He Taught Me How to Truly Listen


A few days ago I was driving myself and my four kids home from my mom’s house in Wisconsin. We had just celebrated Christmas and my SUV was packed to the brim with toys, leftovers, and love.

The sky was dark as I navigated the backroads I’ve driven home for 30-some years. I remember being a little girl and dozing as my parent’s car bounced over the same bumpy roads.
Only this time I was the parent, and I had three sleeping kids in the seat behind me, and one more awake in the seat behind them.
I embraced the quiet. It had been a busy day. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw three little blonde heads, mouths open, each softly breathing. One holding a monster truck. Another cradling a baby doll. The other holding a now quiet Kindle.
I glanced back in the seat behind them and saw my now 12 year old, his face illuminated by my phone.
‘It’s just me and you Cooper,’ I said.
He was watching his favorite Barney episode. The one with the elephant. Even though it was playing softly, I knew every word.
We’ve been watching it for over 11 years.
I studied his face for a split second before looking back to the road. I know every millimeter of his body. His porcelain skin. His ruddy cheeks and hazel eyes. The mole in between his toes. His coarse hair. But I had no idea what he was thinking about. I typically don’t.
I let the feelings I adamantly avoid wash over me.
We should be talking right now. But we can’t. And we may never.
I don’t know what he is thinking. I don’t know what he thinks about being a big brother or why he loves neon paper so much. I don’t know what he wants to be when he grows up or his favorite color or if he has nightmares.

I hate the silence sometimes. Especially in the car. I would give practically anything to hear his thoughts.

But I saw something else too. Happiness. Contentment. Safety. Love. A boy who is treasured from head to toe.
Two seconds later the volume in the car raised exponentially with crying and bathroom requests. And the silence was gone. So was the longing. The pause of real life ended.
That’s how it is for me lately. I don’t spend my days sad about autism. I don’t long for a different life or a different boy. Not in the slightest. I embrace him for the amazing kid he is. But sometimes, out of nowhere, I am forced to take pause and feel. And then I move on.
This morning, before his brothers woke up, the two of us sat together. I watched the news and sipped my coffee. He watched his iPad and shuffled his treasures around.

Over the next 10 minutes he used his shows, by pausing them in the correct places, to tell me places he wants to visit and things he wants to see.

Fly on an airplane.
See an elephant.
Ride a horse.
Visit the ice caps on a boat with Dora.
I sat in awe at his communication and his desire to see the world. And his willingness to share it with me.
There was no silence. Just gasps and giggles and color and sound.

I have a long way to go as a mother. I think most of us feel that way. I know I do. Most days I swear I’m failing.

And as a special needs mom, well, I’m no saint there either.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Many publicly. Autism turned me upside down and inside out. But I’m learning and growing and embracing.
And I’m feeling all the parts. I wish and I hope about so many things. I don’t think that will ever go away.
And at the same time I give myself grace and practice the gift of gratitude.
Most of our days are silent. But when I pause, and least expect it, I find out that this kid wants to ride a horse and an airplane and see elephants and ice caps.

How lucky am I that he taught me how to truly listen. And love with everything I got.

Finding Cooper’s Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you’re never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village….all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier. Welcome to our journey. You can also follow us on Facebook.

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Kate Swenson

Kate Swenson lives in Minnesota with her husband Jamie, and four children, Cooper, Sawyer, Harbor and Wynnie. Kate launched Finding Cooper's Voice from her couch while her now 11-year-old son Cooper was being diagnosed with autism. Back then it was a place to write. Today it is a living, thriving community of people who want to not only advocate for autism, but also make the world a better place for individuals with disabilities and their families. Her first book, Forever Boy, will be released, April 5, 2022.

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