“Doe din din,” my two-year-old says, excitedly, looking up from the Ipad.
“Yes, Sam, you can play gold ninja,” says five-year-old Mikey, sighing like an overworked babysitter.
“Boo din din,” Sam says.
“Yes, ok, you can play blue ninja,” Mikey says, hitting the Ipad screen a few times until a blue cartoon ninja starts running across it.
“Bo!” says Sam, pointing to the screen.
“Yes, meow, that’s a cat,” sighs Mikey.
“Gung,” says Sam.
“No, Sam, we don’t have any juice,” says Mikey.
“GUNG!” Sam screams, starting to cry.
“Mikey is right,” I say.
And he is.
Sam is still lingering in the “severe delay” speech range, but by some beautiful brotherly magic, Mikey always understands him.
Is this a trick of the autism? Some part of Mikey’s brain that is so attuned to detail that he genuinely hears a difference I can’t? Both kids hear background noise long before anyone else. Even at one, both would point to their ears and gasp and sure enough, if I listened hard, I could hear the miles-away garbage truck, the distant airplane, the faintly chugging train.
The underside of that exquisite sensitivity is torment. Hair dryers and blenders and vacuum cleaners cause real physical pain, like chain saws revving to life next to their ears. Public bathrooms are a nightmare—the shrieking hand dryers and howling toilets might as well be out of a horror movie. I can’t risk drinking water when I’m out with the kids—there are no potty breaks until we get home.
“Time for a haircut!” I say, distracting Sam in his quest for juice. Mikey is largely tolerant of haircuts now, but for Sam they are still a nightmare, even after a year of near-daily desensitization programs with ABA.
“Ah ba ba!” yells Sam, as I pull out scissors and a towel.
“Mommy, he wants a lollipop,” says Mikey. Sam knew this was his special treat for tolerating the haircut a minute or two at a time.
“It’s coming Sam,” I say. “First haircut, then lollipop.” I show him the visual picture board to explain.
“Ah ba ba!” yells Sam again, the same sound as before.
“Now he is saying that he wants to watch Astroblast during the haircut,” translates Mikey.
I stop and stare at him.
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“Well, sometimes he says ‘ah ba ba,’ and sometimes he says ‘ah ba ba’,” Mikey says, pronouncing both words identically, just like Sam does. “So that’s how you know which one is lollipop and which one is Astroblast!”
I start to wonder how we will function next week, when Sam’s translator starts kindergarten and he is stuck with just me and my lumbering, inadequate ears for six hours a day.
Ninety percent of the time, I would trade my kids’ exquisite sensitivity to noise in a millisecond. Please, powers that be, give them a world where the background noise gets filtered out so human voices can take center stage. Make it so a car alarm doesn’t leave them sobbing, so all the best kid stuff—parades and fireworks and movies on the big screen—might someday be possible and not painful. Ninety percent of the time I would say please, just please let them live easier in this loud, angry, oncoming-semi of a world.
But in this ten percent, Mikey’s little ears hear the difference between ah ba ba and ah ba ba. They know that yay yo yee yee is “Lego City” and heh heh is “seven.” In this ten percent, he can help Sam out of the torment of delayed speech and into a world of talking and being understood. He is offering a connection I can’t, with all my neurotypical limitations. He is—they are—exactly where and whom they are meant to be.
And if I listen closely, I can hear it.