Saskatchewan·In Your Shoes

'I can't believe this is her world': Supper gives mother insight into 3-year-old daughter's silent life

The clink of dinnerware, wry chuckles and the odd sigh of exasperation are the primary sounds at this silent dinner.

When your voice is taken away, you begin to realize the worth of a word

Erin McKillop and her husband Rick Sveinbjornson attempt to order a meal at Regina's Hunter Gatherer restaurant without using their voices. The silent supper, put on by the Regina Speech Centre on the evening of May 6, gave people like McKillop and Sveinbjornson insights into what it was like not to be able to talk. (CBC News)

The clink of glasses, wry chuckles and the odd sigh of exasperation were the primary sounds at the silent dinner, while words and conversations were conspicuously absent.

For me, this silent supper put on by the Regina Speech Centre was only a challenge, an attempt to have a conversation with complete strangers with no words. But for the mother seated next to me, it was an insight into her three-year-old daughter's whole world.

The idea behind the Silent Supper, the organizers explained, was for people to understand what it's like to live with difficulty communicating, whether that struggle has its roots in a traumatic birth, a stroke, autism or some other cause.

We were given tools to help us communicate: pictures, lists of phrases, an alphabet and iPads. I stared at my fingers nervously, unsure how to proceed.

A book with pictures and words helped people express themselves, in lieu of spoken words. While technology can be a huge help for people who have communication disorders, if they also have problems with fine or gross motor control, speech therapists note they may need to rely on larger communication boards.

I tentatively waved at the couple next to me and thought about how to explain who I am and put my request into as few words as possible.

Then, pointing at my alphabet chart, I slowly spelled out to the couple next to me, "Can I ask why you are here?"

The woman - whom I later learn is named Erin McKillop -  nodded, made a cradle out of her hands and then held up three fingers.

'Three kids?' I asked. She tried again and I understood — she has one child that is three, that can't talk.

I nodded, storing this fact and watching for the rest of the night as McKillop and her family valiantly plowed through a silent conversation or laughed as the 11-year-old at the table used his voice output device to keep repeating the word "Constipation" at them.

But when the Regina Speech Centre staff came by, less than an hour later, to sweep up the cards, devices and iPads, there was a sigh of relief from all of us.

An 11-year-old writes down what he understood after taking part in a silent supper, which helped him see what his cousin experiences on a daily basis. (CBC News)

As if she'd been storing the words for the past hour, McKillop exclaimed how difficult she found the challenge.

"I wanted to cry for the first five minutes," she said.

"I was incredibly frustrated. And I felt sad, because I was just like, I can't believe this is what her world is like right now."

Silent cry a tip-off

As an infant, McKillop's daughter Sunna had a silent cry. She was diagnosed at six months old with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, meaning part of a chromosome is missing.

While she knows what she wants to say, and is capable of communicating with signs and gestures, Sunna is unable to use her voice, her mother said.

The hardest part for McKillop is seeing her daughter trying to communicate, but sometimes failing to get her point across and walking away defeated.

"That makes me really sad, because I don't want her to stop trying," she said.

When McKillop heard the Regina Speech Centre was putting on the May 6 silent supper, she wanted to come to support the centre that has been a big help to the family.

But she also wanted to understand her daughter better.

The night helped more than one of us see how, when our voice is taken away, it becomes much harder to connect to those next to us, an ocean's worth of thoughts and feelings left unsaid.

One determined three-year-old

But Sunna, her mother said, is incredibly expressive and much more determined to get her point across than we were as silent adults.

One time, McKillop told me, Sunna spent 45 minutes trying to explain something.

And what was it that Sunna so urgently had to tell her mother?

"She wanted me to call her George, for some reason," she said, shaking her head, as her family burst into laughter yet again.  

By the end of the evening, McKillop described the new respect she had gained for her daughter, that Sunna doesn't get frustrated or throw temper tantrums about not being able to communicate.

"It's amazing," McKillop said, looking genuinely awed.

Erin McKillop says she has a better appreciation of what it's like for her daughter, Sunna, to communicate after undergoing a silent supper. But she says she also appreciates her daughter is born at the right time, in being able to use technology to communicate more easily with her family. (CBC News)

McKillop and her family also came up with an idea to put themselves in Sunna's world — a weekly dinner where everyone communicates silently.

I drove home, realizing once again how much I take for granted, for the use of words and the ability to communicate. When I got back, I told my own children about my night, and suggested we try our own silent conversation.

They were game, and they spent the next 10 minutes of our stroll down the sunny park mouthing and gesturing pretty-well fruitlessly. We were all just about to give up with the exercise when my son gave me a sideways grin. He pointed to himself, makes a heart, and then points to me.

I think about Sunna — whose name literally means sunshine in Icelandic — and how her mother's eyes light up when she talks about her expressive daughter, full of personality.

And I think how lucky we humans are, even if we don't always realize it, that some of the most important things are said best without any words at all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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