Tiffany Hammond an her 16-year-old son Aidan communicate in some familiar ways, like hand gestures and body language. But when Aidan wants to express himself with words, he uses a tablet.
Aidan is autistic and does not speak, so when his mom asks a question, he can push a button on the screen to vocalize his answer.
Hammond also has autism, as does her younger son and Aidan's brother, Josiah. The family has designed routines around their diagnoses, but often, people outside the household don't understand.
"Every single time we go outside the house, there's something. There's a comment, there's a remark, there's a mean stare," Hammond said. "And you feel alone a lot, and our family feels alone a lot."
About 25-30% of people with autism don't speak or speak minimally, but that loneliness and those reactions from outsiders pushed Hammond to find a way to represent the different ways in which autism can manifest. She said when people look at her son, they may not even think he has autism or doesn't speak.
"But then as soon as he makes noises, he grunts or he bounces a little bit, or he uses his iPad to tap that he wants fries or he wants to go to the park or whatever, that's when you get the stares," Hammond said.
The result of this experience is a children's book from Hammond titled, A Day With No Words, illustrated by Kate Cosgrove. It follows Aidan through a regular day, as he pushes buttons to tell his mom what he thinks or what he wants for lunch.
Hammond spoke with All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about the significance of the book and what she hoped to accomplish with the writing and illustrations.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On what communication looks like for Aidan and his family
Back when my son was younger and because he didn't speak, everyone would say, "Oh, he's nonverbal." And that's all you would hear all the time [from] professionals. And I'm like, "But he's kind of communicating with us, through his eyes; through pointing; through grabbing something and bringing it to me; through grabbing my hand and bringing me somewhere; when he laughs when I make a joke; when he cries when I'm sad." You know, all these expressions he had, I was like, that's communication. He's communicating with me. He's just communicating in a different type of way.
So, as he got older, the language started to change around how non-speakers describe themselves and how people describe them. So nowadays, a lot of non-speaking people refer to themselves as non-speaking, because every human on this planet communicates nonverbally.
On capturing "the essence and beauty of an autistic mind," as a pediatrician described her book
It's indescribable, because I got one and I don't know how to describe it. Like, there's so much that goes on, and I think one of the biggest things for me is that especially Aidan, my oldest, he is so free.
He is just beautiful and worthy on his own, and he's not caring what anyone has to say or do. He is still going to be him. He's still spinning, he's still having fun, he's still hugging trees, he's still laughing, he's jumping. And I love that. I love that for him.
On masking their diagnoses
Well, you're concealing a lot. You're concealing the things you wanna say, the movements you actually want to do, you're fighting against yourself. It's like a war in your head. I was telling you, "Oh my gosh, I need to do this with my fingers. I need to twist them into a way that's really comfortable for me because I'm really stressed right now, or this is what's gonna calm me down." But you're trying to tell yourself, "Don't do that. Don't be that way. Don't look over here. People like eye contact, try and find their eyes." And you're trying to tell yourself all these things that people won't hold against you. And that's what masking is. And it's not the best thing in the world, but it does keep a lot of us safe in a lot of situations.
On the sensory descriptions in the book
One of the challenges I had with this book was like, what perspective do I write it from? I didn't wanna speak for [Aidan], but I'm the closest to him. So I observe him, I see how he responds to all these different voices when they're coming in, and I see how he kinda shrinks when the voice is loud and booming. But he's also kind of still tuned in and kind of listening, and then I see how he reacts when the voice is smooth and soft, and then I see how he reacts when there's like a lot of voices coming in and he's trying to pick up on different things around him.
I wanted to pick up on all the things that I see in him and try to put that in a way that people can kind of understand and see and relate to. I feel like a lot of people that are not autistic can relate to something being too loud and that affecting them, or something being too quiet and that also affecting them.
On how people's comments motivated Hammond, and her goals for the book
It was meant to educate, but also I wanted to highlight the bond that I have with my son, and it was supposed to kind of serve as this love letter to him. I wanted to show that he was like all the other kids. He loves being outside and he loves swings, and he loves spinning in grass barefoot, and he just loves life, this kid. He loves to hug trees and loves fries, and he smiles and he laughs and he dances and he spins.
I wanted to show that as well because a lot of the times when I would read other books about disabilities or in autism in general, it was all about people telling you what autism was like. Like, "This is autism, this is Aidan. Aidan has autism. This means this, this means that." And I wanted to show the breadth of his humanity.