My son’s relationship with the spoken word, is a combative one. Combative not just in his own attempt to master the use and meaning of language, but also in his attempts to control others’ use of words. The most alarming example is one I’ve shared in a previous post called “A Silent Mother,” which I find shocking to reread even though I lived through it. In that post I recount how my son used to hit my mouth and bite and attack whenever I tried to talk to anyone but him. With a background of him once being largely nonverbal at an age when other children were speaking in fluent sentences, and the added history of the violence he once inflicted on hearing me speak to others, I wondered whether what I’m about to write is even worth sharing; because yes what he now does is upsetting and controlling, but how can I complain in light of where he once was? Still, I know what we go through with him even now is far outside the normal parenting experience, so I think it’s worth writing down, even if only years from now I can look back and be happy with the progress.
My eight year-old autistic son – a gentle, loving, happy young man – tries to control the sentences of those around him. When he is denied the control and change he seeks, he can get very distraught and end up perseverating anxiously, crying or shouting his demand over and over. What sorts of demands? I’ll list the most common recurring ones:
(1) He wants people to use exact phrases and versions of words, for example you have to say “Middle School” not “Mighty Middle School,” and he gets remarkably angry at anyone – even a total stranger who has only just met him – calling him by his first name without shortening it to his preferred version. (2) He still struggles with other people using different languages around him, loudly insisting they are only allowed to speak English (he will have a real go at Dora’s use of Spanish on TV). (3) If he overhears two people in conversation, he may demand to know what they are saying to each other, frequently interrupting the conversation to make his demand. (4) He wants an explanation of every unknown word, this includes unknown words that are not even spoken to him and unknown words that occur on the TV or radio, which would be fine if it didn’t include him asking for the same word to be defined many times a day and include loud frequent interruption of conversations and live TV shows. (5) He gets extremely upset if you can’t repeat a sentence he missed, word for word; he wants to know exactly what you said and can’t let it go if you’ve forgotten the sentence or if you insist he doesn’t need to know what was said.
I make a special and concerted effort to remain calm and patient when he gets caught up in these spirals. I try to turn them into learning opportunities, and try to empower him to find and figure out meaning for himself, or remind him yet again that other languages are good and fine, or that he needs to be polite and not interrupt others conversations. Each issue seems to require a different type of response dependent on the circumstances, but they all carry that same sense of anxiety and need for control over his environment, even when that “environment” means people.
I do struggle with it though, it is hard having someone constantly listening in and policing and making demands of your spoken language. It makes me feel anxious and on-edge to be constantly trying to meet his needs in this area (I do struggle with anxiety myself, and it has got a lot worse since dealing with my son’s autism). I try to remind myself of how far he’s come and that he’ll probably outgrow this like his other language issues over the years, but I also wonder whether he’s going to need anxiety medication or some coping strategy I’m unaware to address the way he fixates and reacts to others otherwise-benign conversations. I see this as part-in-parcel with his wider anxiety responses to a whole range of things that we also manage and help him with as best we can.
This is not to say it’s not possible to have a semi-normal conversation with my son, it just takes extra mindfulness and consideration to avoid pitfalls that set him off. And I don’t want to create the impression that he is some sort of mini-monster, because truly he is just so sweet and smart and I love him beyond measure. It’s just hard. A lot. Especially when I have him in my care from 6am to 8pm everyday during the over-a-month of school holidays (which, by the way, is part of why my posting is so sporadic of late).
So if you have some advice, some insight, some reassurance, or just some sympathetic understanding, please do share it. In the meantime I will just keep reminding myself to be grateful he lets me speak without hurting me anymore, and even more so how wondrous and special it is that he can speak his own mind at all.