Age 0-2: attention and gaze
Joey looks at things he is interested in. That does not sound very profound, but it turns out to be important. He doesn’t look at black and white pictures the way my first son did. He doesn’t hold toys in his hands. He doesn’t babble or look at people when they talk. When I try to force the situation by getting in front of him, up close, he goes inside himself. He can’t interact with me.
Joey is not a kid that you can bribe or bully. He does what he wants, in his own time.
As an infant Joey would close his eyes, remove himself from the world, when there was too much going on. To interact with him I would sit in my deep leather chair with puffy cushions and high arms that held us upright, and a pillow in my lap to prop him up. I was exhausted from looking after my one-and-a-half-year-old explorer and this infant who wouldn’t sleep. Joey was diagnosed with global delays, and I was told he “definitely did NOT have autism.” I read about autism anyway because the articles were everywhere, and I didn’t have a better plan. I learned that faces are hard to look at because of the huge amount of information they contain, constantly changing from tiny muscles that show our emotions. I decided to simplify the task to make it easier for him. When I held him looking up at me, I used a baby blanket to hide much of my face, so he could focus on just a bit at a time: half my mouth, or one eye. Since he didn’t seem to be listening to my words, I decided to simplify that too. I considered what I really needed him to know. Writing down the two simple statements I’m struck with how desperately I wanted to be in his world. “I am your mom.” “I love you.” I said them over and over. I said them smiling at him. I said them while using sign language. I said them with silent tears and no break in my voice. I whispered them. I did this from about four months old until after he was a year old. He slowly got better at looking at my face. And he knows those two essential facts.
When Joey was almost two, we were sitting on the floor about 15 feet away from each other in a parent-toddler class. He looked at me and held my gaze. “I have to go get him, he wants me,” I said to my friend sitting with me. She asked how I knew. It gave me pause. He looked at my eyes, and that was rare. I felt the same as if my older son was yelling ‘mom come get me! come get me mom!’ “He’s looking at me,” I said. Saying it out loud was the first time I heard how thin my evidence was, how unconvincing to others. Her gentle curiosity led me to face how different Joey was from all other toddlers, not just his precocious older brother.
Another time I understood the importance of Joey’s gaze was the day I gave up using baby sign language with him. I had been at it for over 6 months, signing “milk” and “mom” and “more,” and he had not made a single response, even with me shaping his hands to practice. The moment that I gave up, I noticed he was looking down at my middle, at my sides. He was looking at my resting hands. I suddenly realized that he needed my hand movements for receptive language, even though he could not use signs (yet) for expressive language. Wow. I learned more signs (Signing Exact English, so the grammar is the same as English), bought more baby sign language videos (American Sign Language, because that is what was available, the Signing Time series is great).
Not only was signing important for Joey’s receptive language, but repetition, slow pacing, and melody were all helpful as well. I started singing directions three times to help him know what was coming. That’s singing a melody, while signing with my hands. Sorry those two words look so similar.
Those days were full of love and worry. I felt astonishment at every small advance, even though it wouldn’t solidify into a skill. The months were crammed full of intense and connecting moments, all with no developmental progress. Half of my time was spent bracing myself against disappointment. The whole time I loved Joey’s sweet disposition, his impossibly soft skin, the way he would calm down when I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Good luck in your days of love and worry.