinner—a real one this time. 

When my husband and I arrived, we took our seats at the table with everyone else. We started the meal how we always do, by singing the “Happy Birthday” song, which has become our new prayer. It makes Barrett smile so big every time because, for him, each new day is a reason to be happy and celebrate. 

For him, each new day is a reason to be happy and celebrate. 

Regardless of the “prayer,” Barrett just wasn’t hungry. Normally, he eats chicken fingers, fish sticks, french fries or anything with a crunchy or stiff exterior. If something new is introduced into his meals, which happens daily, he has to test out the texture of the food with his thumb. If it doesn’t pass the firmness test, he’s out and so is the food. Since Bear didn’t hang around for the entire meal that night, I finished my plate rather quickly, so I could go find him and play. 

It was the same setting as my dream—the living room and him sitting behind the couch where his basket of toys sat. I squatted next to him, watching him study each toy. He closed one eye to get a really good look at each one before deciding to keep it in his hand or throw it over his shoulder into the discard pile. I helped him by picking out toys that reflected similar characteristics to the one in his other hand. Once I found one that he approved of, playtime became a one-person game.

I let him play for a little bit, but after a while, I couldn’t be a bystander any longer. So, I picked him up and started spelling his name. I poked his chest with each letter, making my voice higher, as he raised his shoulders, knowing that on the last “T,” I would tickle him. Finally, he erupted in laughter as I made it to the end, tickling him and flipping him upside down in my arms.

He erupted in laughter as I made it to the end, tickling him and flipping him upside down in my arms.

Once he caught his breath, he looked at me, a big smile across his face as I began spelling again. After a few rounds, I set him down, letting him go back to the toys, but he didn’t. He looked at me, his expression shifting from a smile as he grabbed my hand, guiding me to the kitchen.

We stopped in front of the pantry where he placed my hand on the door handle. Cookies are serious business to Bear, and he knew just how to tell me that. I picked up a couple of different items inside the pantry, each one he pushed away, until I reached for the box of cookies. He was back to smiling as I pulled one out and handed it over to him.

Then, it hit me. Why had I longed for that dream to come true when Barrett could communicate just fine? He may not tell me he wants a cookie by using his voice, but instead, he includes me in his journey. He takes my hand and walks with me to places, wanting me to be there alongside him. 

Suddenly, I cherished his unique way of communication. I’ve been told throughout the years that being slow to speak is a virtue—one I have an immensely hard time following. Barrett helped me see the truth in that. 

By not speaking, he has the freedom to explore and navigate the world in a more open way. He doesn’t tell you what he wants, but he can show you, which makes every part of his day an opportunity for connection. 

He has the freedom to explore and navigate the world in a more open way.

He has created his own experience, his own language and that’s something many of us don’t have the imagination to do. We rely on others to do that for us, like Walt Disney or Pixar. However, Barrett can do that for himself—whether it’s picking leaves and flowers off of plants and turning them into characters in his world, laughing as he makes waves in the pool or simply throwing his arms around anyone who asks for a hug. 

We should all be a little more like my nephew, like someone who sees and navigates the world a little differently. We should learn to live with more simplicity and with more intentional human connection. 

I love you, Bear.

Are you or someone you know on the autism spectrum? What is important to know about learning differences?

Image via Raisa Zwart Photography

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