- Posted March 31, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Communicating through autism
Evolution of Fluency
Do you have autism or a loved one on the spectrum? How do you communicate? Add your story to this assignment and it could be featured on CNN.
- dsashin, CNN iReport producer
When Ivan was a toddler, we couldn’t wait to hear his voice. At a year old, he had severe speech delays specifically expressive language. He would get a new word for awhile only to drop it. He also wanted to know the name of everything. He would point at an object and ask “dat” (what’s that)? We talked & pointed out pretty much everything imaginable. We could tell that he was building his vocabulary because he understood us and could follow directions. We started doing sign language with him around 6 months old. Since many times he did not like to be touched, we talked & sang a lot. For us, it was a way to offer comfort, let him know we were here for him. We tried to do hand activities, which he did not like, trying to do something like Itsy Bitsy Spider was intolerable. Once early intervention services started, we got into speech therapy and didn’t find that to be a good fit. At 18 months old, the speech therapists were at a loss figuring out what they could do. We continued with the sign language. By the time he was 2 years old, he used over 60 signs, most ASL & some we tailor created to fit our life & avoid finger-spelling.
As Ivan’s sign language acquisition was taking off, he was also learning to read. He could read simple phonetic words at 2 ½ years old & could speak 10-20 words in 7 languages by 3. Yes, we were amazed. Around 3 years old, Ivanese also emerged. He had his own language to name things. My favorite is kazoonkie, translated in English it means topsy-turvy. Ivan came up with this word while we were swinging his little sister. After having an exuberant turn pushing her, Ivan saw that she got kazoonkie & loved it.
Over the years, we started spinning far-fetched nonsensical make-up stories, kind of Seussian-style, and the wackier the better. We dove into Ivan’s interests & curiosity to make up songs, play word games, read joke books and stories like the Ted Andrews trilogy about idioms. As we continued to learn through his autism diagnosis some finer points like how much of a literal & visual thinker he is, we wondered how all of this would tie together. Still not sure that we know, but I think that it’s been phenomenal in cultivating a mutual pursuit of learning, growing & evolving to where we are today.
When Ivan was 5 years old, I stumbled onto something that really surprised me & I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around. Ivan did not know what the word tired meant. I was baffled because we use that word all the time & it’s in several of the stories he was fond of. I could not comprehend how he was reading on a third grade level, but didn’t understand tired. Of course that made me wonder, what else did he not understand? My heart ached at the vastness of possibilities.
Between the speech delays, sign language, Ivanese and preference not to talk, we’ve realized that English seems not to be Ivan’s native language. We are still unwrapping his native tongue as we travel this journey and catch ourselves taking for granted how much or what Ivan understands because he speaks well. I started reading about echolalia and brought a deeper understanding into our awareness. I’ve had people doubt that Ivan has echolalia. I didn’t believe it at first either. I thought it was just repeating back what someone said. His echolalia is subtle because he has a great memory, the ability to splice together bits of information and his word usage seems to fit within the context of the conversation.
We noticed early that Ivan really likes or needs rules. Most of the time this has been a good thing, but when it comes to explaining the English language, it is a daunting challenge. How do you explain a language that has so many exceptions to the rules? When he was younger, somehow he figured out the contraction rules (probably seeing patterns). So, he would say “I amn’t” instead of “I’m not”. We continually work on translating & dissecting English with Ivan using the opportunities that naturally present daily from understanding shows & stories to interactions with his sister & us, running errands or on social outings. We discuss matching body language, facial expressions, voice inflections/tone and word choice. This is an evolution & we let Ivan lead the way, taking cues about how, what & why we dive into the areas we do. Recently we’ve found online storyboards that let him create his own stories however he wants. He also loves exploring Apps & has his own Squag pad.
We try to balance talking as we do & being mindful that our speech seems foreign to Ivan. It’s challenging to drop common expressions like; give me a minute or hang on a second. Phrases like these are taken at face value for Ivan. A minute is a minute. I do not believe this is rigid or inflexible thinking. It is literal & hard-wired just as is being left or right-handed.
Ivan is now 7 years old, an avid reader, amazing big brother and continuing to build and evolve his fluency in English as we also gain more fluency in Ivanese. The cherry on top… Ivan crafted his first original joke this week. And yes, it was hilarious!