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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Small Talk

Language, spoken that is, seems to be the sine qua non of early childhood development, THE benchmark of whether a child is developing "normally" or not. Perhaps we depend on it more than we realize, and without being able to express oneself verbally is clearly a disadvantage in a verbose society.

Today, I think about how urgently we are trying to get Adam to SPEAK. How we seem to only measure his comprehension and his aquisition through his verbal responses. It is clearly difficult for Adam to talk. He is encouraged moreso by cues -- if I start the sentence and he can fill in the word (intraverbal), if (when I must) sound out the first letter of the expected response. At other times and unexpected conditions, he talks completely on his own for things he sees or wants..."I see a bus!" or "I'm hungry!," among others. If I was a pessimisitic parent, I might grieve over the lack of reciprocal conversation at this early stage, when other children might be speaking in more complex sentences, and comprehending more of my spoken language.

Here's an example of how I talk to Adam right now, when I'm asking (expecting) a response:

Me: Where are we going Adam? We're going to
Adam: School
Me: Where are we going?
Adam: School
Me: That's right.

Me: Adam when you make a poo poo we go to the ....bathroom?
Adam: Bathroom
Me: Where?
Adam: Bathroom
Me: Good job, when we make poo poo, we go to the bathroom.

Then, there are easier concepts:

Me: What do you want Adam?
Adam: Chips
Me:'s your chip.

Other fluent Adam-mands are:

Hungry! Snack!
Turn it on!
Open Door!
On the Potty!

Lately, I've been teaching Adam to read full sentences out loud with great success. He picks the right cards that go with the right match, then he reads the full sentence while pointing to the words using his index finger.

"The bird is blue," and so on. I'm not sure if he's going to chunk colours with the is, but it's worth a try.

I guess one could say this is the ultimate small talk. Right now, Adam is not conversing with me about all kinds of things fluently. But here's something that happened last night:

I was on the bed reading for a while. Adam came over and pulled me to his magnadoodle. He said to me "draw!" so I wrote the word draw, as this is what he usually loves -- me writing the words he says. Then he told me to write down the following words on his own (i.e.; absolutely no prompting!)

As the proverbial interpreter, I was thinking he was telling me of the things he liked. Then, he grabbed the pen and began to draw. He starts his drawing the same way an airplane draws and airplane in the sky with its fumes (from one of his Baby Einstein videos). It's an exact replica until his hand doesn't know when to stop. When he was finished his drawing, he took my hand and said "Airplane!" So I assumed he drew and airplane, was telling me it was an airplane, so I wrote AIRPLANE down. When that was finished, he drew another picture. When it was finished, he took my hand again and said "Sailboat!" so I wrote it down. He did it again -- another new drawing -- "Motorboat!"...It stopped after that. Adam is learning about airplanes and boats in school right now. I found it interesting that he could draw a representation (his own) and tell me what it was supposed to represent and, that he was taking in what he was learning in school. Symbolic thought? I THINK SO! See -- so much is flawed with this mind-blindness theory.

Adam knows so much that he can't tell us. It is unfair to judge a person with autism as cognitively delayed. What is deficient is the typical way of responding. We do not know what Adam knows and comprehends unless he can show or tell us in some way. Here is a quote from Richard Attfield (autistic) taken from Biklen's book (I know - I'm still reading him...):

All my life I have been considered stupid. I understand that autistic people are intelligent and if you people admitted that you cannot understand us then perhaps we could try in a way to understand each other as fellow human beings. I get so frustrated in this useless body. If you just expressed some understanding and treated me as an intelligent person I could try to talk to you instead of feeling frightened to express and opinion. I know that I am intelligent...will you ever take what I say seriously? (p.58)

Lucy Blackman, author of Lucy's Story (also recounts her own story about being autistic), indicates like in the other stories, that there is profound awareness in the world "Most people need proof [of the student's competence]. How can the disabled meet such a gauntlet?" Isn't this what I, we, are after? Proof that Adam knows? And if we impose standard ways of measuring that, aren't we setting him up for failure? Lucy notes that she is able to attend school because she is allowed to pace up and down the hall when she needs to assimilate information. As an aside, she also notes that walking away from a conversation may reflect excitement or a desire to manage excitment, not an indifference to conversation. (Biklen). We forget to realize that also, certain conditions affect whether an autistic person can respond or "perform." We have to figure out for our children the most fluid path to be able to respond to what we are trying to teach. This is SUPPORT. With support, we feel empowered, we can perform, we can feel worthy and HUMAN> What the autistic person needs is our TIME. They need time to process in order to of the major issues I am learning is that once they are able to respond, we have already long left.

I believe writing will be an avenue Adam will be able to take. Since he reads already...(still need to teach him what words mean) -- it is a strength he will likely use for the rest of his life. I have purchased a toddler keyboard and mouse, and will teach him how to use it. My only present concern is making activities structured and close-ended so that he will stick with it before he gets frustrated.

I think of watching one of Brigit Taylor's presentations at New Haven conference held here in Toronto about a year and a half ago. She was dealing with social scripting. I remember feeling appauled at watching kids look at a list of questions,then being taught how to use their fingers to remind themselves of question one, two and so forth without the paper. Today, I see how I teach Adam scripts all the time. We practise hello, bye-bye, play, and all kinds of things every day. I see the value of scripts today now that I understand that I am not teaching Adam to ACT human. He IS HUMAN, with the same feelings as you and I. He is only challenged in this area, at this point in time (I don't know what the future holds). I think it is this fact,however, that teachers and parents either may forget or ignore the capabilities of children with autism.

I do not particularly enjoy walking into a cocktail party making small talk -- the weather, the presentation, the drive, the holidays -- but I'm definitely learning the value that we, as social animals, place on it. For the person with autism, cocktail parties and crowds seem to be the number-one stressor. While it is unnerving for many of us, it seems to be a hundred times moreso for people like my son. Small talk is the entry point -- do I want to get to know this person or not? There is a lot at stake with small talk.


Blogger MOM-NOS said...

My two cents: I think sometimes we put too much emphasis on speech and not enough on communication. Using the example of a cocktail party - when I'm speaking with people in those situations I am less likely to make decisions about who I want to continue talking to based on the facility with which people speak (who has the best grammar, who uses the most impressive words, who is the most articulate, etc.), and MORE on who I "connect" with most. So to me, it is more important that I help my son to have good reciprocal communication with people than to be able to use language in utilitarian ways, like making requests. (Obviously that's important, too, but for me it's secondary.)

So, looking at the example of you and Adam playing with the Magnadoodle, I see an example of great reciprocal "conversation," though much of it was nonverbal. Adam was saying "I'd like to play a game in which I draw things and you'd write down the words. Here are some of the things that I like." By responding the way you did, you told Adam, "I understand you" and probably increased his confidence in his ability to interact successfully.

When I'm working with Bud on real reciprocal communication, I find that sometimes the less language we use, the more effective we are.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you understand well the merits of pre-verbal communication and reciprocity, as well as society's expectations.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

To say that we don't know what our autistic kids know or are capable of is an understatement.

Zeke is a video game fanatic. His favorites are the sports games. One day a couple of years ago I found him at the computer working in Powerpoint. Not wanting to disturb him, we let him keep on working. When he was finished, he had prepared an animated slide show that highlighted the differences between various editions of Madden football games, both chronologically and by platform. Never in a million years would that knowledge come through from him verbally.

Zeke also loves board games. He asked for and received "Scene It, Jr." for Christmas. Sometimes with games like that we'll give him hints (especially the franchise specific ones like Harry Potter that his brother has), but he holds his own on this one. He even answers questions that mom and dad have no clue on!!

Great post.


5:19 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

I think of Charlie's propensity to scripting as both a source of some of his difficulties and also as a strength. The difficulties: Once he gets into a script from a video or some process he has observed with an outcome he likes (me cookig rice), he wants to repeat that same process over and over; it's as if he has got the text of a play in his head and he's a literalist, no improvisation allowed. The strength is that he clearly has a fine memory and can remember the steps of a process--even, I would hazard, a sense of narrative--and we can use this ability to help him learn "scripts" that can be of great use, such as the household "chores" I have been )laundry, dishes) teaching him.

I enjoy the social ritual of small talk myself, especially if the conversation can turn into something more. With Charlie, though, I tend to bypass the hors d'oeuvres and dig into the main course.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

I got Bilken's book in the mail the day before yesterday and can't put it down. It really speaks to me on so many levels -- especially his idea of assumed competence. I also find what you write about having TIME for our kids to be so important. With Oliver I find that it takes him a day or two to internalize a new word. We are working on labeling now and if I point to something and name it he will be able to answer the question: "What's that?" the next day. Discovering this, I think, is a major key to understanding my boy but one that I might have missed if I weren't really paying attention.

10:09 AM  

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