Sunday, May 22, 2011


Because Alex has always had such acute hearing, Ed and I must be careful about what we say, even when we think Alex isn’t within earshot. The mere mention of something he loves, such as shrimp or Walmart, can bring him running from another room to see why we’re discussing something important to him. Even whispered comments never escape his notice. Speaking in hushed tones often seems to draw Alex’s attention even more than if we speak to him directly, as though he knows that we are trying to keep him out of a loop from which he refuses to be excluded. In addition, we couldn’t take advantage of the spelling tactic many parents employ in front of their young children. Since Alex had hyperlexia, or precocious reading skills, he was able to decipher any words we spelled aloud in front of him; I suspect he thought this was a fun game. Knowing that we couldn’t always wait until Alex had gone to sleep at night to communicate things we didn’t want him to know, Ed and I have devised a set of signals that Alex appears to pay no heed.

When Alex was in special education preschool, they tried to teach him some basic signs from American Sign Language. With his poor fine motor skills and lack of interest in communicating with others by using his hands, he never learned any of the signs. He wouldn’t even point to things that held his interest; he’d simply put his hand flat on an object or a picture in a book to draw attention to it. His lack of interest in gestures and other forms of nonverbal communication extends to other people, as well, and he never seems to recognize the various hand signals Ed and I give each other throughout the day. For example, if one of us—usually me—brings up a topic that the other knows might set off Alex, the index finger to the lips is a gentle reminder to stop talking immediately before Alex realizes what has been said. When one of us needs to tell the other something we don’t want Alex to hear, we summon the other discretely with the index finger motioning the other to follow into another room where Alex can’t hear us whispering. If Alex is doing something interesting or amusing, one of us will get the other’s attention by subtly pointing to him so that the other can also observe the behavior but still keep Alex oblivious to the fact that we’re watching him.

The signal Ed and I use most during the day is the “thumbs-up.” Whenever either of us comes home while the other has stayed home with Alex, the first thing we want is a report of how Alex has been, but we don’t want to talk about his behavior in front of him. As soon as Ed or I walk in the door, we look expectantly to the other for an overall assessment of how things have gone. A rolling of the eyes, shaking of the head, or moving a flat hand back and forth to indicate “so-so” are the nonverbal messages we sometimes convey to each other but dread getting upon our return home. Fortunately, most of the time, Ed and I are able to reassure each other that Alex has been fine by giving the thumbs-up. I know that I always breathe a big sigh of relief when I see Ed give me the positive thumbs-up sign, and I am confident that he feels the same way. However, we look forward to the day when Alex’s behavior consistently merits a thumbs-up assessment so that Ed and I don’t need to use signals to communicate; we’ll just know that everything is fine.

“How great are His signs, how powerful are His wonders! His kingdom will last forever, His rule through all generations.” Daniel 4:3

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