My son’s language acquisition has been very slow and abnormal (or normal for an autistic child). Though he has remarkably and impressively improved over the past two years (and the last year in particular), his sentences continue to be rehashes of previously heard sentence structures and phrases. In a beautiful and noteworthy advancement, he now regularly uses those pre-learnt structures in attempts to express his own ideas; but it doesn’t come easy:
You can literally watch him struggling to piece together what he wants to say using turns of phrase that he has already encountered. He looks to the side and his eyebrows bunch together and his words trip over each other repeatedly while he tries to pull it together. I’ve learnt to sit very still and make my body language convey patience and interest while he does this; if I try to help him along or show distraction, he tends to lose his train of thought.
Eventually he spews forth a long garbled sentence and looks at me hopefully; I’ll then try to figure out what he’s trying to say and help him tidy it up. That process goes back and forth between us until we reach an understanding. An unfortunate outcome of this effort at communication is the inevitable corruption of his original idea; because as I try to repeat back to him what I thought he was trying to say, I literally see him working my replies into his understanding. His emotions are laid bare on his face; I’ve had to learn to recognise slight nuances so I can often see when he’s trying to work it out and when he’s simply co-opted what I’ve said.
So many times I’ve wanted to hear his thoughts pure, untouched and un-reworded by my efforts to understand. A current topic he talks and muses about a lot, is time, and more specifically, death. Its discussion is a natural outcome of his current fascination (obsession) with all things time related, which started with a love of clocks, then a love of days of the week, then months of the year, and of course the length of a life. We’ve had to come up with answers to his questions that he can understand given his current level of language comprehension. If we aim the ideas too high and abstract, he gets confused and will keep pushing us to supply an answer he can understand, so we end up simplifying complicated truths to fit his current schema and language (as indeed you would for any child, but there are differences which I’ll discuss shortly). The alternative to his confusion and insistence for clarity, is he’ll just lose interest altogether in the subject and the enquiry, which I don’t want.
The answers I supply my son are not the same as I would supply to another child. I might have to simplify the ideas for any child, but I leave in the uncertainties and unknowns and the child would be OK with a bit of fuzzy edges and maybes. But my son needs absolutes, clear-cut principles that universally apply, with few if any maybes; unfortunately, the world is rarely if ever like that. I do my best though, and so it is that my son needed an age at which everyone is dead; we chose 120. He needed a precise age at which he will be a man (18 works), and wants an age at which he will stop growing (I think we chose 20 for that). When he originally started discussing death, and began to understand it as a sort of forever-sleep, he tried to tell / ask me that after someone dies they (in his words) “start again.”
This morning he was singing the song “My Grandfather’s Clock“, about a man who dies at the same time as his clock stops. He was having trouble separating correlation from causation; we had to explain the clock stopping didn’t cause the man’s death. He thought about this, then said that only men die, not boys; and tried to conclude that this meant if he didn’t become a man he wouldn’t die. I (sadly) corrected him that some boys do die, such as when they get hurt very badly. He thought about that for a while and tried to ask me whether slamming his finger in the sliding door would mean he died. I told him no, it would have to be worse than that. Again, his eyes to the side, his eyebrows bunched, as he processes that and formulates the next response / question.
It makes for an interesting reflection on the importance of words to the ideas we form and share. With language, he proposes these ideas to me and requests my feedback for agreement or approval. The way his idea is formulated is already limited by his known words and phrases, immensely more-so because of the challenges autism provides for his communication. Then my replies (my words) shape (and probably distort) his original understanding. Words shape and changes ideas that affect the way we interact with and comprehend our world.
Communication makes it easier to both measure and access someone’s intelligence, and for that intelligence to be shared in ways that can change the world (this makes it easy to understand why autistic people’s intelligence is so often dismissed and missed). There is an extra dimension though to communication when it can be spoken: It is raw, there is no delete button, no visual spelling or grammar that can completely confuse or change the message. It is immediate and intimate. The conversations I have with my son would be different ones if they had to be written down or represented in pictures. There would be that extra layer – the computer or other technology – forming one more barrier through which his meaning must be sieved before I can access it. So I am glad he talks, and not just communicates with pictures or the written word. I want him to use all forms of communication – art, writing etc – but in addition to and not instead of the spoken word.
I look forward to the day that the only limit on the immediate uncensored sharing of his ideas with me, is his existing vocabulary, and not bound by pre-learnt sentence structures clumsily adapted to his needs. I accept too that this might never happen, but I have learnt not to let that acceptance ever get in the way of him. He keeps breaking free of his seeming limitations and surpassing expectations.
He has his own ideas, his own mind, and I will never take for granted that he has found a way to speak it.