I am terrible at learning languages. I quit Spanish 102 because I just couldn’t get it, even after summer tutoring, on-campus tutoring, getting help from the professor, and take-home tests. I was a failure and I gave up.
I once heard an Autistic man describe Autism as being in a foreign country where you don’t understand the language of the natives and no one understands your language. The people you live with want you, love you, and would do anything for you but the depth of the love does not change the fact that you just don’t speak the same language and you struggle—constantly—to communicate.
What an eye-opening metaphor.
I am not Autistic.
I do not have ADHD.
I do not have learning disabilities.
I am not my children.
We are foreigners to each other, struggling to understand each other’s language, desires, and values.
Many times my frustration gets the better of me, but I’m learning to ask better questions.
Just the other morning I asked one of my 9-year-old boys to get cups for everyone for breakfast. I already had coffee in a mug so when I saw him reach into the cabinet to get a cup for me, I said, “I don’t need a glass. I already have my coffee.”
But he still got the cup out and brought it to the table, setting it down by my place.
My patience level goes up as the level of my coffee goes down and at this moment, my coffee mug was full.
“Did you not hear me? I said I don’t need a cup!”
My tone did not match this simple scenario; I should have been more patient but I was irritated because this was not the first time this had happened. It was more like the thousandth time that I had made a request and he did the exact opposite.
I mean, what in the world, kid? I know you can hear me. The pediatrician and the audiologist tested it I know YOU CAN HEAR.
But when I paused to examine my response and my frustration, I wondered if this wasn’t about hearing. What if it was about listening and understanding?
So I asked him:
“When I told you I didn’t need a cup, did you think I’ll just get her one anyway, or did it just take you a while to process what I said?”
And he replied: “The second one.”
And suddenly another piece clicked into place, one tiny portion of the mosaic that shows me the image of my son; the picture on the box went missing—we’re finding our way in the dark.
The cup incident showed me, in a greater way, how ADHD affects the way he processes language. I already knew that when he says, “Hey Mom!” I have to wait one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, before he tells me what’s on his mind. It takes him a while to form his thoughts.
It’s frustrating for me at times, but more for him. The other night I told him sternly to not interrupt his father and me when we’re in the middle of the conversation.
But when I turned to my son to ask him what he wanted to tell me, he stomped away angrily. The thought, which was so hard to capture, was now gone.
I wish I had solutions. Someday they may come but for now, I’m praying for understanding and the wisdom to ask the right questions.
And something more too: I’m praying for incarnational love for my sons, the ability to somehow enter into their world, roll around in their minds and hearts, and understand who they are in a visceral way.
I will never be my sons, nor is it likely that I will ever truly know what it is like to be Autistic or ADHD.
But I’m working on learning their language, even if I’m terrible at it. Each book and article I read, each question I ask, each apology, each pause brings us closer to understanding each other’s hearts and minds.
I can only hope and pray that love can bridge the gap.