VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — It is something so easily taken for granted.
The ability to tell someone about your day, to ask for something you want or say, "I love you."
It is through words that we express ourselves, introduce ourselves and largely interact with people around us.
For children with autism like Shunda Davis's three adult sons and Donnie Smith's young boy, the seemingly simple act of speaking is anything but taken for granted.
Just thinking about the first time his son Connor was able to tell him he had a great day at school still brings Smith to tears. Sitting there thinking back and remembering that day he pauses and the once stoic man who gave up his job to care for his son and lies in bed telling him stories until he falls asleep begins to choke up thinking about that simple moment.
"He came home and told me he had a great day," Smith said. "I just broke down. I used to not be like this. I was a very rigid person and he changed me a lot. He has a way of getting into your heart. He is growing every day."
Smith and his wife had first heard the word autism associated with their son when he was 3. He could repeat phrases back to people and occasionally make a simple statement like "I'm hungry," but for the most part the world of speech was closed to Connor. He had no ability to express himself or talk about his day. They took him to get tested and were told he was autistic, but even hearing it aloud it didn't settle in right away.
"He couldn't get a sentence out. I thought a lot that it was my fault and I did something wrong. I came later to realize that it wasn't," Smith said. "I think at the time we were still in denial that he had autism and didn't know how to cope with it as parents. Now, we are not scared of it. We are very proud of him."
It was not until Connor began pre-K at Beechwood Elementary that he started to "blossom" as his dad calls it. Where once he was mostly silent, he began to speak and grow.
As Connor grew, it was Davis who played a large role in unlocking speech for him. The mother of three autistic children, she had seen the toll it can take. She knew firsthand the joy of hearing your son speak for the first time long after it was expected of him and the pain of raising a child locked in a world of silence.
When she became a mom at 16, Davis didn't know the word autism. It was when her oldest son Chris, now 28, didn't start talking or walking when he should have that Davis first knew something was wrong, but as a young mom she had no frame of reference to judge what it was that was hindering her son.
Of the three, Chris is the most severely autistic and has lived at Ellisville State School since he was 15.
Eric was born two years later giving her two children with autism by the time she was 18. Her third son Jay was born three years later and he too was later diagnosed with autism.
It wasn't until he was 8 that Davis heard her son Eric speak for the first time.
It came out of the blue. They had moved out of her mom's house and then at school that Monday Eric began to speak. A torrent of words where before there had only been silence.
With Jay, there was never that day when he was suddenly able to talk or when he came home and was able to tell her he had a good day at school. He is now 23 and remains completely nonverbal.
"I thought I had done something wrong in life and I was being punished with my kids being this way," Davis said. "Jay struggles to talk to this day and I just keep saying to myself 'if I could give my voice to my son I would.' I just love my kids to death and for him not to talk it hurts me. I would sacrifice my voice and give it to him."
Davis was first hired by the school district to work with Chris and then brought back to work with Connor. Chris had been put in a class with no other autistic children and couldn't write or do any of the other tasks that were asked of him.
"It was hard. Financially, emotionally it was just hard and it still is. I thought the older they got the easier it would be, but it is not," Davis said. "I don't think I would know as much as I know without working with the district. The district really helped me."
What she learned working with her own sons she has now been able to use to help Connor and it is in the simple acts where her impact is easy to see.
Sitting at a table next to Davis with pen in hand Connor begins to draw a picture of a train, chatting away the whole time. Around the corner, his dad stands watching the scene unfold, his son oblivious to his presence.
Hearing his son's voice as he talks about his day and the picture he is drawing, Smith can't hold back the tears or hide the smile on his face. Where once it had seemed impossible that Connor would ever speak, now his parents are dreaming about college and him having a life on his own one day.
"If it wasn't for the people here (at Beechwood) who got him moved here, he would not be the child he is today. The people here are amazing. I can't express that," Smith said. "What hasn't she (Davis) done for him? Now we are family. I consider her part of my family."