Thursday, September 07, 2006

When "Yes" Means "No"- How Do We Bridge the Communication Gap?
My mother used to have an old poster with a perplexed looking chimpanzee scratching his head proclaiming, "The more I think the more confused I get". Lately, Gabriel has been verbalizing more, but somehow I am understanding less. This is probably the way he has always felt about these peculiar talking creatures inhabiting his world. I think I am understanding how disconcerting this must be for him, as I am beginning to feel some of it myself. For example,he seemed to have a definite grasp on the word "no" yielding it freely and with great certainty for over a year now. When he said no, we knew he was not interested in whatever we were offering him or demanding of him. However, in our attempts to cajole him into doing things that we wanted him to do, we have been reacted to his "no's" with our own "yes's"- failing to take into consideration his tendency for echolalia. Well, now we have a little "yes" man on our hands -only he doesn't actually mean "yes" when he says it. You know, having the sense of humor that I do, I can't help but dissolve into fits of laughter at a tantruming child shouting "Yes" at the top of his lungs. Still, there is the analytical side of me that, once I have picked myself off of the floor, rises in wonder at the process involved in turning a "no" into a "yes" or the other way round.
My son has an amazing brain, but I have only glimpses into it's inner workings. In the mornings, I am greeted by papers covered with random letters, numbers, words and math equations. all written in the practiced script of a three year old who has been writing for fully one fifth of his little life. The morning after my little sister (a vegetarian) arrived from steamy Florida, my son had scrawled the message "Stop Meat"(purely coincidence I'm sure, but the kid has a sense of timing) across the bottom of a Neighborhood Watch flyer. We have words that cover the household bills that were carelessly left on top of the desk; math equations adorn the bathtub walls, any piece of paper, every piece of paper that is accessible to him has been used and used thoroughly. My son is a great conservator of space, adapting the size of his text as less and less unused area remains. He loves written letters and words, revels in them, their images seemingly burned into his little brain. If I were to write a list of nonsense words, I have no doubt he could accurately reproduce them though I would, only moments later, undoubtedly forget what I had written. Effortless is this to him, as effortless as breathing, as effortless as speaking me.
I speak without a great effort beyond the occasional grasping of words that has grown more commonplace with age. Speech for me and for most of us was not taught but absorbed, improved and enhanced with time, practice, and brain development. Words were heard, understood, reproduced without much concerted effort until later years when vocabulary worksheets replaced long conversations and workbooks tailored to precisely fabricated stories replaced the enchanting children's books that had been my staple as a preschooler. Somehow, in school, language changed from something that was naturally and eagerly acquired into something that was only painstakingly undertaken, lifeless and dismally uninteresting. Learning language systematically had a deadening effect for me- but what of a child who does not learn speech so readily? Is systematic teaching truly the best way to make up for this communication gap?
Many parents swear by the one or more of the alphabet soup of therapy programs designed to teach autistic children how to speak. Perhaps, the results for their children have truly been as remarkable as they claim, and I would be lying if I said that the sense of self doubt that I feel regarding almost every decison does not gnaw at the back of my brain when I hear these stories passionately retold by parents in chat rooms and forums, in magazine articles, and in books. I think about the fact that my son is in the target age group where such aggressive approaches are said to make the greatest difference, and you know, it may be a failing of mine, but the thing that keeps resurfacing in my mind is that my son might make great "progress" with such intensive work, but what of his happiness, his joy and excitement, his trust in me? Am I crazy to sacrifice a possible jumpstart in language development for the desire to maintain his emotional security? I don't know, but I know I don't want a child who has learned to speak by rote at the cost of something far dearer to him and to me. What, then, is the alternative? Do I let him continue to say "yes" when he means "no" and hope that he'll eventually learn the difference. That's one option, but probably not the best considering the fact that such words are so rudimentary to language. So, I've made a game out of it- made him laugh at his mother's exaggerated voice and gestures, and we've both delighted at the shared silliness- no tears or struggles, just a mom trying to help her son in a way that is right for him- right for us both. Certainly not the only way, and probably not even the best way, but at least this way my son gets to keep his smile...


At 12:20 PM, Blogger Soapbox mom said...

Wow. Awesome post!
I admit I smiled at the image I got of a tantrumming child screaming "YES!" at the top of his lungs.
As Gabe's mom, you instinctively know what is best and what works for him. He's a great kid with a great mom and dad, that much is certain.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger gabesmom said...

Thanks soapbox mom. What's amazing to me is that he was able to completely replace a word that he had been using consistently for so long. The majority of people would have to make a concerted effort to replace "no" with any other word, and yet he did it almost instantly without apparent thought. There's just so much about our kids that is amazing- even things that on the surface appear to be deficits.

At 9:23 PM, Blogger autism life said...

Definitely a beautiful child, the blog name certainly fits! I was just curious as I was reading your post if you have tried any augmentative communication systems?

Anyway, love your post, and congrats on such a wonderful kiddo!

At 9:25 PM, Blogger autism life said...

Sorry for posting twice in a row but I just noticed that you're homeschooling! I really, really hope you plan on some posts about that--I would love to hear more about what you're doing!!

At 12:04 AM, Blogger gabesmom said...

autism life,

Thank you for your comments. To answer your question, we haven't used augmentative communication devices because Gabriel does have a large vocabulary of words coupled with an increasing number of sentences, so he is able to ask for almost any basic need, and I suspect as his writing becomes more fluent, this will also allow him to fill in the gaps. The "yes" meaning "no" thing has kind of got me stumped, but he is also having some problems with more abstract types of language as I suspected he would. We will be seeing a speech therapist (play oriented) to help us through some of these issues-mainly to give me ideas for things I can do at home with him.
As to homeschooling, we have just started down that path though I had considered it for many years before having children. I have been researching various resources for homeschooling AS kids and have found many helpful forums and sites that I plan on posting in the future. I hope to share this journey with anyone who is interested and will add links as I come across them.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Soapbox mom said...

Hi again Gabesmom-
Just a quick little note about opposites. My son had a lot of trouble differentiating things like yes and no, off and on (lightswitches), inside and outside, and upstairs and downstairs.
Gabe will eventually get it right--they all do. Adding a new word to their vocabulary will cause some kids to fixate on the new word, while keeping the old one on the backburner, so to speak. This is only my opinion, mind you--I am not a professional. ;)

At 1:31 PM, Blogger S.L. said...

I can't tell you how much I am enjoying your blog! I can relate a lot, as my daughter is around Gabe's age. Her communication began as sign, now it's a mix of signs, some words, & pictures. Often, she doesn't have much to say--perhaps she is more quiet than our other child or most kids her age. I don't see that as some horrible thing--as most others do. My other daughter speaks from morning until night. I don't mind my quiet time during the day with my other one! I too am anxious to hear about the home-schooling. I'm contemplating that route as well. Keep up the writing--you are great!!!

At 3:25 PM, Blogger gabesmom said...


I certainly understand about enjoying the quiet. I also have a daughter (almost 5)who started talking at 9 months and never stopped. She is wonderful and I love her dearly, but sometimes I really relish the moments with my son when we are able to communicate with just a look or a laugh. I sometimes feel guilty for not filling all of our time together with language, but those moments of quiet are needed by us both.


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