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'A Day With No Words' can be full of meaningful communication

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Aidan Hammond is a 16-year-old who communicates with his family in unconventional ways. He's autistic and doesn't speak, so he uses gestures and body language. He also uses a tablet that vocalizes words for him. Aidan's mom, Tiffany Hammond, has autism, too. So does Aidan's younger brother, Josiah. Tiffany Hammond wants everyone to understand how they can embrace and accept people with autism, so she wrote a book about Aidan, called "A Day With No Words." It's a children's book, illustrated by Kate Cosgrove, and it follows Aidan through a regular day - pushing buttons to tell his mom he wants to go to the park or that he wants fries and root beer for lunch.

TIFFANY HAMMOND: I try to tap into a lot of who I am as well, in conjunction with who my children are and what I see in other children and how they respond to and interact with my own.

PFEIFFER: I noticed that one of the promotional blurbs for your book was written by a pediatrician. And what the pediatrician wrote was that your book captures the beauty of an autistic mind. How would you describe the beauty of an autistic mind?

HAMMOND: Oh, man. I want to say it's indescribable 'cause, you know, I got one...

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: ...And I don't know how to describe it. Like, literally - like, there's so much that just kind of, like, goes on. And I think one of the biggest things for me is that, especially - I mask. My youngest masks. My oldest does not. He is so free in his movements. He is so free in his thoughts. He is so free in everything. And that is just so beautiful to me.

PFEIFFER: When you say masking, you're talking about sort of concealing how you might want to express yourself?

HAMMOND: Yes. You're - well, you're concealing a lot. You're concealing the things you want to say, the movements you actually want to do. You're fighting against yourself. It's like a war in your head that's 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 going to calm me down, but you're trying to tell yourself, don't do that. Don't be that way. Don't look over here. They want you to look in their eyes. People like eye contact. Try and find their eyes, you know? And you're trying to, like, 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.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. Your book, which is beautifully illustrated, has pictures of your son using a tablet to communicate. How does that technology work?

HAMMOND: When my son was first diagnosed, he was in speech therapy. And back then, it was mostly, like, speech-dedicated devices - these 6- to $8,000 tablets that had these apps on there that - you push buttons that had pictures, and they speak for you. So when the iPad was - came out and a company called AssistiveWare created an app called Proloquo2Go, his speech therapist at the time introduced us to that. And he was, like, 4 years old.

PFEIFFER: Ah. This was an inexpensive alternative?

HAMMOND: Yes.

PFEIFFER: Ah.

HAMMOND: And that is what's kind of growing in this - in our community. And that's way cheaper and less of a headache.

PFEIFFER: You've just given a specific example of how your family communicates or how your - one of your sons or both of your sons communicate. Your book shows a family using nonverbal communication. I bet some listeners aren't even sure what that means. How do you explain to people - what is nonverbal communication? What does it look like?

HAMMOND: So that's so interesting 'cause, back when my son was younger and because he didn't speak, everyone would say, oh, he's nonverbal. He's nonverbal. And then that's all you would hear all the time - even professionals - nonverbal, non-this. 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 different things he was doing - he was - all these expressions he had, all these body movements 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 nonspeakers describe themselves and how people describe them. So nowadays, a lot of nonspeaking people refer to themselves as nonspeaking because every human on this planet communicates nonverbally.

PFEIFFER: That is so interesting. Why did you decide to write this book?

HAMMOND: My son goes out into the world. And if you were to just look at him, and - you wouldn't really think anything of it. You wouldn't think autism. You wouldn't think he couldn't speak. You wouldn't think any of those things. But then as soon as he makes noises - he grunts and - 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. That's when you get the stares. People stare at you. People make comments. People are impatient when you're waiting in line and you're wanting to encourage him to use his device more so that he can let someone know what he needs. You start to see all of this around you, and you feel alone a lot. And our family feels alone a lot. I think it's estimated that roughly, like, 30% of those with autism either do not speak or they're minimally speak. And you feel like that's a sizable chunk, but we are alone when we go out.

PFEIFFER: Was that public reception you were getting - that sometimes callous reception - I mean, in the book, you give an example of a - I think it was another mother saying, that boy is handicapped, which, of course, is a very primitive, unfair way to describe your son. Was part of that public reception why you decided you wanted to write a book? It was meant to educate?

HAMMOND: Yes, 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, like, this love letter to him, and I wanted to show that he was like all the other kids. He loved being outside, and he loved swings. And he loved spinning in grass barefoot. And he just loved life. Just this kid - he loved to hold - hug trees, and he loves fries. And he smiles, and he laughs. And he dances, and he spins. And I wanted to show that as well because, a lot of the times, when I would read other books about disabilities or autism in general or - it was all about people telling you what autism was, like, this is autism. This is Aidan. Aidan has autism. This means this. This means that, you know? And I wanted to show the breadth of his humanity.

PFEIFFER: That's Tiffany Hammond. She is the author of the children's book, "A Day With No Words." Tiffany, thank you so much.

HAMMOND: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.