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?



  1. Wow! Sound's like a page out of our life! And you are right, those big brothers can save the day.

  2. Yep. Just yesterday we had to figure out what our son meant by, "Wanna watch Halloween!" Yeah...we have a lot of Halloween movies, so that was fun. Turns out he wanted to watch Heidi Klum pumpkin decorating tutorials on Youtube.

  3. I just discovered you....I instantly feel SO at home!!! "I want open" means "I want juice" because anytime he's thirsty, the Zachimal has to bring me the juice bottle to open for him. He can't be trusted with an open container... He'll pour it all over the rug, floor, bed...take your pick...just to watch it pour out of the container. I think I've found my safe haven here...

  4. Those connections. We do end up feeling like geniuses when we finally figure out the connections. Sometimes we can trace the path. Your language stuff reminds me of the time DD asked if Sister Diaz was bringing quesadillas. I thought that was a brilliant guess. Quesa DIAZ. Wow.