“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” -Rumi
Waking up this morning I could hear the coins clinking together in the next room. It’s the new morning ritual. Cohen goes through his coins, which are organized by date and country, studying the numbers, names, and words on each one as he shines them. He likes to designate a coin to everyone he knows based on the year they were born. Not exactly an activity you would expect from a six-year-old I suppose. My two-year-old is, of course, jumping on the bed at this point singing about the yogurt he wants for breakfast. And so our day begins.
At breakfast, our conversations range from who got more yogurt, how many milligrams of sodium is in the toast, to their dreams last night or activities for the day, to what number is beryllium on the periodic table, and the word poop comes up way too many times to count. Our normal is, well, different these days.
I remember mornings when Cohen was only a toddler. If I turned away for a moment he would dump out cereal, oatmeal, or even sugar. He would stomp around and watch the pieces bounce and move with the vibrations. Now, he chooses a less messy way to observe vibrations by creating a box with a speaker inside and pouring the salt over top. Then he puts on his ear protection and blasts his music through the speaker, changing the volume from low to high while he watches the movement of the salt on top. Some days I wish I had ear protection.
He no longer purposely spills his juice or water to watch the liquid spread across the table and drip onto the floor. A habit that I was sure would drive me crazy. It was his earliest introduction into molecules, granted I didn’t know it at the time. Now, fortunately, for the sake of my sanity, he prefers to learn about water molecules and their behavior through books, models, videos, and experiments at the kitchen table.
I’ve learned more about space, chemistry, physics, and coins in the past few years with my son than I ever did in school. I could recite the periodic table after the number of times I have heard my son talk about it these past couple years. Science was never my best subject but it’s funny how a simple, or complex, interest of your child can become your interests too. I’m continuously fascinated by his love of learning. His excitement over new discoveries. And how he always seems to look for what isn’t immediately visible. Such as, why don’t we fall through a chair when we sit on it? In other words, he was asking where is the “glue” that holds the atoms of the chair together.
His search for everything unseen began with space. Jupiter, to be exact, just before he turned three. He had already mastered the ABC’s, colors, and shapes, he needed more. Soon he would teach himself to read and move on to the inner working of the human body and DNA. Still not satisfied, he started learning about microbes. Finally he asked the question I believe he had been trying to ask all along, what is the smallest thing in the universe? What is there that I can’t see but is important? Enter, atoms. Starting from the beginning, he has been working his way through the periodic table, molecules, and particle physics ever since. Maybe by now, you can guess my inspiration for the name of my blog, Chasing Jupiter.
I still remember the days before I learned my most important lesson as a parent. At the beginning, I attempted to follow instructions from books and family on how my children should be. How to discipline, how to teach, and guide. How to raise them properly to be normal functioning adults in society. I was failing miserably and everyone had an opinion. If only he had more discipline. Maybe if his dad wasn’t working out of province so often. He needs to cry it out. He’ll grow out of it. He just needs to toughen up. He just needs to be around more kids his age.
It was, lonely and exhausting. I remember the first time my mom validated what had crossed my mind more than few times. We were watching him play and she simply said, there is something different about him, isn’t there. At the time, I’m sure she didn’t realize how much it meant to me, but suddenly I didn’t feel so alone. Suddenly I could breathe again. I wasn’t a bad mom. I wasn’t crazy. He really was different. I just needed someone else to say it for me to accept it. And once I accepted it my entire perspective on my son and the challenges we were facing shifted.
By the time he was three, I had finally learned the most important lesson. Listening. We always hear about teaching our kids to listen. But what about us? What happens when we begin to listen to the words not being said. The actions that speak so much louder than words. Just like my son and his search for the universe, I had to start listening for the unheard and unseen in our daily life. I needed to forget everyone else opinions and simply pay attention to what he was telling me. Here is what I learned:
Eye contact makes him uncomfortable. He wasn’t being defiant, he was struggling.
Not knowing how something works, like a fan in the grocery store or remote control cars, terrified him. It wasn’t a tantrum, he was just scared. He needed to know how things work. He still does.
His world is brighter and louder than mine. When the sights, sounds, and smells would overwhelm him he acted out. Not out of disobedience or disrespect but out of a loss of control over himself.
When a tantrum or meltdown just wouldn’t end, it wasn’t stubbornness. He didn’t need to “get over it” or “cry it out”. He had lost control. He was asking for help. He needed someone who was in control to help him calm his mind.
The nights and weeks he refused to go to sleep at night, weren’t out of defiance. I discovered this by laying down beside him, quietly. And he talked while I listened. I learned he was scared of not waking up the next morning and it was this fear that kept him up night after night. That is until I finally listened, and we worked through it, together.
Of course, there is more I could add to the list. The intensity of a gifted child with sensory challenges will always bring something new to the table. There will always be more. That’s life. But what I have learned these past few years has been priceless. Listening, as simple as it sounds, keeps our feet grounded, and our eyes on what matters most.
There is nothing wrong with different. It’s not better, and it’s certainly not less. It may be a struggle to reach someone who sees the world so differently than our own, but it’s worth it. Listening breaks down barriers that I didn’t even know existed. Listening was the key to discovering the strengths that were hidden behind tantrums, anxiety, and fear. I see him now. I hear him.
He is my quirky, intelligent, six-year-old. He hates costumes but went as an “x-ray” for Halloween. He has a periodic table on his wall he made out of sticky notes and is sure that farting is the funniest thing he’s ever heard. He loves his little brother and asks more questions about the universe in a day than I can count. And some days he nearly drives me crazy. But I wouldn’t change him for the world.
Uniqueness is a strength, not a weakness. Instead of focusing on what needs to be changed, redirected, or improved, by paying attention, and listening we can begin to build on our child’s gifts, passions, and strengths. Forget comparisons, forget “normal” and forget the future potential for just a moment and see the strength and beauty that is already right in front of you. What truths and strengths could we uncover in our own children if we only choose to listen?