I was taught not to use “um” when I spoke, it makes people sound uneducated and can become quite grating. But when I learnt French, I was specifically taught to use the French equivalent when pausing to find the right words (an “euh” rather than a “um”). The use of such filler words serves a purpose that comes to the fore when learning a new language: It signals a pause while you try to find the right words. I hadn’t realised the significance of all this until my autistic son started saying “um” across the past week.
Spoken language does not come naturally to my son. There was a time when it looked like he was going to be largely non-verbal. Each small language step has been hard-won. From single words with occasional correct use – mostly pure echolalia – to two words together, to pre-taught sentences, to slowly inserting his own variations in those sentences. He’s had a developmental spurt over the past two weeks in his spoken language; he’s increasingly using pro-nouns instead of just nouns, his sentence structures are getting better, and he’s creating more independently structured expressions instead of so often using pre-heard ones. And then there’s the um.
Because he struggles to find the right words, there can be incredibly long pauses before he’ll answer a question, or in the middle of his sentences. (Which I must say, I prefer over the endless perserveration which often ends in melt-downs, but that’s for another post.) It’s hard to figure out whether those gaps mean he hasn’t heard us or whether it signals the end of his sentence. If we try to prompt him or continue the attempted conversation at the wrong times – having mis-read the pause – he can understandably find it very upsetting. He can’t yet say “I hadn’t finished” or “I’m thinking”. The “um” now fills those voids. We now have that vital social cue that there is more to come, that he is processing, that we need to be patient and let him find the way to turn his thoughts into words.
No one taught him “um” (that I’m aware of – it would be an odd thing to intentionally teach a child). Yet there it is. So completely normal. So beautifully functional. So gosh darn helpful. I’ve never been so happy to hear ums, I never truly appreciated how awesome that little noise could be. Something we take for granted, and actively try to un-teach students, is making the communication in this house so much healthier, calmer and more effective.
Autism makes you notice the little things, even the importance of the gaps between the little things.