Dec 30, 2011 0 Share

Coming to an Understanding

Illustration of man in silhouette with gears in brain and speech bubble.

If there is one thing I have learned from having a child on the autism spectrum it is that he perceives the world around him as well as you and me and anyone else, if not better.

What is it that programs society to automatically believe that because a person’s speech is inhibited or seen as different from the norm, that all cognitive function of that person is inhibited as well? I have seen this response time after time when others interact with my son. Now, I’m not expecting that total strangers who have never encountered anyone on the autism spectrum before will automatically know from Cody’s speech exactly what he is talking about all the time. Sometimes Cody’s speech patterns are puzzling even for me. But I strive to put my mind where his is and I can usually figure out what he means. And oh the excitement and the joy that shows in his expression when I do! Sometimes it is almost a look of relief! Like, “Oh Thank God! She did understand me!”

It has been a learning process though. It’s an ongoing one too. But I have found that patience and persistence is the key.

This involves asking many questions. For instance, Cody might say something like, “What are we going to do with them of a night?” This is one of his most common questions. One might think he might mean there are other unnamed people involved in his inquiry. But with a little investigation you will find out that “we” in this instance is actually Bill and me. “Them” is Cody himself. So he is actually asking what Bill and I going to do with him, tonight.

Thought processes for speech and language do not always mean the same thing to people with ASD as they do to neurotypical individuals. It is almost as if they have their own language. In the same way that phrases in foreign languages cannot be translated word for word and still makes sense in the English language, language patterns from many with ASD cannot be translated word for word and make sense to neurotypical people.

For example “Come sei bella” is an Italian phrase that means, “You are beautiful.” But literally translated it says, “How are you beautiful” or “What are you like beautiful.” The word “sei” is also the number six. So it is important that we know that ASD speech process sometimes work the same way. We may have to think of what the phrase really means in “our” language instead of looking at the literal translation which may make absolutely no sense to us.

For some people with autism it is very frustrating because others don’t automatically know what they mean. But for Cody, we find it works much better if you ask questions to decipher the phrase. When Cody talks about seeing a “cobra” he knows this is a species of snake. But it is also a helicopter to him. So I might say, “Where did you see the cobra?” If his reply is “up in the sky” then I know he is talking about a helicopter. He knows from going with Bill to the local museum where artifacts from the Vietnam War are on display, that there is actually a helicopter called a “Cobra.” I then might ask him, when he saw the Cobra. If he says, at the hospital then I know he is talking about the LifeFlite or the AirCare helicopter. Then I can go on to ask more questions about the subject and engage in an actual conversation about the subject matter he has initiated.

I would explain to him in that instance that not all helicopters are Cobras. There are different kinds, and they have different names. If it were only for purposes of Bill and me understanding him, I may not do that. But since he likes for everyone to understand him then I explain these things to him to help him to relate to other people. I may say, “Some helicopters are called, Grasshoppers. Some are called, Jolly Green Giants. They have different names like you and I do. Your name is Cody and mine is Michele. Both are names, but they are different names to say who we are.”

While Cody doesn’t get frustrated with being asked questions in regards to things he says, he does get very frustrated with people who reply with the all too typical, “Yeah … uh huh … ok …” He knows those people are not really paying attention and not showing they care to hear what he has to say. It does indeed take a bit of effort to ascertain what Cody means in some of his statements or questions. But it is an effort well worth putting forth to make him know that he is worth being understood.