This is a guest post by Summer Fischer, who submitted the following essay as an assignment in Dr. Chris Patti's course at Appalachian State University.
This essay has been featured on the Optimal Living Daily podcast – Episode 365.
It’s funny how the world works. Some of us are born with abundant opportunities and some of us come into a world less fortunate, with no apparent rhyme or reason. One of the greatest gifts we often take for granted is the ability to communicate to those around us. My best friend, Sarah, has never spoken. Sarah came into the world with autism preventing her from articulating her thoughts and feelings. Sarah has fought the odds and created a very effective way of communicating using no words. Her body language replaces spoken language, her eye contact speaks a thousand words, and her every action has immense meaning. Despite life throwing endless hardships her direction, she is the strongest individual I know who is continuously surpassing life’s challenges.
The first day I met Sarah is one that I will never forget. I was a nervous freshman in high school entering a classroom for people with severe disabilities as a “peer tutor.” This classroom consisted of seven students and my role was to provide assistance to the staff and students as necessary. I was instantly filled with love and was overwhelmed with the students who were eager to know this stranger who was about to spend a bunch of time with them. I noticed that over in the corner, there was a girl covering her face with her arm over her head. The teachers told me that her name was Sarah and, unlike the others, she would be much harder to get to know. I took that as a challenge and walked over to introduce myself; when she raised her head, I saw the most beautiful smile and vibrant eyes I had ever seen. She captured my heart right then and there. Little did I know that she would become the most important person in my life. It is because of her I discovered that my passion in life is helping those with disabilities.
Sarah shows me that life should not be taken too seriously. Her sense of humor is not in the form of telling jokes, but she makes people laugh in her own unconventional way. She is constantly teasing and pulling pranks on someone, whether they realize it or not. After four years of getting to know Sarah, it was time to go to college and what I was going to miss most was her ability to make me laugh when nobody else could. Not to mention I was a little scared she would forget me because I could never tell if she truly understood me or believed me when I told her I would be back.
So, after a couple months away at school, I went to see my best friend. When I walked into her house, I was greeted first by her mom and both of her brothers, who both have autism as well. Then I saw her, standing in the corner of the room, with her arm over her head hiding her face just like the first time I met her. I ran over and squeezed her as tight as I could while telling her how much I missed her. Her grin was almost as big as mine, and when I let her go, she looked me in the eyes and signed one of the few things she is able to, “get out.” I have seen her tell other people that before, but never me! I couldn’t believe that she was telling me to “get out” after months of not seeing her! All of a sudden she burst out in laughter, let out a screech, and went stomping down the hallway out of sight. My heart instantly melted. I know that her telling me to “get out” doesn’t seem like the most enduring thing that could have happened, but it was perfect. The laugh, the screech, and her huge smile told me that she missed me just as much as I missed her, even when words could not.
In cases like this, Sarah is able to get her point across. There was no mistaking that she was happy and expressing feelings of joy when I came to see her that day. Unfortunately, things are not always so simple. Like all of us, there are days when she is feeling down or something is causing her pain. When this happens, Sarah does the only thing she knows how in order to express that she is not okay. This is usually in the form of screaming, self abuse, and aggression towards others. When I hear her slamming her head into windows or she is attacking me, I know it is a cry for help. She is communicating to me that something is wrong or something is bothering her and she needs a way out. Each time that this happens, I am reminded how lucky I am. Bruises, scratches, bites, and all, I am the person that gets to hear Sarah’s silence. But it goes deeper than that, I remember how lucky I am to have a voice that verbalizes what I need to say and does not rely on all the other aspects of communication to make people understand. In Sarah’s case, once the “calm after the storm” comes, she knows she did something that hurt others. She hates herself for it, even though she was just asking for help. Sarah goes back to her way of effectively communicating and says she is sorry by rubbing her hand on your arm or whatever she hurt. That touch sends more love than any verbal apology ever could.
Even though the world took away Sarah’s ability to speak to me, it gave her the most amazing ability to connect with people in other ways. She challenges the common misconceptions surrounding the limitations of autism. Without words, she teaches me more than anyone else in my life could. She teaches me to never take anything for granted and appreciate everything I have, while always remembering what really matters in life. But most importantly, she teaches me that in a world that values communication so deeply, love needs no words.
Summer Fischer is a psychology major at Appalachian State. She was born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, and plans to get her doctorate and become a behavior analyst for the mentally ill. You can reach her at fischersa [at] appstate [dot] edu.
Dr. Chris J. Patti (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University, nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. As an ethnographic writer, his research highlights intimate, relational processes at the heart of human experience through listening to and richly representing stories of love, loss, and transformation. He has published several peer-reviewed articles and chapters on the theme of suffering and compassion. His other passions are rock climbing, longboard surfing, and intentionally doing nothing with his mindfulness meditation club Zen & the Art of Applied Communication. Follow them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/awarenessbites
You can email Dr. Chris Patti at patticj [at] appstate [dot] edu.
A great post. I was really moved when I listened to it. Sarah has a beautiful smile.
One correction, Sarah was “normal” and above average for her age until she began to walk.