Uncategorized | August 10, 2004

As readers and writers, we often take the (apparently) simple gift of communication for granted. We speak, we listen; we write, we read; we gesture, we interpret. We study the details, we parce nuance. But Linda Lawson’s essay, “Facilitated Communication,” which reflects upon her son Craig’s autism and the complications it creates in the realm of language, reminds us of both the challenges and joy of human conversation. The essay originally appeared in TMR 25:3 (2002).


Right now he doesn’t seem to be listening to anything but wind and water. Silently I watch him smile toward the ocean, enjoying it so thoroughly and independently that even passersby turn and gaze.

Of course, body language, too, has limits. Soon after the dog reorients itself and runs south toward its proper owner, Craig turns and puts his hand in mine, only to immediately pull it away, repeating these steps over and over as if trying for a better grip. Wordlessly we attempt every combination of hands: mine in his, his in mine; fingers loose, fingers tight; my hand up, my hand down. As we grapple he walks a few steps north, then inland, then back toward the surf. Does he want to walk? Stand in a new position? Leave the beach entirely? To others it might appear we’re engaged in some kind of hand jive, that he’s trying to describe with his hands some discomfort or anxiety he cannot voice, but in fact we’re just trying to get comfortable. I think. Even in this realm I don’t know with certainty what my son is trying to say.

At times like these I despise the necessity of communication. There’s no life without it, of course. Humanity couldn’t survive without the exchange of opinions and ideas. Forget art or literature—there’d be no bread to eat, no medicine, no sanitation, transportation or commerce. To society, communication is water and oxygen combined: elemental, necessary, given. Not so to the individual, or at least to some individuals.

I suppose what I resent are the physical demands of communication, the basic requirements of expression that when combined with a universal bias toward speech effectively exclude my son and other nonverbal people like him—folks with stroke, ALS, multiple sclerosis, throat cancer, muscular dystrophy—from typically full and productive lives. People who cannot speak, write or sign are no less human than those of us who can, yet their inability to communicate in ways the rest of us intuitively understand does relegate them to a lesser existence. While days still can be achingly rich—look at my son in the waves—I can’t register his pleasure without thinking also of joys he won’t know. The claim that a person can’t miss what he’s never had offers no comfort whatsoever. Who’s to say Craig doesn’t appreciate exactly how his life differs from his brother’s?