speaking in pictures

This boy loves the water.

On a recent trip, we asked him every day, several times, if he wanted to go swimming. He firmly, directly, and absolutely said, “No.”

So, someone would stay home with him while the others headed for the pool. I chalked it up to mood, sometimes you just don’t know with him. He can be over a favorite toy or hobby in the blink of an eye. I do not get nor expect an explanation.

After three days of this, we decided to take a picture of the pool. This was the same pool he had been to so many times before, so we figured this was worth a try. I had a feeling something was lost in our communication.

The next day, we showed him the photo and asked if he wanted to go swimming. He excitedly responded with “Yes!”

Back to the beginning, the first specialists we saw when Wilson’s speech development was delayed continually insisted that he needed more visuals in his life. All day long, he should have images to remind him things like how to wash his hands or use the bathroom, visual schedules to transition from one activity to another, food visuals, stop/go images for safety, etc.

This was hard to wrap my head around. He knew how to do all these things, and I knew he understood so many words even though he couldn’t say many. I thought they were just trying to put him in the “autism box” – assuming he needed these seemingly excessive visuals like many other children with autism.  I stubbornly wanted him to understand me, my way. I so badly wanted the words coaxed out of him.

But they were right. Eventually our walls were covered with these images he quite simply needed for regulation. Stories on self-care, self-calming techniques, stop signs, daily routines, and schedules. We kept images in the diaper bag, on our keychains and cell phones.  We’d scribble plans out on whiteboards and leave instructions with caregivers to do the same.

It didn’t matter if you were the World’s Most Terrible Artist, he listened to these images. He understood them. Especially when his anxiety was heightened and regulation down, this was the way we could earn his attention.

Fast forward, and today this sweet boy knows hundreds of new words and concepts. He continues to understand so much more than he can say. Words have a way of escaping him. He learns them, he knows them, and then he often cannot access them. This frustrates the hell right out of him. This is the downright unfair, heartbreaking part of his brain working in this way it has been designed.

We can tell him the plan 1,000 times. He’ll anxiously repeat it back to us, over an over, waiting for confirmation that he has it down correctly. If we SHOW him, he calms, accepts, and moves on. He might come back and quietly check the image or schedule again and then continues with what he was doing.

Now he is the one adorning our walls with visuals. He draws, cuts and glues paper, and carefully hangs his creations with blue tape. I think he knows he can say so much more this way, and we are listening.

Communication looks different for everyone, and it’s constantly evolving. Keep trying new approaches and circling back to old tactics, even the ones that didn’t work the first go-around. It is always worth a try.

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