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Spring, 1993

I am lying on Tar Beach, a precariously angled little spit of roof outside my friend, Heather’s dorm room. As soon as the weather cooperated, the girls began climbing through the window with four-packs of cold Zima’s and a boom box — all we needed to sit and watch the world go by below.

I close my eyes and listen to my friend, Kati talking to her sister, who is visiting from New York. My lips curl into an involuntary smile.

After a time, I finally give up on trying to parse out the words – translating the Spanish ones, processing the English ones, picking apart the ones in between. Oh, how I love the ones in between. Once my brain stops trying to keep up, I open up. I begin to FEEL the words.

I am in awe of their shared language, the product of their bilingual upbringing.

Their words are ripe and juicy, full of vivid colors and aching feelings and vibrant flavors and my God, how I envy them the breadth of their lexicon and the precision of communication that it affords them. While I might have three words to convey a given idea, they have a seemingly endless supply from which to choose. If neither English nor Spanish has exactly the right one for exactly the right thought, they create it – an amalgam of the two. Their language is worn and shaped over time like a river rock, the edges smooth until the feelings are IN the words, ARE the words.

There is an intimacy inherent in their interaction. No matter how banal the topic of their conversations, I always feel like an intruder around them, peeping furtively through a keyhole, seeing something too deep and too authentic to be so casually witnessed.

They laugh at my awe.

“It’s just Spanglish,” they say.


December, 2011

One night, I ask her to start counting without me. I promise to follow. Then I lay perfectly still and listen.

And there it is – a faint scratching sound on the comforter.

She is scratching out the numbers with her fingernails.

Two more nights and I am sure.

“Baby, did you scratch out the numbers on the blanket?”

“I did.”

Over time, the scratching turns into rubbing and the rubbing turns into tapping.

One day I ask if I can tap the numbers too.

Now, every night, we choose a number, she grabs my hand and says, ‘We would do the tappies.” And we do. Together. Nothing makes me happier.

2 nights ago
Brooke and I are lying on my bed. She has her iPad. I am finishing a book.
“Mom,” she says, “is this one schruvy*?”
I look over at the picture to which she’s pointing on the screen.
It’s a Dora the Explorer that someone’s messed with. She has dark circles around her eyes.
“Yes, baby,” I say, “that is DEFINITELY schruvy.”
She passes it by.
She starts to giggle.
“Mom, what does schruvy mean?”
I try to come up with a definition of the word that she made up so long ago. “Hmm,” I say, “I guess it means a version of something familiar but that’s not okay. But you’re the one who made it up! So is that right?”
She says, “Yeah.”
A few minutes later, she asks, “Mom, am I schruvy?”
I nuzzle her neck and say, “What do you think?”
She dissolves into laughter.
* I asked Brooke how to spell schruvy for this post. I was surprised by the ‘c’, (who woulda thunk it?) so it was a good thing I asked.
Last night
“Mama.” she says, “will you do a thwort?”
“Of course, baby,” I say as I pull her onto my lap.
I squeeze the middle of her back with a flat palm, applying steady pressure, then move it slightly upward and squeeze again.
She squeals and heads off on her scooter.
Two nights ago
Our 11 and 14 year-old cousins are visiting.
Brooke is struggling.
She’s come into my room to escape.
She’s scripting on hyperspeed.
“Why was Dora crying?” she asks.
“I don’t know, why?” I ask. I know, but that’s not my line.
“Because Abuela’s thank you party is ruined!” she says.
“Oh no!” she says, “Rintoo, you have to stay in bed! But then I’ll miss trick-or-treating! But Rintoo, you can’t walk on your foot that you hurt. Mom, why is Rintoo crying?”
I answer, “Because he wants to go trick-or-treating with his friends.”
Brooke desperately wants to be part of the sleep-over with the cousins, but it’s just too much for her.
“Uh oh,” she says, “Tolee hit Rintoo! Why did Tolee hit Rintoo? He said, “I can’t get anything I want today!” Mom, how did Tolee feel?”
“Sounds like he felt frustrated,” I say, because that’s my line.
“But what should he have done?” she asks, “Instead of hitting?”
“Come here, baby” I say.
She curls into me, laying her head on my hip as she says, “He should use his words. Is it ever okay to hit?” I smooth her hair as she processes her sadness and frustration through Kai-Lan and Dora.
December, 2011

The world demands that we interact with it in its own language. A language that Brooke does not instinctively speak. Day in and day out, she must find a way to function within it. To translate nearly every thought and feeling and impulse and mode of communication into something else – something ‘expected’ and ‘acceptable’ and ‘intelligible’ to everyone around her.

I am so grateful for the moments when none of those machinations are necessary – the fleeting instants in which I can, in my own way, tell her that I get it. That there’s someone in this world with whom she can speak her own language and be understood. I wish I could do so much more of it than I currently can. It is a gift to both of us.


Last night

After dinner, Brooke wants me to join her upstairs.

I tell her that I’m having my coffee with Daddy, but if she wants to go, I’ll come right behind.

She says, “okay,” but her voice is high and tight.

Katie clears her throat. She’s been coughing through dinner and Brooke is on edge.

Her entire body tenses. Her shoulders come up to her ears, her fingers curl in on themselves, the muscles in her neck clench and pull at the corners of her mouth.

Luau tries to lighten the moment, “Hey, give me a kiss, kiddo!”

We often play a game where after one parent gets a kiss the other says, “Hey! What about meeeeee?”

This isn’t the time.

Her body is screaming, “I have to get out of here.”

I whisper to him, “Don’t push it; she’s struggling.”

He nods.



My girls are growing up in a trilingual household.

One that communicates in two different native tongues.

One of which is much better understood when we stop trying to translate it – when our brains stop trying to keep up – and we instead open ourselves up and feel it.

And a third that is an amalgam of the other two – worn and shaped over time like a river rock, its edges smoothed by the water until the feeling is what’s left.

There is an intimacy inherent in our interaction — something too deep and too authentic to be taken for granted.

We speak Brookelish.

A ripe and juicy language, full of vivid colors and aching feelings and vibrant flavors.

And Dora.

And I am so, so grateful for the expanded lexicon.

26 thoughts on “brookelish

  1. We have our own language here, too. Words like floopy and efo that we all speak and understand. And it is beautiful. Love this post.

  2. Its so great that you get it! That you know her unique language – spoken and unspoken and give her the space she needs within that language. My son has ADHD and has his own unspoken language that appears once in a while when dealing with strong emotions and physical contact. I’ve grown to see it, but my husband doesn’t seem to see or “get” it. Any suggestions for how to help those who don’t understand? I want to open that window for others.

    • all i can say is that from my own experience, it’s helped others when we break it down and explain to them what we see and why we interpret it the way that we do.

      it’s not going to be intuitive for everyone, especially for those who might have their own challenges interpreting nonverbal communication.

      but if we spell it out – as we do for new team members at school each year, we can help them to know what to look for.

      ie – one big thing is telling people NOT TO IGNORE HER SCRIPTS! you’d be amazed at how many people tune out when she starts scripting because they assume that since the the words aren’t ‘hers’ they don’t have meaning. as you can see in the post, she uses scripts to help her process emotions ALL THE TIME. so we tell people to listen to the words, to try to find the emotion in them – that’s it a pretty good chance it’s what she’s experiencing / working through.

      we point out the nonverbal stuff – step by step, saying things like, “look at her hands for cues to how she’s feeling: if they’re loose, she’s relaxed, if they’re scratching a surface, she’s likely looking for sensory input or just connecting to her environment (as she does), but if her fingers are folded like claws, she’s in distress.”

      with a spouse, there will be chances to point it out as it’s happening. to say, “look at his shoulders right now – that means he’s tense” or the like. i think some people just need a more explicitly drawn map of what to look for.

      i hope that helps.

      • It does. And you hit an important point for me. My husband also has ADHD. And he does not always read social cues and non verbal communication as rapidly or accurately as others. Thanks!

  3. I love this one. My son has his own language, as well. And we’ve all incorporated his vocabulary and expressions into our language. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

  4. Gosh, Diary–another must read! My five year old does these very same things….exactly, from making up words to scripting when he is trying to figure out a feeling, to using a body language I have so intimately come to understand. Overtime E’s language has become easier to translate, easier to understand, but it is still a language unique to him and his experiences. I feel honored when I understand and although I cannot fluently speak it with him, I am proud when I get his message. Does Brooke come up with unique names for her toys? My son makes ip these very interesting names for his stuffed animals like Baruni the stuffed sea star and Lopay the stuffed crustacean. There were many others the past few years as well, words which by all means fit the rules of word development (like the “c” in schruvy) but aren’t words at all.

    • Oh my gosh, yes. She has all kinds of word / sound names in her arsenal (yet three dolls named Stevina ;)). My all time favorite though was a pink near given to her by a cousin. It was BRIGHT pink, decked head to toe in bows and tulle – darn thing was wearing a tutu I think. And she took one look at it and named it Dennis. I know it’s not the same, but it’s my favorite 😉

  5. I love these moments, when we get to see that our language is not the only language, that learning and sharing someone else’s language grows our own capacity to see and interpret the world. And I also love getting to hear Brooke’s voice in my head when I read her Brookelish, it puts the c in schruvy for me. 🙂

  6. Once again, your words today are completely what I needed. I am currently involved with a little becoming-increasingly-tense “back and forth” with my son’s therapists, who tend to focus on the behavioral aspect of scripting rather than the reason behind it. One of the more frustrating aspects of raising a child on the spectrum is discerning when to listen to the experts and when to listen to your gut (and much more importantly, your child, even if you don’t quite understand what he is saying). My son tends to script when too many things around him change, and he loves when I join in on the scripting. I have found success on allowing him more time to script, and joining in on the script to encourage him to join me in my own conversation or activity I want to do with him. His therapists say scripting is a behavior that can be allowed only during time she determines, and that he needs to also learn that it is unacceptable when she says so. I understand the rationale behind behavioral intervention, but I also understand that rationale is based on the idea that one form of being is the only way of being. I want to encourage language development in my child who processes things differently and will therefore develop differently. Your words give me confidence in learning my child’s language, which really is a beautiful language. Thank you once again for who you are, and for sharing Brooke with us.

    • You’re an awesome mom, Missusmc 🙂 Good for you for listening to your kiddo. Jess has made such an impact on me and so many others with her story of how she relates to her daughters and how well she listens. Jess recommended a book called Loud Hands, written by Autistic men and women from across the spectrum. Your attitude and Jess’s match how they feel – that stimming can be and often IS communication in itself. My son doesn’t stim, or if he does, it’s more of a “sharing information” type.

      Hopefully your son’s therapist will pay attention to what is BEHIND or IN the stimming so she can deal with THAT more emotional component, rather than getting stuck on the “stimming isn’t appropriate” line – she needs to tune into it, rather than trying to tune it out immediately. Big hugs to you for hearing your mommy voice and your son’s voice.

  7. i starting tearing up mid way through the post, before there was even a reason to cry! i now realize that your writing has generated a pavlovian effect, where i know that by the end of the post i’ll mist up, feel emotional, because of the beautiful words…and now i pre-mist up in anticipation. just a terrific post…such an important point that the language is there, it’s being spoken, we just have to open ourselves up to it, let ourselves know that it’s there…and that we can learn it.

  8. This was just amazing. Each vignette, together creating a beautiful glimpse into Brooke’s rich language.

    I know it is not the same but i am now flooded with a memory from this past spring. My daughter came home from school after a group session with the school counselor, excited “Mama, I. Can. Talk. With. My. BODY! Like when I’m scared or confused and can’t talk with my words that I can talk with my body instead!” She showed me she can shake her head “yes” or “no”, she smiled for “ok” and lifted her shoulders for “I don’t know.”

    How had I not known, all these years, that my girl needed to be taught how to use these movements that I thought were a ‘given’. All these years, I thought that when someone asked her a question and she would look petrified and turn her head and stare out the window….all these years, I thought she didn’t want to communicate. When really, she just couldn’t connect that language is so much more than words.

    • Same way that I didn’t know that my girl didn’t know how to wave until the day that I picked her up at camp when she was 7 and I watched her standing and staring at the counselors waving goodbye. That’s how.

      (She also didn’t learn to nod “yes” until a couple of years ago.)

      Once we know better, we do better. So says Maya Angelou and she don’t lie 😉

  9. Hi, Jess!

    I am a long-time lurker and a first-time poster. I am a 19-year-old college student with cerebral palsy. I think both of your girls are beautiful, and I am in awe of Brooke’s progress. My sister, Taylor, has high-functioning Asperger’s. I would like to be a child psychologist so that I can help children and adults with autism.

    Please feel free to check out my blog!

    Have a wonderful day!


  10. Yes! We do this! We have ‘specious’ and ‘pompit’ and a heck of a lot of Balamory and most of Shrek. I was amazed the first time she put a toy out of reach of her little brother and said, “That’s in the highest room in the tallest tower”. Suddenly a script was completely appropriate, more expressive, in fact, than a simple “you can’t have that’ would have been.

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