Sunday, September 22, 2013

Understanding the Autism Dialect

When I was in my early twenties, I spent a month in Germany visiting a friend.  It was a challenge, since I took French in high school and college.  Because I hadn't studied German in school, I tried to prepare myself by listening to a tape in my car and repeating the phrases.  The tapes were helpful in that I learned to say, "Es tut mir leid. Ich spreche wenig Deutsch."  (I'm sorry.  I speak little German.)  When I arrived, I used that phrase a great deal.  I was overwhelmed and a little sick, and nothing on the tape told me how to say, "I need a laxative, please."  (German food, I tell you.)  But eventually I became more comfortable, especially once I learned, "Ich möchte ein Bier, bitte."

Ein Dulcolax, bitte.
I realized that if I paid really close attention, I mean really close attention, I could get the gist of a conversation, even if I couldn't speak the language myself.  I watched facial expressions and body language, picked up on enough words that sounded like English, and tried to follow along.  (Unless I drank too much bier, which made me start speaking French for some reason.)

The point is, to understand another language, you've got to pay close attention.

I'm sometimes reminded of that trip when I'm trying to understand what the boy wants.  When he's struggling to make his needs known, I feel like a baffled German pharmacist confronted with an inarticulate, constipated American.  The boy can usually tell us what he wants, but when he speaks with an autism dialect, we have to pay close attention.

For example, we were leaving the mall one afternoon, when out of nowhere, the boy started shrieking.  We were already in the car, and he was crying and pointing in the direction of the mall.

     "Dis is hahn!  Dis is hahn!  I want dis is hahn!" 
     "Honey, I don't understand.  Please tell Mommy what you want."
     "I want dis is hahn!"

I had absolutely no clue what he meant, except whatever he wanted was back at the mall.  I was about to throw up my hands and drive away when Big Bro had an epiphany.

     "Dis is hahn?  This is hot?  Do you mean, 'This is hot'?"  Big Bro asked him.
     "YES!!!" the boy wailed, half-upset and half-relieved.
     "What are you talking about?" I asked.
     "He wants to go to Red Robin.  When we were there last, the waitress put his food down and said, 'This is hot.'  I bet that's what he means,"  Big Bro explained.
     "Really?  You got Red Robin from dis is hahn?"  But I drove over there anyway.  When the boy saw the sign, he immediately stopped crying.  Big Bro was right.  He was the Hero of the Day.  He understands the dialect.

Last night, I had to deal with another interesting meltdown.  I had taken the boy out for a little bit to hear some live music.  He'd had a wonderful time dancing around in front of the band, and didn't argue when I said it was time to go home.  But on the way home, he began weeping as if his heart were breaking.

     "Go see Kelly?  Want to go see Kelly, please!"

Who is Kelly? I wondered.  I mentally ran through a list of his new aides and therapists and classmates, but there was no Kelly I could think of.

     "Is Kelly on your bus?"
     "NOOOO!  Wanna go see Kelly, please!"  Kelly who?  Unless...
     "Do you mean Kelly from Handy Manny?" I asked.
     "Great.  Well, we'll go home and watch a Handy Manny video, okay?"
     "NOOOO!  Wanna go SEE Kelly!"
     "How are you going to go see Kelly unless you watch the vid---Wait a minute.  Do you mean the hardware store?  Are you asking to go to the hardware store?"
     "Yes!  I want to go to the hardware store, Mommy!" 

They have such chemistry, these two!  I don't get out much.

That was it.  Going to see Kelly means going to the hardware store.  (If you're unfamiliar with the show, Kelly is the woman who owns the hardware store and always has exactly what Handy Manny needs.  I appreciate the portrayal of a woman in a male-dominated business.  My husband keeps wondering when Manny and Kelly are going to hook up.)  Anyway, I felt like a genius, like effin' Sherlock Holmes, for reasoning that one out.  Of course, the hardware store was closed, but I promised to take him in the morning.

The point is we have to pay close attention.  Always.  The boy makes these connections that are so obvious to him, and we have to work so hard to keep up.  But it's worth it.

Footnote:  Early this morning, my husband took the boy to the hardware store just as it opened.  The boy was thrilled.  He ran up and down the aisles, yelling, "Hola, Kelly!  ¿Cómo estás?"

Oh, yeah.  That's another thing.  He's learning Spanish in school.  Did I mention that I took French?


Friday, September 13, 2013

Autism Dress Code

Many kids have "lovies" they get attached to.  Whether blankets or stuffed animals, they are prized possessions to our kids and therefore, prized possessions to the parents.  We know all hell would break loose if something were to happen to them.  The house is burning down!  Grab the kid and blankie and go!  When my older son was two, he loved his Elphie.  Elphie was a stuffed elephant with matted fur and hardly any trunk because the kid loved to chew on it.  Elphie was also absolutely rank because I was never allowed to wash it, but my son didn't mind.  He slept with Elphie on his face.  He adored Elphie.  So when Elphie went missing on Christmas morning, I actually prayed to God.  Please, God.  I would trade all of the presents just to get Elphie back.  Help me find Elphie, God.  We found him in the Christmas tree on New Year's Day.  But for that week between Christmas and New Year, my son did not sleep.

This effin' thing is in sorry shape.
That was Big Bro.  My ASD kid is a little different.  He obsesses on clothes.  A few years ago, he took a liking to a couple of his brother's Phineas and Ferb shirts and made them his own.  They were so big, he'd wear them like dresses.  He'd wear one and carry the other around like a security blanket.  I'd have to wait until he got in the tub to wash them.  Then the boy caught on to my scheme and decided he didn't need to take baths anymore.  Then he'd want to wear them to school.  I had a dirty, smelly kid in some dirty, smelly shirts, but his teacher was kind enough not to judge.

Every once in a while, the shirt obsession rears its stinky head, and I'm back to the cycle of laundry and deceit.  

Sometimes, the boy will obsess on something and make other people follow his dress code.  This responsibility usually falls to Big Bro.

     "Wear green shirt from Grandma!" the boy demands.
     "But I don't have a green shirt from Grandma.  Grandma bought me a red one," Big Bro patiently explains.
     "Green shirt from grandma!  GREEN SHIRT FROM GRANDMA!" the boy shrieks, drags Big Bro into his bedroom, and presents him with a t-shirt.  It seems Grandma gave the boy two green shirts and Big Bro will have to wear one, even if it's three sizes too small and makes him look like a Hooters chick.

Sometimes the boy will insist that they wear certain hats.  These hats are almost always a) out of season and b) embarrassing for Big Bro.  

     Oh, we're going shopping for Easter outfits?  Let's wear Santa hats! Oh, you don't want to wear a Santa hat?  Then I'll just throw a snot-flying tantrum.

And he does.  The boy pitches the biggest fit at the worst possible time, and I end up telling his brother, "Oh, for the love of God!  Will you just wear the Santa hat already?  Please!  Do you want to listen to this all the way to the mall?!"

I'm not even going to get into the time the boy tried to make his brother wear Mickey ears to baseball practice.  

I know.  I make it work.
Then there was the time with the effin' bike helmets.  One morning, I was rushing around, trying to get ready for work.  I knew I was going to be observed that day, so I wanted to get my power-teacher look just right.  My hair wasn't cooperating.

I heard a knock at my bedroom door.  I opened it to find the boy standing there, butt naked except for his bike helmet.  He held my helmet out to me.

     "Mommy, put helmet on, please."
     "Honey, Mommy can't right now.  I'm getting ready to---"
     "PUT HELMET ON, PLEASE!"  he wailed.  

A pair of dress shoes appeared behind the boy.  I looked up to see my husband, all suited up for work, wearing a bike helmet and a look of total resignation.

     "Just put on the fucking helmet," he whispered.  

So I did.  And you know what?  We went about our morning routine--all of us wearing bike helmets.  My husband bumped his head on the cabinets while making breakfast--"Good thing I was wearing this helmet!"--and the boy had to wear a button-down shirt because he wouldn't remove the helmet so we could pull a shirt over his head.  But it was all right.  I left for work in a good mood with a happy, well-protected family.  

And my observation went well, despite the helmet hair.