As unlikely as it may sound, I sometimes forget my son has a developmental delay or impairment. Tucked away in the sanctuary of our little world, we sometimes lose sight of some obvious features of our son’s development, both good and bad. This is certainly true of our son’s speech development. And then a minor incident will bring into sharp focus the reality of his situation. This happened on the ‘breakfast club’ school run last week.
We got to the school hall and B raced off to play, leaving his helper to race around after him and leaving me to hang up his coat and bag. This involves walking through the school to his classroom, outside of which he has a coat peg labelled with his name. When I turned the corner to his class, a girl was stood there, hanging up her own coat. My first thought was that I could never expect B to walk through the school (ignoring various distractions on the way such as the Head’s office) hang his coat up and return to the hall. Not without either B or his coat going missing. And not without the Head asking, “Does anyone know why the language on my computer is now Arabic?” The school doesn’t really like to let B out of its sight, with good reason.
The girl was either the same age as my son, in the same class, or in the year below (the adjacent Reception year class shares the coat space). I was about to walk past her when suddenly she engaged me in conversation. I forget her exact words but it was something along the lines of “Isn’t the weather awful today?” I stopped in my tracks, astounded. “Er, yes. Really cold.” I replied. She continued the conversation by saying something about gloves and wrapping up warm but I can’t really remember what she said because, quite frankly, I was floored by the fact that I was having this chat.
This might seem like a strange reaction. An over-reaction even. Let me explain.
My own son, for all his rapid language development, would never engage anyone in this kind of talk. I have never heard him talk like this. As a result, I have rarely heard a five-year old engage an adult in this way. It reminded me, in case there was any chance of me forgetting, of the still very large gap between my son and his classmates, certainly as far as speech and language is concerned.
I am often asked, ‘How did you know?’ when telling people, for the first time, that my son is autistic. I could give them a very long, detailed answer, involving a whole range of factors, but I usually just put it down to his delayed speech, language and communication. Anyone meeting B now at the age of five, might find this answer quite hard to believe. They have even been known to say (in the nicest possible way) ‘But he never shuts up!’
It’s true that there have been dramatic improvements in my son’s speech in the last twelve months, but he is still autistic. It’s difficult to write about speech knowing that so many autistic children do not have speech and knowing the difficulties that brings to their families. All I will say is that, with the advent of speech, autism does not go away. Instead, it finds a voice. Many of our son’s autistic traits are most obviously apparent through his ability to put them into words.
My understanding of language development is fairly basic, but I do understand that there is a difference between Receptive and Expressive language. Expressive language refers to the ability to produce speech and communicate a message. It was the lack of expressive language that first rang alarm bells for us and led to eventual diagnosis. A useful resource I found when reading up on this says:
Typically a child with specific expressive language impairment will have been delayed and slow in starting to talk and will have limited spoken language; they can’t form clear and complete sentences, struggling to work out the rules of grammar and omitting words. Consequently children may overuse certain grammatical constructions or set phrases.
This is a very accurate description of the stage B was at in his speech development a relatively short time ago. Now, he is quite the chatterbox, and often surprisingly articulate. Still, though, we see difficulties with expressive language on a daily basis.
Some of these difficulties with speech continue to confound me. In particular, his inability to master the use of the pronouns “he” and “she” is baffling. He almost always gets them mixed up, so Mummy is “he” and I am “she”. This is not a problem at home but has raised eyebrows out in public when B has pointed at a checkout girl and said, “He’s got a tatoo!” Why does this happen? I suspect there’s some deep truth about the autistic mind at the heart of this, but I’m at a loss to explain it. One explanation I’ve read is that it is simple echolalia- a learnt phrase that he applies in a cognitive, rather than intuitive manner. I’m not sure I buy this as an explanation. I think it has more to do with theory of mind and the ability to interpret things that are not directly related to yourself. Who knows. What I do know is that when I think about it, I realise how little I understand about this strange, alien condition we call autism.
The idea of ‘set phrases’ will be familiar to many families with an autistic child. B’s vocabulary and idiolect are littered with words and phrases he has picked up from television. It took us quite a while to work out the source of one particular phrase: often, when asked to do something he didn’t care to do (so 90% of the time) he would yell “You’re fired! F.Y.R.E.D. Fired!” at us. “That’s not how you spell fired” we would argue. “Yes it is! Fired! F.Y.R.E.D!” It was several days later that we caught this exact phrase being uttered by Richard Hammond on an episode of Total Wipeout the boys had recorded. B was simply repeating what he had heard.
Also picked up from Total Wipeout (Hammond has a lot to answer for) is a phrase from an ‘awards’ episode of the show. Hammond introduced an award for the hapless victim who sustained a particularly painful injury and called it the ‘You Might Want To Look Away Now Award’. B soaked up this phrase and decided it was very appropriate when he grazed his hip one day. The next day, at school, he declared to his class “You might want to look away now!” Then he dropped his trousers and pants in front of everyone.
At school, B’s expressive language is so well developed that his teaching assistant has had to produce a noiseometre for him. He has an increasingly varied vocabulary, but his only volume setting is LOUD. I’m sure the noiseometre comes in handy when he is yelling, “Not Literacy! It’s boring!” Such comments are the product of a child with the gift of speech, but with no filter or understanding of when to keep your bloody mouth shut!
Despite my grumbles, I am eternally grateful for my son’s ability to express himself. There was a time when we felt he would never be able to do so. I asked my wife what she thought was the best thing about our son’s recent speech development. She said it showed how he was charming, funny, inquisitive and engaging. Of course, you don’t need speech to be any of those things, but she’s right that his language helps bridge that gap between our world and his. Despite this, it is not my son’s words that are my most cherished moments of communication. It is his smile.
Next week, I’ll share what I’ve learnt about Receptive and Pragmatic language, as well as my son’s charming attempts to master the art of deception. I hope you’ll join me.