I was struck hard by this image shared by the National Autism Association’s Facebook page.

It’s an image of a child hunkered down against a counter, head tucked into folded arms so that you can’t see anything below his eyes. Open eyes, starting directly back into yours. It’s been washed out, so that the text overlay pops:

Just because I cannot speak, doesn’t mean I cannot hear. What you say matters.

My comments below were shared to Facebook, and admittedly, I was furiously typing on my phone, my fingers trying to keep up with the words that have lived in my heart for as long as the AH-HA moment has been with me.

Because, it had to dawn on me – the correlation between words and their inflection, and how the kid connected with other humans.

I knew he had to be touched. After his evaluation, when we were applying early intervention strategies, I asked my friends: “If you want to make a connection with him, you need to touch him firmly and look into his eyes. It’s an effort, but you’ve got to make him see and feel you.” But I didn’t realize that he was also actively filing away tone and emotions, and assigning individuals to different categories: connect, avoid and not sure yet.

It took me a while to realize he was processing. And it took me even longer to figure out how to explain it to others.

And it’s not that my comments are eloquent, but at least they’re out. And now, they can be refined as we continue to grow.

I cannot over-emphasize how strongly I feel about this – the kid may not have full command of his ability to communicate effectively, but he certainly hears how you talk to him or at him or about him – and what’s more, he FEELS it.

It’s why I work so hard to develop a positive and constructive air space around us.

It takes a lot of energy and patience. Talk about “adulting.”

And, I know I won’t always be able to manage the air space, but it was a major priority when he was younger. Back in the day, he was more within himself. Less able to relate and understand, and definitely less able to communicate. But he would carry the hurt and confusion of hurtful words – and it would affect his ability/desire to connect with others.

Now, as he works to practice his verbal dexterity and battles to open his mind to the complexities of relationships and communication between people, I see him growing the ability to let words (and their subtext) go.

It’s just a little green shoot…but gosh darn it, I’m gonna tend it like I’m some bad-ass gardener.