Why so quiet?

16 Jul

Some time back, my son James, who is all of four years old, announced that he had a pet monster named Billy. Billy, apparently, is a yellow monster with tall hair.  He is friendly, and judging from James’ descriptions, he is the laziest being on the planet.  From time to time he will sit beside James while he is playing or eating, but for the most part, he just sleeps. Sometimes, rather bafflingly, Billy will perch on my head as I go about my day.  Occasionally, James will yell at me because I inadvertently walk through or stand on Billy. An apology is always called for: I have to stand there apologizing to an imaginary monster, feeling – and no doubt looking – like a complete idiot.

The existence of Billy is a testament to James’ active imagination, and also to his veryu sound verbal skills.  This kid is so good at putting his mental pictures into words that I can almost picture Billy perched on the couch next to James watching him eat his spaghetti. James can talk.  James does talk.  Once James gets going you cannot get him to stop.  His thoughts and stories just run out his mouth – very coherently, but sometimes to the point of exhausting his audience, who has to keep track of increasingly complicated storylines.

James and his dad are in a dead heat for the title of “Talker of the family”. I tend to be somewhat quieter, and George doesn’t really talk at all unless he has to.  This is not unusual for a child with autism, but it is something that we are on a permanent quest to change. In today’s world, people need the ability to talk – or at least, to communicate. George has become remarkably self-sufficient in many ways: he will go to all kinds of lengths to do something himself in order to avoid asking for it.

It is easy to attribute this speech aversion to autism, but that does not really answer the question of why. Sure, George doesn’t talk because of his autism, but why is it that auties have this challenge?  In the beginning the answer seemed simple: lack of vocabulary. By the age of three, George only had about thirty words – ten or so of which he was using in their correct contexts, and never more than one word at a time.  Almost four years later, the vocabulary has been increasing exponentially.  George can label just about everything he sees, and he can correctly identify a number of verbs, adjectives, and emotions. He is able to string together simple sentences now. He uses his alphabetic fridge magnets to construct elaborate, grammatically correct sentences that we have yet to hear spoken. So the vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure are there.  The comprehension is there too, since George will respond appropriately to most things that are said to him.

Another possibility that was presented to us is that auties frequently have a problem with motor planning. What this means is that a kid might have the physical strength and ability to, say, throw a ball, but if he has never thrown a ball before, he will have trouble figuring out what steps he needs to follow in order for the ball to become airborne. There are a lot of fine motor activities involved in speech, and the theory is that auties just cannot figure out how to translate the thoughts into vocalized sound. George, however, can read. He reads out loud from all kinds of materials. He produces the words and they sound correct. Motor planning is clearly not the issue here.

All we’re left with, then, is the simple fact that George does not see the point of talking. Speech serves a purely functional purpose for him. He uses it to express a want or a need. He will say that he would like milk, that he wants to go and play in the back yard, or that he would like a hug. He will answer questions. But apart from one or two rare occasions, he will not use speech to initiate a purely social interaction. He will not say things like “I love you” unless it is said to him first.

We are starting to see some promising signs, though. A couple of weeks ago, he asked me, completely off his own bat, if I was OK. When his brother accidentally spilled a cup of milk, George reacted with a genuinely spontaneous “Whooooooops!” While he still uses speech mostly to request things, he is at least starting to request things of a more social nature.  He will say, “Let’s run!” to indicate that he wants to play a chasing game, or “Horsey!” to indicate that he wants to jump on my back, ride around on me, and pretty much cripple me for the next four days.

I suspect that George will never be much of a talker.  I think he will always be quiet and shy – and that’s OK – he has to be true to who he is and the rest of us have to respect that.  But little by little, we are seeing him emerge for brief moments into our world, and he is allowing us little glimpses into his.

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