It’s All About Communication

This post is sponsored by Cochlear, who provide families around the world with hearing-loss solutions. All opinions expressed here are mine.

Today I sat in the pediatrician’s office with Graham and saw, for the first time in a long time, his baby self. I saw that skeptical expression he always wore in those days, the distinct silhouette of his overbite, the deep focus in his eyes. I am not the type to weep over my children getting older or look back fondly on their babyhood, but for a moment I was transported to what it was like to being Graham’s mom back then. And I thought of how glad I am that I’m Graham’s mom now instead.

Babies are hard for me. Baby life is all action and reaction. There is all kinds of problem solving where you don’t actually know what the problem is. There is this little mystery of a person running your life and you’re so aware of their complete inability to exist without you.


There’s also the pride that comes from seeing the beauty in your child, their weight, their shape, their smile, their softness. And there’s the huge expectation, the certainty that your child is truly singular and amazing.

We all get those expectations dashed eventually, maybe not until a child goes to college, but for me it came early. And it started with a hearing test.

Me and Graham, shortly before his 9 month checkup
Me and Graham, shortly before his 9 month checkup

At Graham’s 9-month check-up, his babbling had decreased, he didn’t always look at people when they spoke, he didn’t respond to his name. It was time to check Graham’s hearing. We went to another doctor. I sat Graham on my lap in one small room, then another. There were several tests involving sounds and screens. I couldn’t tell what any of it meant or how Graham did. Graham’s hearing was fine. It would be several more months before we got the Autism diagnosis. When he was diagnosed at 18 months, he had the receptive language/listening skills of a newborn. That, more than anything else I learned, shocked me. All the words I’d said to him for all those months, all the comfort and tenderness and songs, it hadn’t registered to him in a way he could understand.

Those months were the hardest. The months when I knew he could hear me, but he never showed any signs of understanding me. I learned what communication really means when I had no way to do it. Graham got older, he developed more specific wants and desires, but without the ability to communicate them we were both constantly frustrated. There was a lot of shrieking (him) and crying (both of us) and it seemed like nothing would ever change.

It did change, though. The boy that I see now hardly ever gets that look on his face anymore, the one where he’s all lost in his own head. Instead he talks to me and looks at me. He knows when I’m happy or angry or sad. He tells me what he thinks about, what he learned in school, what he doesn’t know yet. And, the thing he says to me the most (besides just “Mom?”) is “I love you, Mom.” He says it all the time, out of the blue, a few times a day. There was a time when I never thought we’d get here. But here we are.

We were lucky that we found a diagnosis and found treatment. So when I talked to Cochlear, I immediately understood how important their work is. Helping infants and children (and adults!) with hearing loss is providing a way for families to communicate. You’ve probably heard of cochlear implants, like I have, and seen them help kids. This story from Natalie’s mom sounded a lot like how life changed for me when Graham started therapy.

There are still things I worry about with Graham, still so many questions about how he copes with the world. But I don’t have any doubt about his ability to hear me and understand me and there is so much comfort in that. When I talk to parents of an infant or toddler who are worried about milestones and development, I always tell them that you shouldn’t be afraid. Talk to your doctor, ask for that referral, get that test. Even if it scares you, the truth doesn’t change. What does change is what you can do about it and the help you can now find for your child.

Children as young as 12 months old can qualify for a cochlear implant. If you’re worried about hearing loss in your infant or child, talk to your pediatrician. If your child does have hearing loss, a doctor or audiologist can determine whether they’re a candidate for a cochlear implant.

Now that he’s 6, I don’t have that same experience I had when Graham was a baby where I was sure he must be better than every other baby in the world. Now he is Graham. He is himself. He tells me about Star Wars and the book he’s reading and what he learned in Science. I learn more about him every day. I am learning about his strengths and his weaknesses, his passions and his problems, and I try to remember that there was a time when none of this was a sure thing. I remember staring down a future where my son wouldn’t be able to listen to me or talk to me. It seems like another life now, with this beautiful kid in front of me. I listen to what he says, and I try to tell him what he needs to know. I try every day.



A year ago at Graham’s IEP meeting, I was worried. He’d been in his pre-K class for 2 years and he’d made amazing progress there. I didn’t know what would happen when we put him in a classroom with more kids and more academics. Luckily they kept all his supports and I left feeling like it would be okay.

It was okay. All year he’s been comfortable and confident. But I’ve had a few nagging doubts in my head. 

I won’t lie, I succumbed to a few autism myths after Graham’s diagnosis about the big brains inside these closed-off kids. I clung to lines in his reports that talked about him being “bright.” But I saw him struggle with numbers and letters and I let go of those thoughts. I learned a lot as Graham got older and one of them was that I need to accept Graham as himself. If he’s great in school, if he struggles, he’s still my kid and it’s who he is.

Graham in tree resized

So this last month has been kind of a surprise. In Graham’s IEP this year, I heard that he’s at grade level in all subjects. They’re seeing signs that he’s good at math. 

I was still a little worried about reading. Graham and I have started reading chapter books together and it’s been a lot of fun to get him excited about reading. He would take one of his Magic Treehouse books to bed to “read,” and then tell me 20 minutes later that he was finished. I knew that with 1st grade coming up I needed to keep better tabs on his reading, but he’s always been so private about it, so hesitant to sound out words, so easily aggravated.

I told him that we’d be adding a new thing to our evening reading time, where he would read a book to me. He hesitated. I told him we didn’t have to do it right away. 

But then, yesterday, he asked to read to me. And this happened:


OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD You guys, it's the first time he would read for me and he can read!!!!!

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He read all of A Kiss for Little Bear with only the occasional question for words like “another” and “kissing.” There was a little trouble with “was” and “saw,” and I know he’s still prone to get things backwards, but I was floored. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. 

I try to remind myself that my kids are their own people, that there’s all this going on inside their heads that I’m not privy to, and that’s a good thing. But it’s really something when they take whatever they’ve been doing on their own and parade it in front of you without warning.

Is this post bragging? Probably. 

But it’s strange to have dreams about what your kids will be like, to see them all come crashing down, and then for them to start showing up again. It’s a strange, strange thing. 

I’ve watched other kids his age start reading this year and it hasn’t been painful, I have enough years of practice now that I’m better at not worrying about it and Graham isn’t so terribly far behind that he won’t catch up. But I’ve been aware of it, aware of his differences and his lag time. I wasn’t expecting him to surprise me so thoroughly. 

I had a complete bursting-with-pride moment and bought him 3 new books (even though I’d just told him no new books at the book fair, that we need to save our money for other things). Last night I had him read to me from one of his new books and he wasn’t nearly as excited. I think he likes to have some time by himself to get things right. I’m working on trying to balance his inner perfectionist and still letting him learn to make mistakes. 

Storytime in our house is a pretty great time right now.

Two of Them

I can’t say when it started. Of course, when Tessa was an infant, Graham was a quiet and anxious 3-year-old. He had little patience for her. When she moved into toddler years, she wasn’t talking while Graham became more and more chatty. 

But some time in the last year things have shifted. And now these two have become a team.

Riding Bikes 3

Edited 8

Story Walk 1


For several months I’ve been noticing how well they get along. As Tessa is a little older and more talkative, they’re able to play together and have conversations together. 

But it’s not just that. It’s not just that they get along. They’re a duo.

Maybe it’s because they’re always together even though they go back and forth between two houses. Maybe it’s because their brains are similar with their matching diagnoses. Maybe it’s just that magic that happens sometimes between people. 


New rule: no one's allowed to get bigger.

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Birthday lunch shenanigans. Tell me they'll always like each other this much. #happytessaday

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on




Helping. #bosnow

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We like watching TV up here. Because no bugs can get up here. Except ladybugs.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on




The Grocery Store: the happiest place on earth.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on


Good times and bad times, they’re in it together.

I realized a few months ago that we’d hit this new phase. It became most obvious in the weeks before Tessa started at Graham’s school. He started asking about it all the time. He talked about what it would be like when she came. He talked about playing at recess together and introducing her to his friends.

And you know what? She’s been at his school for over a month now and he’s still just as excited. He walks her to her classroom in the morning. He sits with her at breakfast. He tells me how she did at lunch. They get to do the same art projects. 

They go to bed at the same time even though Graham tends to fall asleep first. We sit together and read books for a while. Then the two of them lay down in Graham’s bed, their pillows side by side. Tessa may sit at the foot of the bed for a while or roll around on her side. But it’s been months since they’ve changed this routine. Tessa rarely sleeps in her own bed anymore. And Graham doesn’t seem to mind that much when Tessa, a very wiggily sleeper, wakes him up or steals his covers. 

If Tessa sees something, she immediately says, “Grammer!!” (Which in her 3-year-old mouth comes out “Gwammuh.”) And Graham returns the favor, showing her anything he thinks she should see.

They play games together. They play different things, but often stay next to each other. 

They fight sometimes, but it never seems to last long. 

They happily take turns choosing and pass off from one to the other.

Honestly, I’m a little stumped.

My siblings and I clashed more, our relationships were always tumultuous and it never seemed like things were quiet or calm. So I’m not exactly used to this. 

But this is exactly why I wanted to have more than one kid. I always wanted them to enjoy each other’s company, to have a real ally in each other, and to develop a relationship that would last their entire lives.

I know it’s early days. They’re just 5 and 3, after all. We’re still figuring out who Tessa is and what she’s like. There’s so much left ahead. 

And yet. I can’t help but wonder if this is just how they’ll be. I hope it is. I hope they always find this much companionship in each other. 

As you can see from the pictures in this post, it’s ridiculously easy to get pictures of the two of them together, happy. If school drop off wasn’t such a madhouse, I’d have snapped their picture every morning as they walk down the sidewalk, holding hands. 

I know it may not last. But I can hope.

The Future

“What is the future?” Graham asked.

This came right on the heels of yesterday night’s bedtime when he asked in the middle of storytime, “What is inside the earth? How did the earth get made? And how did space get made?”

Five years old at our house has a lot of big questions. I don’t mind the big questions. What scares me isn’t explaining the future but looking at our road ahead.

We talked of the future and the past and time moving forwards. 

Then we came home and it fell apart all because of 8.

These big things we can do, I find a way to talk about them and he finds a way to understand. But then we hit a small thing like 8 and we hit a wall.

“I cannot write an 8,” he cried. 

“Okay,” I said, “let’s practice so you can make an 8.”

“You do it,” he said.

“Graham, I’m  not going to do your homework for you,” I said. “I will help you practice an 8, though.”

“But I’ve already practiced an 8 so many times!”

“It’s okay, we can keep working on it.”

“No, we can’t! You  just do it!”

It continued like that. If you’re a parent, you know. If you were ever a kid, you know. 

Graham was a perfectionist since he was a baby. Things must be just so and if they’re not his anxiety kicks in. As we’re starting to look at reading and writing and these big important new skills, he’s running into his perfectionist issues in a big way. He doesn’t want to try to sound out words, he doesn’t want to try to write things down, he’s afraid to do anything because he’s so afraid to fail.

It’s the future, it’s the problem we will have to solve over and over again for years and years to come. And it’s beginning right now.

I have to teach him to try. He doesn’t want to. And suddenly it is a battle of wills.

The kid digs in and refuses to budge. The parent digs in and refuses to budge. These are the moments as a parent where you find your zen place and disengage and wait it out.

These are the moments as a kid where you start bringing out the big guns.

“I don’t love you,” he said. That was first.

A while later came “I don’t like you.” He’s a smart kid to realize that’s a separate offense.

And finally, the worst one, a card that has never been played but will most likely make regular appearances for the next 13 years:

“I don’t want to live with you anymore.”

This is a special card in the kids vs. parents deck that only children of divorced parents get to play. It hits us in our most vulnerable places. 

Every week when they stay with me, at some point the kids ask, “When are we going to Daddy’s?” I tell them and they say, “Yay!” And every time I wonder, do they ask about when they’re going to come back to me? Do they get excited to see me again the way they do about their dad?

Of course, parenthood isn’t about getting your kids to like you. It’s inevitable that at some point they really won’t want to come to your house and they really won’t want to see you. That’s true whether they live at your house full-time or part-time. But. 

It’s the future, it’s a tool he’s going to use again and he’s going to get better at it. I don’t know if I’m going to get any better at hearing it. I’m okay at the zen stuff, I’ve endured years of meltdowns so I’ve gotten used to it. But will I ever get used to this?

For years I’ve said I can’t wait for my kids to get older. People told me it would get harder. I’m still not sure that’s true. I still think I’m better at these older kid skills. After all, I’d rather have Graham’s breakdown over an 8 than Tessa’s breakdown over anything.

Tessa’s vocabulary is building every day. She often uses multi-word sentences and even though she’s hard to understand, she’s making great strides. But when she gets anywhere near wanting or needing or angry or upset, she stops speaking. She goes straight to a whine with no sign of a consonant or a word to be found. 

Tessa’s breakdowns require a similar parental zen, except instead of ignoring her and waiting for her to calm down, I have to sit there and say, “I can’t understand you,” and “Tell me what you want,” and “Use words, please.” I am so tired of this. Having a child that won’t communicate has been my struggle for years and communication is everything to me. 

I’d rather hear Graham tell me something mean than have Tessa tell me nothing at all.

That may not be normal, but that’s how it is. 

But, of course, the future is never quite how you expect it to be when you get there. Just like I never see Graham’s big questions coming, or how to explain The Big Bang to a child whose Science curriculum is the Five Senses.

It’s never going to be easy, this parenting thing. That doesn’t mean I’m not looking to the future.

No One Came to This Autistic Boy’s Birthday Party… You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

Forgive me for the Buzzfeed-style headline. But the events of Saturday are just such a roller coaster ride that I feel like if there’s ever a time when I’m going to get all Upworthy on y’all, it’s now.

If you’re a friend on Facebook, you’ve probably been following the saga of Graham’s 5th birthday party. This was the first year I decided to give him a real party. A party with invitations handed out and RSVP’s requested instead of just calls to our friends down the street.  I learned from last year that summer birthdays are tough. I handed out invitations early this year, made sure every kid got one, about 15 in all. I gave my email to RSVP and waited.

And waited.

Last week (a month after handing them out) we got our first RSVP: it was a no. Also no’s from all our local friends who would love dearly to come, but are just gone.

Summer birthdays are harder than I thought. As someone who had a winter birthday, and who moved so often that birthday parties weren’t that common anyway, I didn’t get it until this year. It is HARD. And it’s harder when I don’t have anyone’s contact information. Boston’s elementary schools aren’t just divvied up by neighborhood. The kids in his class come from all around, we don’t have a tight-knit community, we don’t call each other for playdates. And he’s been in an Early Childhood class where several of the kids are special needs and that complicates it even more. 

I started to worry. 

The party was scheduled for a trade-off custody day so that both parents could attend without messing with schedules. I chose a spray park near our house and chose 10 a.m. for a start time. The park is usually pretty quiet before noon and I planned to arrive right when they opened at 9:30 when it’s a ghost town to get us a table for the cake.

Saturday morning, the big day, I got to the park early with Kathy, the maker of Graham’s Hot Wheels cake. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot I felt my stomach turn. The little spray park had already been invaded. The doors were open even though it wasn’t open yet. There was no one there now, but someone had been there. They’d come, set up all the tables under the little bit of shade, added several chairs, put up a stereo system, set out a grill, and hung balloons and Happy Birthday signs. Whoever they were, they’d taken everything.

I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I waited. We asked someone in the park nearby and they reported that people had been there and then left. It was quarter to 10, the kids showed up with their dad. Still no sign of the other party. So I called it. The area wasn’t one you could reserve, it was not cool to take all the tables at the park, so we took one back and moved it to an open space. 

People started showing up… to the spray park, not to the party. No sign of the other party either. Just kids from the swimming lessons next door who’d just finished and were now over for some fun. 

A girl who goes to camp with Graham was there. She hadn’t been invited or anything, but it was a happy coincidence. 

There are times when you’re glad your kid doesn’t pick up on stuff. And I was so glad that Graham hadn’t fixated on the invitations to his party. I was glad he didn’t remember that he’d given me that list of 15 names. I was glad that he was happy to run around knowing he was having a birthday party and there was a cake and he was having fun.

Time passed. Kids came and went. It stayed pretty quiet at the park. Still no sign of the other party. Still no sign of any of Graham’s friends. 

And then something wonderful happened.

It was Graham’s best friend Dennis. The one he talks about often, the one he says he misses, the one he calls “my best friend Dennis.” He’s an IEP kid like Graham. His mom came, too, and said she’d tried to email but by the time she got the invitation from Dennis she couldn’t make out the address. She’d made some attempts but they hadn’t made it to me. I didn’t care. I was so happy.

I cried. I cried behind my big sunglasses, grateful that they hid how crazy and foolish I looked. 

Dennis brought presents. Graham opened them and was thrilled. A new Spiderman bracelet was put on. Cake was eaten. They ran through the spray. They played with Graham’s new Hot Wheels race track. As far as Graham was concerned, it was the best party. And I had to agree.

And those people who claimed the tables for their party? There was no sign of them until we were leaving. So nice of them to claim all that space and not use it for hours. Sigh.

We said goodbye to Dennis, had lunch, drove around and then drove around much longer than necessary because both kids were asleep and why stop?


I’d been updating online, of course. Letting everyone know Graham was happy even though no one showed up. And then letting them know someone had come! Hooray! 

But when I finally got to Twitter, well, that was when the story really started.

The internet was sad to see Graham alone at his birthday party. The internet decided to help. By this time I assured the internet that Graham did have a friend come, that this was all unnecessary. The internet did not care. The internet wanted to know what would make Graham happy. 

So this little boy who is so easy to make happy will be pretty thrilled when the internet sends him to see Thomas the Tank Engine at Edaville next month. Internet, I have no words. So I’ll just take lots of pictures. And until then here are a couple from the spray park. Tessa, who wouldn’t touch the water a month ago, is now sticking in hands and feet and is ridiculously cute. And Graham, I look at pictures and see this long, lean kid whose face sometimes looks so grown up and I don’t even know what to think.