Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Vagaries of Language

We are a bilingual family that encounters some form of cultural and linguistic translation on a daily basis. All of our kids have varying levels of understanding of both Japanese and of English. So we think about and talk about words more than most folks might.

But on top of that, Sky has a pragmatic language delay and an auditory processing disorder. I can't tell you what that means exactly other than that words and the way they are communicated are very different for him than they are for the rest of us. For one thing, he is quite literal, and while his vocabulary rivals most adults, his ability to hear something, process it, and make sense of it lags behind his peers considerably.

This can sometimes lead to funny, interesting, and seemingly deadpan conversations like these:

Me: What'd you do at school today?

Sky: We had a math test.

Me: Really? What was it on?

Sky: Paper.


Me: You can't say f**k because it's not a nice word and it makes people feel yucky when you say it.

Sky: That doesn't make any sense. It's just f, u, c, k. What's wrong with those letters?


Me: I want you to eat a snack, do your homework, and put your laundry away. Then, you can watch TV.

Sky: I don't know what you're saying.

Me: First, snack. Second, homework. Third, laundry. Fourth, TV.

Sky: Ok. Now I get it.

Now that we know he has these delays, communication has gotten a lot easier. We no longer assume he understands something. We try to keep lecturing and verbal explanation to a bare minimum, and we don't assume he is ignoring us just because he seems to have tuned us out. But, remember, we didn't know about any of this two years ago, so for the first six years of his life, Sky got in trouble at home and at school often because he didn't understand what we were saying or what we meant. So even now, when Sky is not certain about how to express himself, he will panic in fear that he's about to get into trouble.

Besides the "holes" in verbal language, Sky also has problems reading nonverbal social cues as well as a sensory processing disorder. The combination of these three things makes school very difficult for him. Sometimes his hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, and visual cues makes it almost impossible for him to stay focused. Other times, he completely misreads social cues.

Take the other day, for example. The teacher passed out a math worksheet, but she didn't explicitly tell the students to start working, so Sky didn't know he was supposed to start. He didn't pick up on any of the nonverbal cues such as the fact that her giving him the paper meant he was supposed to do it or the fact that everyone else had started working on theirs. Instead, not wanting to waste time, he took a book out and started to read it. Thinking he was ignoring the assignment, the teacher took the book out of his hand and put it on her desk, where it stayed. He didn't understand why she was mad, why she took his book, or what he needed to say to get it back. Of course, he didn't tell any of this to me. Instead, all he said the next morning when he resisted getting out of bed and getting ready for school was, "I don't like school. I always get into trouble, and everyone is so mean." And it was only after considerable prodding and asking the right questions did I learn what had happened. To quell his anxiety, I had to go into school with him that morning, explain the misunderstanding to his teacher, and encourage Sky to talk to her directly about his concerns next time.

Each year, Sky gets better at recognizing and covering for the various gaps in his understanding of what's happening around him, so I have no doubt that, eventually, he will learn to function quite well in the world. For now, though, every day when I drop him off at school, it feels a little bit like I am throwing him to the sharks.

And that's the thing about being the parent of a highly functional kid with ASD. As much as it pains you, you have to keep sending him out into the world to get his heart broken and just pray that his ability to compensate will outpace his anxieties and fears.


Catmatch said...

Thank you for sharing this. I believe now more so than ever before that the spectrum is much broader than we'd previously thought. It sometimes is only apparent when a child has these wide obvious cues. However as I read what you wrote I was reminded that really there are problem more kids on the Autism spectrum than previously thought or known.

Mama Melch said...

For swear words, we tell our 4 year old that using them doesn't make her sound very smart. This has backfired in a few situations (like around uncles who did indeed used to be sailors), but otherwise has been a good solution for us. We just tell her she "needs to be more creative with her words." Maybe that would work with your verbose child as well?

Sandra Timmerman said...

Oh my, this is the same for us. Example, hairdresser; how do I cut your hair? Answer from Eldest; with your scissors and comb.
Not a word about what style the cut should be.
My 2 boys are now diagnosed with PDD-nos and the eldest is almost as similar as Sky in the way he sees the world. Your stories always comforts me, just to know that other people are going through this as well.. Thanks!

Mom on the Edge said...

The hardest part for us is the constant anxiety that he feels due to inability to communicate. Do you have this, too?

Mom on the Edge said...

Yes, I am glad we now talk about it as being a spectrum because even for a kid like mine who's on the very "high" end of it, he still struggles with everything and the term helps us explain things to his teacher more easily.

FMBMC said...

One of your best posts yet!

Mom on the Edge said...

Thanks! Sometimes I realize I have left out some pretty basic stories that would help people get a better idea of what life with ASD looks like. Please feel free to share! :)