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.