We’ve been trying to string three or four words together. Not me and Jill, although it’s difficult for us to do that lately, too.
I mean Alex.
“What do we say, Alex?”
“‘Pretzel please, daddy!”
We’ll work on spacing later. I’m just happy, as I unload a handful of Utz salt and dough into his bowl, that maybe the idea of communication is getting through to Alex. Never mind that pretzels sometime wind up being his dinner. Right now we’re working on conversational nutrition.
Ned’s talking is functional. He’ll answer questions: Last night, Jill asked Ned if he loved daddy (“Yes”), if he loved the cat (“Yes”), if he loved Alex (“Yes”), if he loved grandma and grandpa (“Yes”), and if he loved mommy (“No”). Ned also employs such fallback exclamations as, “Okay,” “Kitty, get down!”, “Whaddya doing?!” and “Alex, you already had a bath!”, among others. I’m this close to be able to chat with Ned about not being so bossy.
Alex’s word count is more limited. When excited, he usually screeches and squeals rather than says a word, though when he’s really annoyed he snaps, “Ned!” When he wants to be tickled he says, “Again?” After watching ads on Elmo for the “Sesame Street” Web site, he thinks “WWW” is a word. Only after a day and a half of fever did he say a sentence (“I’m thirsty.”). I feel that the desire to speak and to have his words caught and realized is somewhere in him. I can’t find where; I can’t ask. I don’t know who he is.
Before Alex came along, I never realized how hard it is to connect with someone who simply doesn’t speak much. He stands in front of the closet, for instance. He raises his hand, palm up, above his face, as if shielding his eyes from the sun. “What do you want, Alex?” I ask. I’m pretty sure I know what he wants: the Orange Bob the Builder truck.
“Want!” he replies.
“Say the word, Alex.”
Do over. “You want the orange truck?”
“Then you have to say the word.” I once met an autistic man at a special needs conference, and he said that when he was boy his mother always forced him to ask for what he wanted by name. Always. If not your parents, then who? The orange truck is easily within my reach. “Do you really want the orange truck, Alex?”
Alex has been chanting the days of the week and the months of the year. His teacher reported that in school the other day, he counted to 20; I don’t know if anyone asked him to. He can recite passages of Tom and Pippo. He can sing the songs of “Sesame Street” (and to his credit, they sound, like all the songs he sings, much more like songs than when I sing them). He asks for a binkie by name, and with force. Once when he was tired, he barked, “Tired! Take a nap!” It was nine o’clock at night.
Trying to chip away at the fear that I may never have a real conversation with Alex, I start with manners.
“Alex, say, ‘May I … ‘”
“‘Please have … ‘”
“‘May I please have some pretzels, daddy?'”
By this point in our conversation, Alex is stamping with either excitement or a need to go to the potty. Oh well. I’m not sure I could have recited all that, either. But language specialists have told me that this is an excellent way to begin with him. “So is it comprehension?” I ask. “Or just rote to get something he wants? Or is that all words are really, anyway?” “That’s a good question,” one doctor said. He can get his point across without words: In the middle of the night last night, he appeared beside Jill in our bed, got her up, took her hand, and led her into his room and straight to the changing table. His diaper was dirty.
What are words, really? Whatever the answer, I know of no other way to get him to put the words together, other than to get him to put the words together.
Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.Tweet