Can the elephant see our house?

Elephant eye - Elefantenauge

Image by alles-schlumpf via Flickr

My five year-old autistic son makes full use of his developing language to ask some very interesting questions about the world. It used to be so rare to have him put a meaningful sentence together that I’d write it down each time he made one; now I’d need paper and pen at the ready the whole day to keep track. His language is still unusual and limited, but he does something quite remarkable when I tell him I don’t understand him: Instead of getting upset or just walking away, or requiring me to rephrase it for him, he’ll make a thoughtful face and come back to me with a rewording so I can answer his query.

Just this morning, seemingly out of the blue, he asked me if the elephant at the zoo can see our house. I told him no because the zoo is very far away and there are things like walls in the way anyway. So he asked if the elephant could see our house if there were no walls in the way. I told him no because we’re still too far away. He turned thoughtful and hit me with another out-of-left-field. He asked whether the chickens at Poppa’s farm can see Poppa’s house. I decided the answer to that was yes, which seemed to make him quite happy, and we went his merry way.

Other people – non-immediate family people – often hear him asking interesting or unusual questions, and tell us what a thoughtful enquiry that was. Unfortunately, it’s usually the same question he asks us every day many times a day; so unusual, yes, but novel or unique for him, no. A classic example is the enquiry as to whether each house he visits has a smoke alarm, and where the light switches are. The elephant and chicken enquiries definitely counted as novel and unique though.

He makes interesting observations that make people look at him sideways. Particularly in regards to his life and death questions. He understands that life is the opposite of death, as he puts it. And he likes to figure out who was alive or dead at various people’s births. For example, on the visit to his great grandmother’s house today he worked – with our help where he needed it – on figuring out who she is related to that were alive or dead at the time of her birth.

Often his questions are so unexpected that people take a while to figure out how to respond, or dismiss the enquiry as lacking real meaning. But my son will persist and reword his question if necessary, to find the answers he seeks. He does it calmly and patiently, only rarely getting upset these days when people can’t figure out what he’s asking of them.

Hardly any of his language is random nonsense now, and when it is he seems to understand that those words lack meaning. Language has gone from confusing and distressing noise in his life – noise that he forced others to not use in his presence, with the consequence of violence and meltdowns – to a tool that he is actively and constantly using to explore the world and others in the world. Even when those others are large-eared pachyderms.

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4 Responses to Can the elephant see our house?

  1. Isn’t it fascinating what is going on in their heads, once they can tell us?!

  2. Tsara says:

    One of my brothers had very little language, then was echolalic, and finally we watched language unfold until he used it to attack family and strangers with questions. Is your car round or flat? What year was it made? What year was your first car? Was it round or flat? Then he would show you his drawings of cars he wanted to see in the future, they were never round! He doesn’t do it anymore, language is pretty much for chatting, trying to get work and figuring out how to make friends in a small town that remembers too well his old self. It’s an almost magical thing to watch, this evolution of language. When you would answer his questions or try to explain how true conversation should go you could see his thoughts dance around his head, like a cartoon.

    And every once in a while when I see a very round car drive by… I kind of miss my brothers seemingly random questions. Kind of…

    Thank you for this story. It reminded me so much of my baby brother and gave me an opportunity to appreciate the leaps he’s made over the years. Sometimes I forget to do that, even while I’m telling him to pat himself on the back.

    • I love the way your share your story Tsara; so engaging and even poetic.

      Thank you too for sharing the story of your brother’s language evolution / development. I find it so interesting how autistic language development is so unlike normal language development, and yet so typical amongst autistic children. Echolalia is a sign of a “problem” (ie classicly linked with autism), and yet also the sign of progression, and itself changes as language use and understanding increases. It’s a topic I’m thinking of researching further and writing more about at some point.

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