The Power of 26 Letters

My son’s split-second decision may have changed a stranger’s life

By Susan Baker; from the globe and mail Published Mar 15, 2024 13:12:22 IST
2024-03-15T13:12:22+05:30
1970-01-01T05:30:00+05:30
The Power of 26 Letters illustration by Chelsea O’Byrne

On my son Andrew’s 15th birthday, I whisked him to a shoe store near our home in Toronto to get a pair of sandals. We knew the exact style and size he wanted, and arrived right when the store opened. Andrew is non-speaking autistic and prefers shopping when it’s not busy. 

“Size 41 of those black slip-on sandals, please,” I told the clerks.

Andrew slipped his feet into the shoes with no protest or head banging (signs of distress we have seen in the past). A perfect fit. We boxed them up, paid and thanked the clerks.

“It’s Andrew’s birthday today. Fifteen! Got our new shoes and now we’re off to celebrate with family,” I said.

“Happy birthday!” they said. “Have fun!”

What comes next only happens when you act on intuition, when the voice inside says to stop and do things differently. Instead of having Andrew point to the ‘thank you’ symbol on his picture chart, I hold up his letter board. 

For 10 years, Andrew has used a picture chart to communicate. The images represent important and common words: people, places, food, greetings and activities. Years ago, we discovered that Andrew could communicate more than just his basic needs via a letter board: an alphabet grid with letters he can point to and spell out words, statements, thoughts. It’s a simple but profound tool affixed to the back of his picture chart.

Using the letter board requires significant time and effort for Andrew, but it gives him an opportunity to share far more of who he is than he can convey through pictures and basic words. So instead of dashing out, I hold up the letter board and ask Andrew how he’d like to respond.

The store clerks are quiet, watching. Andrew points to each letter, one by one: “Thank you.” I smile and turn to leave.

One of the clerks, a man about my age, speaks up: “Um, can I ask you … what is that? How does he … what are you using there? Because I have a brother-in-law … and he doesn’t talk.”

image-24_031524010949.jpgAndrew won’t initiate use of his letter board, so we always offer it to him. (Photo: Brianna Roye)

 

“Oh! This is an alphabet board that Andrew uses to communicate,” I reply. “We’ve practised it for years. It’s quite incredible, as we just didn’t know Andrew was so ‘in there.’ We didn’t even know this tool existed—it’s relatively uncommon. It’s changed everything for us, for our family, for Andrew.”

This is what happens when we invite others into our humanness, and we allow them to share theirs.

“Let me give you my contact info, as well as the website of the spelling-to-communicate organization,” I continue.

I ask the clerk about his brother-in-law. He tells us that Jason is 30 and doesn’t speak, but he can do a lot for himself. Still, no one really knows him. Maybe there’s more, the clerk wonders.

“Amazing!” I say. “We’ve met people—haven’t we, Andrew?—who started using this method when they were 50 or 5 or 15! Andrew, what do you think?”

Andrew starts pointing to letters: “Tell Jason …”

I choke up. Sometimes I forget how powerful the letter board is. How powerful Andrew is.

“Tell Jason he will change everyone’s opinion of him in 26 letters.”

We are all moved, inspired, thrilled.

“Wow,” the clerk says. “Thank you.” Andrew smiles.

“It really does change everything,” I say. And we leave.

I am floating, and Andrew is singing, as he does. This is how it happens, how we impact another person’s life in a split second: by vulnerably leading with our own. Maybe Jason and the store clerk are reading this. I hope their whole family’s life is changed because Andrew showed up on his 15th birthday to buy a pair of shoes. 

 

Update: After Susan Baker posted this story on Love, Life & Autism, her ­Facebook blog, she received numerous inquiries from people about getting started with a letter board for a loved one. Later, she returned to the shoe store and learnt that Jason now has a letter board.

©2023, Susan Baker. From My son’s split-second decision may have changed another person’s life, from The Globe and Mail (24 July 2023), theglobeandmail.com

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