My boys are in the back seat of my van arguing over a bag of plastic coins. The coins technically belong to my seven-year-old. Henry bought a treasure chest pool toy with his own money, and the coins are part of the set. But Henry let his four-year-old brother, my son Walker, carry them to the car in a little mesh bag, so I’m making them take turns.
Walker hates it. He is four, and he doesn’t want to share. For his entire turn, he sits in his car seat, holding the bag, not even playing with the coins. He just taunts his older brother, chanting in a sing-song voice, “This is Walker’s bag, and this is Walker’s coins. This is not Henry’s bag, and this is mine.”
Henry shouts, “Mom! Walker is saying the coins aren’t even mine, but they are! That’s not even nice!”
Walker clutches the bag of coins tightly to his chest. When I say it’s Henry’s turn, he tosses the bag to him in disgust, and says, “Here you go.”
Henry picks up the bag and starts swinging it back and forth. The treasure inside clinks and clanks in the bag as Henry plays.
Finally, Walker gets so annoyed, he can’t take it anymore. He shouts, “HENRY! Stop shaking it when I want it!”
The squawking continues, and a huge grin spreads across my face. The sound of my kids having a back-and-forth conversation– even if it’s a petty little argument—is my favorite thing in the world.
But right now, these little squabbles are a reminder of how hard my four-year-old has worked to be able to argue at all.
Walker is autistic, and has a pretty significant speech delay. When he turned 3, he rarely used more than one word at a time. Now he’s just over four, and he is having full-on brother-to-brother fights. He can argue! He’s completely transformed his spoken communication in one year. This kid amazes me.
We weren’t always sure if Walker was going to speak beyond simple words and phrases. We explored other avenues of communication, but he was resistant to every single one of them. He doesn’t want to use a book, a tablet, sign language, or any other type of alternate communication. He will not have any of it. Walker wants to talk.
When he isn’t able to get his point across with spoken words, he gets very frustrated.
We decided early on that if that’s what he wants, that’s what we want, too. Every day, we work toward his goal. Speech therapy. Preschool. Intentional practice at home. We presume his competence. This boy wants to speak, and we are going to give him every chance to learn how.
He’s been using words and short phrases for a couple years, but conversation? This is new. This skill actually ramped up during COVID-19 lockdown. Being home with his family all day every day gave him the chance to practice in a calm, safe environment. With all the distractions of the outside world out of the way, Walker’s brain had time to focus on the things that were important to him. Unsurprisingly, speech and language soared to the top of the list.
At four years old, Walker is beginning to have some actual conversations, and they all delight me. Even the arguments. Especially the arguments, honestly. Arguments are a complex conversation. You have to have a point of view, and be willing and able to defend it. It’s not just the words in his mouth that make me so excited; it’s the fact that he is showing us his brilliant mind, and achieving exactly what he wants to achieve.
Language is complicated, and he’s killin’ it. When my boys are playing with magnet tiles, and I hear Walker scream, “Henry! Why did you smash my pyramid!?” I don’t just hear his exasperation. I hear a full sentence, including a question and correct pronouns. It’s amazing to hear him experimenting with typical inflection and intonation. I hear the difference from three months ago when he would only have said, “No! His pyramid!”
When I raise my voice and my preschooler talks back to me, of course I feel slightly annoyed at his sass-mouth, but most of me is still just excited to hear him say, “Don’t say no! Say yes, Mommy!” I just love watching Walker succeed- however that looks.
My kid has atypical needs, and sometimes that means atypical milestones and atypical victories. Arguing is a new skill– one that took months of hard work—so, I celebrate his ability to argue. Parents of neurotypical four-year-olds have every right to be so over the fighting and screaming, but parents of atypical kids like mine can probably relate. Sometimes we find unexpected joy in places where other parents might not. It’s one of the best parts of living alongside a kid who is forging their own path without a clear rule book.
I know that I won’t always enjoy hearing my kids shriek and yell at one another. Even now, I put an end to it after a minute because while Walker needs practice conversing, he still needs to learn how to treat others kindly. Also, running amok is not a thing around here. My kids have to act right.
It’s just that a less than a year ago, this same boy couldn’t (or maybe wouldn’t) answer a question, ask a question or tell us what he needed. We didn’t know if conversation was in his future, even though we could see how badly he wished it was.
And now it is. So, even if he’s just yelling for his brother to “weave him awone,” we are going to act like he’s giving the King’s Speech. This little guy is accomplishing the hard thing he put his beautiful mind to, and that’s something to celebrate.