I used to tell people that Oliver understood everything that was said. This wasn't always the case. I remember many times when I despaired because he didn't understand even the most basic things. Gradually, and with a lot of attention, that changed. But, of course, without a certain kind of back and forth dialog that most people take for granted, I no way of truly knowing how much of the world around him Oliver understood. Beyond his ability to execute actions upon request, there was really so little I could know for certain about his comprehension. And some days, in fact, his ability to even follow directions -- especially certain kinds of directions -- was compromised.
The last time Oliver was up for his triennial review (for those not in the know, this is a process undertaken by the public schools to determine a child's continued eligibility for special education services. Even though we homeschool, Oliver still receives speech services -- 1hr per week, 9 months of the year! -- through the school system.) he did very, extremely, incredibly poorly on every test they tried to administer. And they made all kinds of allowances. They came to our home. They even let me try to ask some of the questions. I've mostly blocked the whole experience out, but I do remember standing and watching as Oliver could not answer question after question -- simple things like: point to (or show me) the triangle. Oliver seemed not to understand what was being asked of him. First he would point to the picture of the triangle, then he would shift and look at the examiner questioningly and then he would point to each of the other pictures. It was impossible for her to know if he knew what a triangle was or if he really didn't understand what he was being asked to do. Inside I was screaming: "He knows this! He knows what a triangle is!" But even I had to admit that it looked like Oliver just really lacked the most basic understanding of the world around him. Even though I knew it was not true it was very hard for me to reconcile what I knew about my boy and what I saw that day.
I don't remember if I got a written document outlining the results of that day. If I did I ripped it up and threw it away. I don't keep file folders full of those documents, just the one round filing bin. Oliver obviously qualified for services and that was all that mattered. But after that I promised Oliver and myself that I would never make him take another one of those tests. What was the point, really? I knew the test was failing Oliver and not the other way around.
So the other day I sat down with Oliver in a quiet moment and told him how proud I was of him and that I have always been proud of him. I wanted him to know that we don't love him more now that he can communicate. I also explained to Oliver that he was not the only person out there who can't talk, that there are many others like him. He took the pen from me and wrote:
"They should keep trying. Nobody else will be able to unlock them."
"Were you locked, Oliver?" I asked.
"What unlocked you?"
"I started to write."
"Oliver, why can you write now when you couldn't before?"
"Because I was blocked. I'm not blocked anymore."
This conversation might not tell us all that much but it's gratifying to me for many reasons. It seems he is saying that whatever has shifted for him, allowing him to communicate at the age of nine, was internal, not something that was done to him.
I wonder if Oliver will ever be able to tell us more than that. I
imagine that it was a complicated untangling of many things. I like to
imagine all the work his brain was doing while he slept, while he was
riding his bike and when we were rock-hopping through the woods. The absolute grace that Oliver has always exhibited when doing those last two things never helped him a single bit on all those tests he had to endure. But its what kept us going all those years and I have to believe its an important part of Oliver's story.