“What do the Fijits say?”
“What does the Wild West guy say?” (A bank robber on a Pinball app…)
Do you see a theme here?
These are a few of the questions I get daily, hourly, minute-by-minute from my 5 year old son. Wouldn’t it be cool if the underlying theme here was that he was asking me how to have an appropriate conversation with someone? The reality is that he is asking me to engage in echolalia with him, so he can hear that phrase he wants to repeat over and over. If I try to give him real communication, he will repeat the echolalic phrase himself and ignore the rest.
While NT boys his age can carry on conversations, my son does not. I love him. And, while I understand him, my experience is that most other people do not.
As a child with high functioning autism, my son’s issues are unique to him. I don’t know the age at which an autistic child, generally, becomes verbal, but it seems to vary, if it occurs at all. I know of a few famous autists who did not speak until they were at least five years old or older.
That is not my son. He has been able to speak from the beginning. His speech is different. He didn’t have it and lose it. He has always had it. The use of it is another matter entirely. He doesn’t use speech for conversation. Yes, he will convey wants or needs but not really thoughts or abstract concepts.
His use of speech is coming along. But as a parent, I do confess that I cannot help but feel a concern with the gap that I see on a daily basis. My son’s body is growing. His conversational skills (really nearly non-existent) are not keeping up with his size.
Frankly, I’m scared of future bullying. He’s different. He uses words for purposes different from others. He mumbles to himself. He gets excited, in his own thoughts and will laugh, make faces, yell loudly and mean the words for no one but himself. Yet, if you can get his attention, he will answer a question about math, reading, letters, phonics or any academic subject you ask about.
He can play appropriately but for no more than a minute (literally). The next minute he will do the classic spinning of the wheels of a car. He will push a button repeatedly in rapid succession. He will turn something up full volume and blast everyone out. He will dance to the sound of a dishwasher or dryer.
He learned and memorized the names of four inanimate toy robots in less than an hour but still does not know the names of the classmates at kindergarten he has seen every day since August. His classmates all greet him by name. He fails to respond at all unless prompted and, when he does, he never uses their names, nor does he appear to know them. Asking him to name his classmates in his school picture as an experiment, he named two boys and the teachers. He could not name the 11 other people in the picture.
These children love him now. They know he is different. They accept him anyway. He’s a lover. He loves everyone, regardless of whether he knows a name. He has a basic belief in the good nature of people. He’s innocent. He does not know how to make fun of another human being.
He knows how to laugh at himself with me. He doesn’t know that others may, someday, laugh at him. I don’t want him know that. I know I can’t protect him forever but that doesn’t stop me from trying to do everything in my power to stop it. Because love is like that.
In all of this, there is progress in conversational recall. Usually, he cannot answer questions about immediate past events. “Where did you go?” “What did you do?” “Who did you see?” In the last week, after school, I pick him up and as we drive away, I asked him for two days in a row, whether he ate snack with his class. “Yes.” he answered. I was delighted but suspicious.
The first day, I followed up with, “What did you eat?” He answered, “Strawberries,” I have to say that I was beyond impressed. This was not a rote response. It was new information. Something I never got before. I checked later that day with his tutor by asking her whether he ate snack with the class and what it was – yes!! Jackpot! Strawberries. Never did that word sound so good. The next day was similar. I got “Peaches” as the response. Sure enough, checking later, it was what he ate!!
Progress is slow but amazing. I can only hope that innocent acceptance stays as the progress grows. Because if they held out in the right balance, wouldn’t that be a perfect world?