“Do you think Emma will ever ask us a question?”

When Ariane asked me that question, I had to pause and think about it. Had Emma ever asked us any questions? After a few more seconds of scouring the memory bank, I answered.

“She asks us questions all the time,” I said. “They’re just simple questions.”

“Go to snake bite museum?”

“Watch Elmo movie?”

“Take a plane, see Grandma?”

“Have some apple juice?”

As far as I can remember, all of her questions are requests to have her needs met or requests for information or clarification, which are also needs-related.

“Go to snake bite museum?”  Request for needs to be met.

“Take a plane, go see Grandma?” Request for information related to needs.

She will also frequently make statements that are stealth questions, often with her voice rising up slightly at the end of a sentence like you do when asking a question.

“No see Becky today. No school bus.” Then she will look up at you expectantly, requesting an affirmation.

“That’s right Emma, today’s Saturday, there’s no school today.”

We probably say “That’s right Emma” more than any single phrase to her. As a consequence, she also says “That’s right” all the time.

“No take the bus.”

“That’s right Emma, no school bus today.”

“That’s right! No school bus today!”

“So what do you want to do Emma?”

“Make pancakes?”

“Sure Emma, let’s make pancakes.”


When Ariane asked me the question about Emma asking a question, I instantly knew what she really meant by that. That’s why I had to pause a few seconds and think about whether she had or not.

“Why does Grandma live so far away?”

“How do they get all the music into an iPod?”

“Where is California? How long does it take to get there?”

“Why are the buildings so tall here?”

“How come they keep all the animals in cages at the zoo?”

“When am I going to be a grown-up?”

These are all simple questions you might hear from any four-year old child. They seem light years away from Emma’s capabilities right now. Why? When? How? Where? What? These questions never seem to materialize, at least not in that form.

“Can I?” “Have some?” “Go there?” Yes, they are all questions, but not the kind you expect to hear from a girl who is eight years old. Her teachers at school have told us she has made progress in asking questions, and will even tell us examples of the what, where, when, how and even some why questions she has asked. I can cite some examples too, though they don’t use the actual W words.

When and where questions are the easiest:

“Get on a plane, go see grandma?” That’s a when question in disguise. She wants to know when we are going.

If we are in an unfamiliar area she might ask a where question like, “Go find swimming pool?” Most kids would ask, “Where can we find a swimming pool around here?”

“Get on a plane, go to hospital (hosspull)?” That’s a when and sort of a where question. She wants to know when we are going for the stem cell treatment and where are we going, which foreign country do we have to fly five hours to reach because our government can’t get it together to have these treatments available here. Ha. Ha.

“Daddy, movie is broken. Daddy help?” That’s a when and how question. How can you get this thing working again? When can I watch Mary Poppins?”

What questions are a rare breed, at least the kind of what questions normal kids ask that stem from curiosity about something unfamiliar. She doesn’t seem to have that curiosity for more information about what something is, how it works, or why it is the way it is.

The rarest of the rare are why questions, and the rarest of the why questions, the albino elephants of the question world, are why questions related to abstract thought.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

If we ever hear Emma ask a question like that, we are home free!

Presto, chango. “That’s a normal kid you got there mister!”

Why questions related to feelings are the low hanging fruit we strive to harvest, planting the seeds for them by asking her why she feels the way she feels, usually when her emotions are very intense – intensely happy, or intensely upset.

“Why are you so upset Emma? Why are you so sad (or angry, or frustrated)?

“Emma is so upset (…because…) Emma can’t find cokie.” (her blanket).

If she can truly understand a why question like that, and she does hallelujah, then she can ask one too. Since her receptive language (comprehending what we say) is stronger than her expressive language (communicating her thoughts), this is how we practice with her.

I know she asked me a why question once, related to my feelings. Probably something like “Why is daddy upset?” but I can’t remember exactly what it was.

Maybe Ariane, Joe or one of her teachers or therapists could add more examples they have witnessed in the comments section below. The more we can list, the more hope we have. Hope is the name of the game here (and the name of the blog).

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t have a great deal of hope that this next stem cell treatment will yield a few how and what questions.

If we get a few whysGravy.

3 responses to “Questions

  1. I am trying to think of a why question from Emma and am coming up empty! I was just talking about this with Catherine Lutz this afternoon, who is a journalist for the Aspen Daily News. She’s writing a follow up piece about Emma and the stem cell treatments we are doing. I will post the link when the piece comes out.
    Emma states questions as though they weren’t questions, but statements. As in, “Mommy go on airplane.” It’s ambiguous. I know she’s asking if I’m going on an airplane, because I know she’s a bit worried that she isn’t going too. So she’ll say things like: “Mommy go on airplane, Mommy go see Granma. Emma go on airplane.” None of this is said as though it were a question. The inflection we normally associate with a true question is missing. Never-the-less, Emma is asking. She probably wants to know why Mommy is going without her, but that’s not something she knows how to ask or isn’t able to conceptualize. The good news is Emma is answering our questions with more detailed responses. A year ago, when I would ask her, “What did you do today?” She would say nothing or she would say something that had nothing to do with my question. Now, more often than not, she will accurately answer me. I can see her thinking about her day and going through the events in chronological order, skipping the parts that were of little interest to her, giving a bit more detail to the parts she enjoyed. It helps if I give her choices and have some idea of what she did to help her articulate her day. I will be on the look out for more why questions either answered or asked from Emma. And yes, when we get a few whys – we’ll be ecstatic! Thank you for taking the reins, Richard, both in hanging with Emma so I can do this trunk show, but also taking over the blog for the next few days. Thanks for watching my back. I love you.

  2. Responses containing, or alluding to “because” statements are really powerful and show a good deal of meta-cognition. There are a lot of kids, even ones who are considered developmentally “normal”, who can’t make this leap unless they are prompted. So that’s cool that she does that.

    Additionally, I wonder if there are “Whys” in there somewhere? Like the whole thing with asking to put everything/ person in the washing machine… or asking to make pancakes even on a day when there is no pancake making. There is curiosity in there, for sure.

    Maybe she is asking “Why” without saying it…?

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