- Posted March 29, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Communicating through autism
As a little kid, my world was literally made of words. My parents tell me I used to “read the furniture”, picking out letter and number shapes. At 20 months old, I spotted two squeegees on the garage wall, and announced: “Two T’s! Two T’s! Two T’s!” The stairs were “the sevens” and barn doors had “the Z’s.” Words were everywhere. Like many people with autism, I have a strong memory, which let me take in new words easily. But also like many people with autism, I need things to be done the same way every time, including the way words are used.
When words weren’t used “properly”, I was left feeling confused or upset. During dinner at my grandparents’ house one evening when I was 3, it was taking me a long time to eat my bowl of pasta. Grandma said, “Katie, clean your plate.” The tears started flowing, and I wailed: “It’s not a plate… it’s a bowl.” I couldn’t understand that she wanted me to eat more quickly. All I knew was she used the wrong word, and I couldn’t handle that. Some things never change; I took my mum very literally during a phone call one afternoon.
Me: “I gotta go catch the bus. I have class at 4:00.”
Mom: “Are you on the road?”
Me: “No! I’m on the sidewalk.”
The moral of the story is: choose your words carefully! To help the kids I see for therapy become more flexible with language, we explore a variety of ways to say the same thing. We could say “Hi,” or “Hello,” or “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” or countless other things to greet someone. Trying out alternate ways to say something leads to more natural communication and provides kids an opportunity to express their personalities through their language, along with their ideas.
Single words are one thing, but conversation presents new challenges. It is unpredictable. Neurotypical people have conversations not just to exchange information, but to strengthen relationships. For years, I thought of a conversation as a contest to see who could say the most interesting thing. In junior high, some girls were talking about Britney Spears. I didn’t care, but I wanted to be polite if that was their most interesting thing. Then I jumped in: “Planes in WWI had synchronized guns so the gunmen didn’t shoot their own propellers off.” I didn’t understand why other people could say what they thought was interesting, but they didn’t like what I wanted to talk about.
So how do you get in step with others socially? For me, performing in school plays. I loved looking through the script. After reading it once or twice, I had the whole show memorized. The printed word is language made visual. It lasts; it doesn’t disappear as soon as it is expressed. Best of all, acting plays to our strengths – memory, attention to detail, while serving as a learning experience – simulating conversation and setting up opportunities for social interaction about a common interest. Find an enjoyable activity that encourages communication but doesn’t force it. These days, I take dance classes. It’s reassuring to know that I will see familiar faces for an hour at the same time every week. I may socialize by starting a conversation about favorite dance moves, or I may exchange smiles with someone because we’re doing what we love. The more structured a social interaction is, the more comfortable it is.
No matter how I express it, it’s more communication than I would have done if left to my own devices (specifically, my laptop and iPad). Then again, the ability to communicate through the Internet has its benefits. Dating is probably difficult for most people, and people on the spectrum are no exception. I met my fantastic boyfriend through an online dating site almost 2 years ago. I make a better first impression if I have time to think about what is being said to me and form a response. To this day, when we are apart, we communicate mostly by text. We’re pretty much the same as other couples who text to stay in touch. “Screen time” doesn’t have to be isolating.
But I’m one person with autism. Each of us has a unique way of communicating, and it can be found with creativity and patience. Some of us communicate through printed words. Some of us through our favorite movies. Some of us with pictures. I see myself as an interpreter, fluent in the language of autism, learning neurotypical language, and helping families bridge the gap. Everyone with autism has something to say. Learn to speak our language, and we will learn to speak yours.