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“What a Kiss Should Sound Like”

I have become much more than a mom to my son. I’ve become his therapist.

I see the ways that he is different. I struggle to teach him what other children just seem to know. When he doesn’t understand how to kiss, I teach him what a kiss should sound like. When he bangs his lips into my cheek without puckering his own, without delivering that soft wet sensation and sound along with the pressure of his lips, I teach him how to shape his lips in order to create that sound.

To me, this is what a mother does for her son. I never question why he needs me to teach him what other children pick up intuitively. We practice sucking applesauce through straws to strengthen his muscle tone. I make it a family project, and for weeks we all drink applesauce through a straw at dinner.

It is always someone else pointing out to me that something feels wrong. In nursery school, he and his best friend share an unusually close relationship. Yet to his teacher he is standoffish and removed.

“I don’t feel like he relates to me the way the other boys do,” she explains to me toward the end of the year. “He doesn’t come to me with stories the way they do, to tell me about his grandparents’ visit, or what he got for his birthday. Maybe there is a language issue.”

That is the beginning of our quest into the world of speech therapy. Since our family is bilingual, my son receives speech therapy in two languages. Today he moves between the two with fluidity and ease. His vocabulary is large, and he uses it well. There was never really a language issue; it was a communication issue, although we didn’t recognize it at the time.

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So the problem persists, that vague unease that makes his nursery school teachers turn to me again and again to say there is something here that I can’t put my finger on. Something is going on under the surface.

In a photo taken on a day trip to the zoo, with his cousin’s arm around his shoulders, my son looks like just another boy smiling at the camera and the world. From the photo, you can’t tell that I taught him how to smile, that we practiced with mirrors, that almost none of our other family photos contain smiles.

This photo just looks natural. Yet the previous photo, snapped just a moment before, tells a different story. Before his cousin’s gentle touch guided him back into reality, he was somewhere else entirely; his vacant expression and flat affect advertising his isolation from those around him. In the space of that magic touch, my son traveled worlds, transformed from a lost soul into a found one.

We all space out, I tell myself. So what if he doesn’t always seem tuned in to what is going on around him? Isn’t a child allowed to daydream? Except that daydreams don’t usually come with blank expressions. Daydreams usually say, “I am somewhere else.” They don’t say, “I am nowhere.”
For every step I take toward understanding my son, something in me takes a step back, rejecting what I already sense must be true. I still believe that anything wrong can be taught. Learning to smile, learning to kiss — this is all just a set of teachable skills.

[Parenting Blog: “The Guilt Is Endless”]

I am already transforming from my son’s mother into his therapist, although I don’t know it yet. I don’t know I am seeing signs of selective mutism in the way he relates to our family as opposed to the way he relates to his teachers and peers. Each day there is a little more I don’t know.

When we receive the diagnosis of ADHD, I latch on to it gratefully. I don’t yet know he won’t respond to stimulants. I don’t yet know that ADHD will be one only part of a complex psychological profile that includes features of paralyzing social anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t yet know that mothering this boy will change the definition for me of what it means to be a mother.

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