“Mama, Mama! Look what we got in school today!”

Katie was running toward me, cradling her prize. She held it out to me with both hands, breathlessly offering me a look at this object of wonder. Obviously, this was BIG.

“It’s a dictionary made just for students,” she said, eyes wide and expectant. “It’s FULL of WORDS!”

There’s no denying that my daughter comes by her love of language honestly. We spent a recent car trip in an animated discussion about etymology – the study of word origins and evolution – and how it can be used to decipher meaning. We talked about the common history of the romance languages and how if you know more than one, you can root out meanings in another. We talked about Greek and Latin. We had far too much fun as I gave her some examples and we puzzled through them together.

So it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise that Katie was holding onto her new student’s dictionary as though it were an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, it is.

On Monday, she brought it along on our trip to the nail salon. She spent my entire manicure searching for new words. “Mama,” she’d say again and again, “give me another one. Make it one I don’t know. I want to learn something new!”

I wracked my brain for words she would find interesting. She loved DECIPHER. She got a big kick out of FORTITUDE. She struggled with how to use NUANCE in a sentence.

But it was LEXICON that was her favorite. First, it made her laugh that she had looked up a word that essentially meant ‘dictionary’ in the dictionary. But then we dug deeper. We talked about how each of us has our own lexicon – our very own list of words always at our disposal.

We continued the conversation as we got into the car to head home. We talked about the power that comes with expanding one’s lexicon. We talked about how a wider array of words gives you a far greater likelihood of being able to accurately communicate what you see (or hear or smell or feel or want or need) with others.

My voice cracked. I hoped she didn’t hear it. This was hitting home.

“Ok,” I said, shaking it off. “Purple. How many different shades of purple can we name?”

We did our best to think of gradations of purples – lavender, lilac, periwinkle, deep purple, royal purple, violet, magenta.

We must have spent ten minutes on purple.

I was grateful for the distraction.

I explained to Katie how much power there is in the ability to communicate in vivid, living color. There’s strength, capability and security in knowing that you can share with pinpoint accuracy what’s inside your head.

I flashed to a conversation I’d had with Brooke the day before. She’d walked into the bathroom while I was showering. She was clutching Ming Ming the Duckling and looking very serious.

“Ming Ming isn’t yellow anymore,” she’d said with a furrowed brow.

“Oh no,” I’d said, “what happened to her?”

“She’s all red.”

“How did that happen, Brooke?” I’d asked.

“She isn’t yellow anymore. She’s all red now.”

“How did she get red?”

“She’s bleeding,” she’d said – her face a cartoonish exaggeration of ‘sad’.

“She is? How did she get hurt?” I’d asked.

“She got all red.”

Circles. Round and round we go without the right words.

“What happened that made her bleed, honey?” I’d asked slowly, separating each word.

“BECAUSE,” she’d said, emphasizing the ‘because’ even though it wasn’t contextually appropriate, “she needs to go to the doctor.”

“Oh. So did she get a cut?” I’d ask, trying to help a bit.

“She did.”

“How did she get the cut, Brooke?”

“Because she isn’t yellow anymore.”

I chided myself for focusing on such a silly conversation. Of all the difficulty that she has communicating, why hone in on a nonsense interchange? So we go in circles; so what? We’re light years from where we were when her only means of social interaction was to come to us with the first half of a word and wait for us to finish it. We’re nearly unrecognizable from the days – not so long ago – when she’d ask us our names over and over and over, followed by ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ again and again and again.

Yes, it was a silly conversation to get stuck on. But it still matters. Interaction matters to my girl. Words matter. And they don’t come easily. Understanding them, finding them, using them, stringing them together to make meaning – it’s HARD.

There is immense power in words. They have the power to create, to unite, to motivate. They have the power to soothe and to comfort. They have the power to forge and foster connection. They have the power to make us feel understood. Some even have the power to long outlive their speakers.

But sometimes, it’s their absence that is most powerful of all.

And the most heartbreaking.

28 thoughts on “lexicon

  1. First comes the love and the security, then the risk to try the words and the support for the attempt. You provide all of it and then some, and the words will follow and increase. It’s your love that plows the ground and you offer that in abundance to your babies and all around you.
    She will make it, tiny piece by tiny piece. Just keep encouraging each baby in their own way so that both fly as high as they can.
    Love you,

  2. Your dad is right on. Step by step her lexicon will continue to grow. My E, now in 4th grade, is living proof. Even though he still relies on scripts and gets stuck in loops, he astonishes me every day with remarks and requests that are accurate, appropriate and in many cases downright eloquent.

  3. You have no idea how happy I am to have found your blog. I feel like I’ve run into a comforting old friend. My family is all deceased, my husband’s family refuses to “get it” and most of my friends have developmentally aproppriate children. I feel like I have finally found the place where I no longer feel totally alone in my heartbreak, fear,as well as my happiness at the smallest triumphs. I cry nearly every time I read your blog, but it’s different now. I am no longer alone.
    Bless you for having the courage to put into words what so many others can only feel internally.

  4. How do you do it? With pinpoint accuracy, you pull words together and whenever I read them, I feel as if you’ve pulled them straight from my brain!

    It is the absence that is heartbreaking. I get it.

  5. cee cee, you have said it for all of us. yes, jess is able to speak to the way i feel like no one else. and no, my god, you are no longer alone.

    this post, jess…one of your best. truly. and here’s my favorite word – agro dolce, meaning of course, the sweet with the bitter (sour)in italian cooking. it’s how i often feel about my experience with my daughter. i must admit, that these days, mostly the sweet wins.

    and i have a feeling that that’s how it is for you, too.


  6. OK. Give yourself 30 seconds to think back.

    See how far Brooke has come?

    She’ll continue to make progress – I assure you, there is NO end in sight.

    love you to pieces.


  7. Heartbreaking, indeed. But so much sweeter each time a new one appears. Just look how far Kendall has come already. And how much further she is surely going to go with such a wonderful, supportive family behind her.

    One of my boys is starting to repeat almost everything you say to him, this after almost four years of mostly silence. My other one still wanders around jabbering with no clear words or communication. And even my five year old notices.

    “Someday Sawyer’s not going to say “wuzz-a-bee” anymore,” he told me, just this morning. “When he gets bigger he’s going to talk like I do.”

    “I don’t know, baby, but I sure hope so.”

    I hope the silence eventually breaks.

  8. CeeCee – Yes! I have said often that Jess’s blog is a godsend because she so aptly articulates what i cannot put in to words because I am sometimes overwhelmed by the emotions. What a gift. Thank you, Jess. Beautiful as always.

  9. Gee, I wonder why Katie is so interested in language? Maybe because her mama’s a master.

    You’re tugging on my heartstrings…you truly do have a way of explaining things that eerily matches how I feel each and every day. Not that I could ever put it like you do.

    Brooke’s trying to communicate – that’s a lot more than a lot of kids. She’s lucky to have such a caring and attentive mama to guide her along her path.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Language is so crucial, it is the main ‘dysfunction’ of autism, all the behaviours of autism stem from the urge to communicate and the frustration that goes with it. If the pathway isn’t there or is not formed like it is for ‘neurotypicals’, we see the weird, the aggressive, the retreat.
    My son still has ‘what is your name? are you a boy or a girl?’ days. But he also has days that make me glow, such as the other night he asked my husband ‘what is inside my eye?’
    My son’s curiosity, desire to know things and desire to be connected to our world make it easier to encourge and develop his verbal language. I know several families whose children have no verbal language at all, and you are spot on – it is totally heartbreaking. Thank you again for such a beautiful post, Jess.

  11. Yes. It’s beyond hard.

    And not enough can be made of Katie’s love of words, who DOESN’T get a kick out of “fortitude!” And you guys have that in SPADES! (Teach her that one, btw.)

  12. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the ‘because’ conversation. Yes, it’s frustrating for us but must be doubly so for our little ones. Now let me give you one to look forward to. My 11-yr.old was recently kicked off the computer when someone had to do some actual work. Her response “Dad, you sabotaged my moment!” Yes, it was scripted but had us all in pure delight with it’s dead-on accuracy.

  13. Oh, we do love words!! I cannot bear to part with my History of the English Language and still remember fondly my Advanced Grammar courses. Ah …

    And the struggle to communicate is so poignant … I know it’s in there and so hard to get out. How we wish all our love of the language could help make it easier for them.

    Love you GRATUITOUSLY!

  14. The absence is heartbreaking till a new word comes along – even if its not quite right. My son just starting eating apricots – but he calls them “apple-cots”. That’s just too cute to correct right now. 🙂

  15. Your conversation about the Ducky was so perfectly depicted. It’s so hard to explain the language issues my daughter still has. She can talk, yes, but communicate is a struggle sometimes even now.

  16. Beautifully written. Be at least grateful of some words. My nephew just turned 9. He does not speak at all. He has obsessive behaviors and must be medicated to control these. His parents live a daily nightmare. My heart breaks for little brother, now the dad of this deeply autistic boy we all love so much but are so challenged by him.

  17. Heartbreak indeed. The silence is deep and her frustration is strong. My little girl, Nola, will be three. She does not say much. My 20 month old, Ben, speaks out more, make more noise. The silence brings sadness and at times I feel that I have deserted my little girl leaving her alone. I promised myself that I will do more, how much more? As much as it takes to save her from the silence. She does not like being bothered with or distracted from her concentration while working on her projects. She was diagnosed about two months ago, however, she has spent her entire life in limbo because we didn’t know. But now we know. How confusing it is for us to understand that it really is happening to us. How full of doubts our daily lives have become and yet just how heartbreaking it is when we know she is having trouble communicating with us. How helpless I feel when I see her all alone in her Early Intervention class, wanting to do her own thing, and/or experiencing a day of temper tantrums not knowing the cause. Strapping her down in her stroller calms her down, then she says to me, “I am sorry,” or “don’t worry, don’t worry!” as she extends her hand out to me. There words come so clear and cut through my heart as I feel that I let her down. I’ve felt responsible for what she is experiencing. I should have noticed earlier I tell myself. But how could I have known this. I pray for strenght for both, us parents and our children. I know I am not alone, I just don’t want her to feel alone.

  18. As a read this, I think of my daughter who along with being on the autism spectrum had a significant language delay. You said it well; interaction is so important and that is why I have not bought a DVD player for the car or a video game for my daughter…. Why should I let her drift off into her own little world in the car when I could strike up a good conversation and increase her vocabulary? Great article:-) Colleen

  19. You are amazing and so are your children. You inspire me and give me more hope than imaginable for my litte girl who just turned 8. She has made so much progress in the past 3 years changing from non verbal to so verbal. I know the communication and conversations will come soon, when it is time.
    Thanks again..

  20. Thank all of you. This comes in the nick of time for me. Technically the struggle with and for my granddaughter is in its early stages. She is getting the best of care both from her family and a marvelous State program that provides therapy four days a week and four hours a day. For me, the pain comes from the fact that I am 73, half a cripple and the baby is 32 pounds which I cannot lift and runs at high speed that catching her would be more of a danger than a challenge. I see the strength and courage in all of your comments and draw from your loving dedication and perseverance. The only way I can help is through prayer for her. In thanks, I shall add each of you to my list and rely on God’s promise to move mountains.

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