A Mind of My Own
Posted by Gail | Filed under Autism
Chapter Two — A Strong Silent Boy (Part 1)
When I found out Malcolm had Asperger’s Syndrome, I just about flipped a kidney. Man, was I scared. I wondered what I could possibly have done to make this happen. They used to call it a “disease,” but now it’s thought of more as a different way of thinking. A lot has happened in the world since Malcolm was diagnosed. Perhaps, most importantly, my whole family has learned that having Asperger’s isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s just different.
Asperger’s Syndrome (sometimes called AS) is referred to as a form of high-functioning autism. People with Asperger’s typically have normal or above average intellectual capacity along with poorly developed social skills. It’s thought that their emotional and social development or integration happens later than usual.
One of the big clues that Malcolm was different was the fact that he didn’t talk. He was almost four years old and barely said a word. He was in pre-school, so he had lots of opportunity to talk. And he was writing – the names of books, the names of videos he liked to watch, the names of every station on the subway line spelled perfectly and written in the colour in which it appeared on the wall, and the entire “warning” that shows up at the beginning of a video. So clearly he was smart. He was just quiet. Or so my husband and I wanted to believe.
My daughter talked early. At three years old she was pedantically explaining how to properly pronounce “pachysephalasaurus” to her aunt. So when my son didn’t start talking, I had no benchmark for “normal.” He was clearly bright; he was just slower to speak. Wasn’t that pretty typical for boys? He had a remarkable memory – he could quote whole paragraphs from his “Thomas the Tank Engine” videos or from books we had read to him. In fact, he used those quotes to tell us what he wanted. When we asked if he was tired he’d say, “I’m tired of pulling coaches, I want to see the world.” He had a quote for every occasion. I remember laughing with my husband and saying that if we were reading him Shakespeare and that’s whom he was quoting, everyone would think he was a genius.
Now, knowing what I do about Asperger’s, I know that quoting other sources – referred to in the world of development psychology as “echolalia” – is a common trait of Asperger’s Syndrome. Echolalia is a normal way to learn language and most children use it. Toddlers babble in a rhythmic way, mimicking the cadence of language. Later children copy sounds, words and eventually phrases and sentences they hear adults use in specific contexts. The question, “How are you?” is usually followed by something similar to, “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” With Malcolm, “How are you?” was always followed by “How are you?” which was then followed by two repetitions of “I’m fine, thank you.”
When children first learn new phrases, they learn them using a “gestalt” – or whole – style of language acquisition; they learn language in chunks rather than the tiny component sounds and specific meaning of each individual sound or word. Eventually most children graduate to an analytic form of learning language, analyzing the way language is used in other contexts and understand the individual words and sounds.
The point at which children move from gestalt to analytic learning or from echolalia to spontaneous language is often marked by unique new words or interpretations. Most children invent words or phrases by adapting what they already know to encompass something they don’t know the word for. They generalize grammar, for example. Instead of saying “I went,” they say “I goed,” generalizing the “ed” for past tense. And since there is no word for the space behind your knee, but the space under your arm is an armpit, a “kneepit” is born.
In Malcolm’s case, the move from gestalt to analytic language came really slowly. While most kids start the move at about 30 months, for Malcolm the move came after age 6. And it only came after I became aware of what was happening to him and started actively teaching him language. He appeared stuck. He could only repeat what he’d heard before. He wasn’t acquiring any new language on his own. And when he did repeat, sometimes he had no idea what he was saying. He’d simply latched on to one of the words he’d heard and then chosen some phrase containing that word to repeat. When he asked him if he was hungry, he’d recognize the word “hungry” and quote Stellaluna, assuring us that he had no intention of eating worms again. When I wasn’t crying, I found the things that would come out of his mouth pretty funny.
Malcolm’s phenomenal memory meant I wasn’t always aware that he was repeating since he could keep much more in memory than I could. Once I realized what was happening, I had to start mixing things up a bit. I couldn’t continue giving him pat phrases that he could use since that wasn’t really teaching him anything. I had to start changing things around, giving him new words along with the old ones, and showing him that language was creative, dynamic, evolving. I had to drill him in vocabulary and then incorporate as many new words as I could into our everyday language. It was a constant push to get his vocabulary up to speed.
People with Asperger’s often speak in a pedantic way, using formal and very structured language. It’s one of the reasons peers have so much difficulty relating to these children, and it’s one of the reasons they earn nicknames like “Professor.” They also have a tendency to interpret language literally. I remember coming back from Winnipeg after working on a pilot for Til Debt Do Us Part. I was explaining to our piano teacher where I had been and I said, “I shot a pilot.” Malcolm was horrified. “You show a pilot!” he shouted. I had to explain the multiple meanings of both “shot,” and “pilot.” That summer we spent many hours learning idioms. And we giggled quite a lot while we were learning them because Malcolm has quite a sense of humour and found the pictures created by these phrases very amusing.
Malcolm has come a long way when it comes to his language development. When he was diagnosed at 4 years old, he had the vocabulary of an 18 month old. He had virtually no pronouns and no category words. When you asked Malcolm, “What colour is the crayon?” he would respond with “I don’t know.” But if you said of a blue crayon, “The crayon is orange,” he would object and say, “Is not orange, is blue.” He knew all his colours – even chartreuse and magenta – but didn’t know what you wanted when you used the word “colour.”
Ditto pronouns. He couldn’t keep up with the changing places of I and You, of I and Me, of Us and We. It was baffling. Were you Me or were you I? And when it came to He and She, they were interchangeable, with a default to He. So while he could have been diagnosed with gender confusion – not being able to tell boys and girls apart – it was actually pronoun confusion.
I’ll post part 2 of this next Friday. If you want me to keep going after that, say so now. If I don’t get at least 100 YES comments, I’ll assume that this isn’t interesting to enough readers and I’ll stop posting these. If I do, then I’ll continue for another month and then check back in again.