How a pet chicken helped me understand my son's autism

When my husband brought home a tiny chick from the local feed store, our world changed forever.
When my husband brought home a tiny chick from the local feed store, our world changed forever. Photo: Getty images

When my son was in kindergarten in the mid '90s, my husband and I joined a parenting class for "spirited children" at the University of Washington. Although this course lacked a special needs moniker, we were clearly selected because our child fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. In addition to learning positive parenting skills, we were encouraged to listen.

"Listen to what your child is saying," the instructor repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time.

The mother next to me rolled her eyes and slumped further down into her chair. "Yeah, but he doesn't talk, so that won't do me much good," she said.

I snorted in agreement. Andrew didn't talk, either. Although I was able to understand an occasional word, his communication was limited to gestures and simple vocalisations. I was striving to be the perfect mother, but the truth was, I was terrified and more than a little frustrated. That day I decided to watch him play. I noticed that bright colours hurt his eyes and that music felt too sharp for his ears. His clothes were scratchy and his shoes pinched his feet.

As the weeks progressed, I watched the other kids in our parenting class, as well. One was a musician, his little hands tapping a sophisticated rhythm on upturned pans from the kitchen set. His parents said he "played" their piano daily. Another boy wore a construction paper cap and carried a plastic airplane above his head. He ran around the room flapping his free hand so he could fly. His parents said his grandpa was a pilot.

My son wore a cape.

At home, Andrew drew me in to his imaginary world, which was filled with superheroes. I met a talking dinosaur named Rex, a mashed Teddy bear with a rocket-powered arm, and a red wagon that could escape Earth's gravity. I loved being part of his universe, his beacon of certainty in an unpredictable world. It made me feel incredibly useful and a bit proud. Although I didn't wear a cape, I was one of Andrew's superheroes.

But when my husband brought home a tiny chick from the local feed store, our world changed forever. That day Andrew had his first real conversation - but not with me. He talked to the little mottled chick he named Frightful.

"She is my new friend," he told me. "She knows my heart."

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That was the first time he spoke to me in a way I could understand. When speaking to Frightful, he strung together words that revealed his hopes and dreams, and all the scary feelings that had no name. His scrappy little hen went everywhere, stuffed into his jacket, zippered up to her beak. When he carried Frightful into our house for the first time, I knew I'd been replaced. I was no longer the most important superhero in town.

Andrew told me I wasn't as interesting as poultry. Worse, I didn't play by his rules. When I asked him to look me in the eye, he said it was too painful. When I wanted to hold his hand, he said I was too close. I encouraged him to join the other kids in play, but that felt impossible to him. When I asked why, he told me I didn't understand.

But the tiny bird did. When he spoke, she would turn her head, blinking at him with a single yellow eye. She would perch on his shoulder, leaving his hands free to roam. She crooned a melody in his ear, telling him he was enough - he was perfect just the way he was.

"You are my birdy-bird. You make me feel safe," Andrew would sing to Frightful, and somehow the little bird understood. That chirping ball of feathers with yellow raptor-eyes had performed a mind-meld on my autistic son, and captured his heart.

"Birdy-bird is scared," he told me one day while stroking the hen's silky feathers.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"She's scared of recess. The other kids don't understand."

This was my moment to be Andrew's necessary human. I told him that there are a million ways to be in the world and that his way was by communing with poultry. Some kids are understood by other kids and they play together with ease. Other kids communicate with, and are understood by, their animal friends. But no single way is right, they are just different. When I reminded him that he was not alone, he reached for my hand and I knew I had become his superhero again.

At the end of our parenting class, my husband and I came home with a thick packet of materials called "Positive Parenting Guide." Inside were tips for incentive plans, sticker charts, positive reinforcement, praise and natural consequences. While these were good strategies for parenting, all I remember is this: People speak without words. Language is communicated through action. We must listen with all our senses. When we hear our child's voice with our heart, we'll know we've listened well.

Twelve years have gone by, and my son still talks to chickens more than he talks to me. Sometimes I overhear the words he easily shares with his beloved feathered friends, but more often, I listen closely to his actions. Because I listen well to Andrew, I'm able to love him exactly as he is, no cape necessary.

Washington Post