William and Penny stand together in front of a car.

Finding Other Ways to Communicate…

“I call shotgun.”

I remember these days, back when I squabbled with my sisters over who got to sit up front. Now we are reenacting the same conversations within my own household. There’s usually a power struggle, huffs of frustration, and rolled eyes.

But last week, when Penny called shotgun, William said, “Penny, my legs go up to your shoulders. I should get shotgun.”

Penny looked at him, immovable. 

“I’m trying to understand why it’s so important to you to have the front seat,” William tried again.

Penny stayed silent.

I was ready to intervene, either by pronouncing some sort of compromising or strong-arming one of them. Instead, William said, “Pen, I know it’s sometimes easier for you to write things down than to say them out loud. Do you think you could write down why this matters to you?”

And she did. She wrote (see photo): “Two reasons. 1. I like being the dj for the car and 2. It makes me feel more like a senior/grownup if I get to sit in the front. It makes me feel more mature.”

photo of pink post it notes with Penny's reasons for why she wants to sit in the front seat of the car

They figured out a way to communicate without me stepping in. They respected each other with advocating for themselves. They assumed the best about each other. 

There are plenty of kids with intellectual disabilities who can’t speak—or write—for themselves. And plenty of people like William—stronger, taller, more able to say what he thinks quickly and decisively—who can assert themselves and get their way. So yes, this moment stood out to me as a milestone in family communication, but it also reminded me that we all need and deserve to be treated with respect. We all need to be given ways to communicate, even if it means slowing down and becoming curious about things we think we already understand. 

In the end, William rode in the front seat. Penny dj’d from the back. We forgot to invite her into a conversation along the way and apologized for that later. We are all learning, and bumbling our way forward together. 

Shared with their permission

More with Amy Julia:

Penny In Her Own Words
Ableism at the County Fair
Penny Got a Job

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