I am a lover of language. Because my education centered on word-based programs - philosophy, English, and law – I have spent spent years focused on selecting just the right word after considering the shades of meaning, the tone conveyed, the legal ramifications. I can share this passion with my older son, Rixon, a college freshman, majoring in mass communications; I cannot with my nearly-16-year-old son, Colby, who has autism and a workable vocabulary of only a few hundred words. Rixon and I can exchange quips and quotations, debate issues and craft stories. Colby and I must work together patiently simply to exchange two complete sentences. Often Colby must resort to spelling out his words to ensure that I understand his speech. And yet, on rare occasion, in his own way, Colby speaks to my deepest core.
Not long ago, I spent several hours behind closed doors in a conference room explaining Project HOPE’s programs to a group of visitors. In trying to describe the scope of our services, I found myself saying, “We really have many, m-a-n-y, mini , m-i-n-i, programs. “ I am accustomed to Colby’s habit of spelling to make sure a word is understood and relied on that device myself to make sure my guests understood that I was using homonyms (at least those two words sound the same in my Southern drawl!). I had never before used that phrasing and it stuck in my mind.
Late that night, Colby and I took our routine walk around the block. He rarely tries to converse during this time, preferring to ride his scooter fifty feet ahead of me. But as we rounded the last corner, he hung back and waited for me. When I caught up to him, he asked, “What does ‘many’ mean? M-A-N-Y?” I answered, without thinking about it, “ ‘many’ means a lot.” His next question stopped me in my tracks. “What does ‘mini’ mean? M-I-N-I?”
Colby was nowhere near the conference room that day. I had never before used that particular phrasing. He had never before asked those questions or used “mini” in any context.
The words themselves hold no deep meaning – just two words strung together. But the message I received was significant to me: that, on some level, way beyond words, Colby is communicating with us. One of Colby’s many, m-a-n-y, mini, m-i-n-i- gifts to me!