Language — a barrier?

For a long time, words were not very important to me. They were merely tools to be used. However, as time elapsed, I began choosing my words very carefully. I was conscious of using the right words with different people. More importantly, words became important for me to communicate as much as I could with little room for misinterpretation. I believed in all this very strongly, but sometimes, not so much. All this changed when I met someone very recently.

One of the cutest kids in my class. This boy is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Unlike my other interactions with children with autism, this one is very special. Why so? Imagine this for me — You are 9 years old. Sitting in a classroom where most of the communication is through language. However, it is very challenging for you to communicate any of your needs to anyone. This is absolutely no fault of yours, but remains a mystery to most. You are thirsty, but it’s challenging for you to ask for it, because your speech hasn’t developed enough yet, so you cry. A distinct cry that lets one know you want water. You are hungry, but again, it is a challenge for you to communicate that need. You want to use the restroom, in some cases, you successfully manage to say ‘ba’ for bathroom. But it’s difficult for you, because you’re trying to reach out, but it’s hard for others to understand you. Especially adults. Who are so fixed and rigid in their thinking and what with all their expectations. Additionally, you have this uncontrollable need to feel everything around you — fabric, metal, plastic and everything else. And this sensory stimulation is through all your senses — touch, sight, smell, sound and taste. You can’t help it. And there are people around you trying to tell you how to behave, what you shouldn’t do, controlling your sensory needs. They believe it’s best for you because you need to be able to manage yourself in this world independently and not everyone will be able to understand you. But you’re smart, you’re adaptable. You know you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You understand what people around you are saying, even though they might not know it.

It’s been two months since I began working with this child. And I am still getting to understand him. But you know what amazes me? The other amazing children in my class. They understand his every need, every feeling and they tell me so that I can also begin understanding him. They don’t treat him any different, in fact, they take all the more effort and care to involve him in everything they do. They give him so much love and affection it’s overwhelming for me. When they have their free play time, they choose to sit with him and help him learn. They’ve seen the other teachers work with him and have picked up on strategies to work with him. More importantly, they never lose patience with him, they never shout at him for anything he does, they simply say, very lovingly to him, “please give it back to me” or “please don’t do this”. They simply love him for all that he is.

It’s through these beautiful children, I am learning that language, even though believed to be universal, isn’t in many ways. Most often than not, we get frustrated and exasperated when someone doesn’t listen to us. Why are they not listening? Is it so difficult to understand what I am saying? Maybe, it is. Maybe, we need to start reflecting that there may be another way to reach out to someone, there may be another way to hear them and for them to hear you. It may not be what we are used to, but it may be what works for them. These children are teaching me to speak the language of love and care and not anger or frustration. They are teaching me that I need to do something different to connect with each of them and that each of them use language and words very differently. It’s difficult, no doubt. To let go of old ways and adopt new ones, to let go of old beliefs and take on new ones. But when you see that smile on a face that reaches their eyes, because they believe you have finally understood them, it’s worth every struggle.