Building Blocks & Autism

Sadly, I have no new photographs of Emma petting Merlin.  After that one brief encounter she has returned to ignoring him.  He seems to take it all in stride, poor kitty.  But it leads me to another topic I keep meaning to write about – building blocks.  Not the literal kind, but the developmental kind.  Children typically go through a series of advancements in their speech, physical abilities, etc.  There are specific physical milestones –  lifting their head, turning over, crawling, standing walking, and on it goes.  A foundation is being laid down which further progress is built upon.

What I have seen with Emma is less a foundation and more a series of seemingly unrelated events.  We see her do or say things never to be repeated or if they are, not for many months or even years.  I’m not sure I would have noticed this, except that I’ve made a habit of noting everything she does and then writing about it.  She pets Merlin and then instead of tentatively reaching out to him again the following day, it’s as though she never spent those few minutes petting him.

It reminds me of when she was just over a year old.  She would learn to say something – “play catch” and we assumed that these two words would now be added to the other words she had, such as ba-bye, dada, ah da (all done), hi, okay and no.  We expected to hear them uttered again.  At the time, knowing absolutely nothing about autism, we weren’t looking for signs of anything being wrong.  When she didn’t repeat – play catch – we assumed it was because she didn’t want to play, not that it was a one time event, never to be spoken again.

When I look at her baby journals, (which I discontinued after she was diagnosed – more about that some other time) the first two and a half years of her life, I am struck by the words she knew by the time she was thirteen months old.  Including the ones I’ve listed above she said, Bertie (the name of our elderly cat), Ma-ma, Nic, and Ra-ra (our caregiver).  I was concerned with her lack of language, but it wasn’t as though she wasn’t speaking at all and then she’d come out with something like “play catch” and I would sigh a huge sigh of relief and push my concerns aside.  Except that she never said play catch again.  The full list of words she spoke as a thirteen month old were either salutations or proper nouns of the main people in her life.  Other than the one time she said, “play catch” she did not use any  verbs or nouns.  It was at around this time, between thirteen and fifteen months of age that she would seem to learn a new word or phrase – “play catch”, but also, “chase me” and “go out”.  Some of them, like “chase me!” she would say many times but at around eighteen months she suddenly stopped.  We never heard her say those two words again.  It was as though there were some sort of black hole sucking all those words and phrases away.

Still we fully expected to hear her say those words again, that she did not was something we didn’t realize until much later.  At the time we were sure it was because she chose not to, as opposed to something neurologically wrong.  Why would one assume something was terribly wrong when she would come out with a new phrase or word the next week?  It wasn’t until we were told she was autistic, and only after much research did I begin to look back on all those hopeful notes from her baby journals and see a pattern.  There was not the steady building of a foundation of words, ever added upon to become an extensive and diverse vocabulary.  Instead there were a few scattered words and phrases some repeated, some never heard again.  Arbitrary words, perhaps she heard us say and repeated, but the milestones were not being reached in the time frame one normally would expect.

What I see now is that Emma is slowly, slowly building a vocabulary, but it is at a snail’s pace and it does not follow a neuro-typical trajectory.  Still she is advancing in her own haphazard way.  Who knows, she may even pet Merlin again.

For more on Emma’s criss-crossing journey through a childhood of autism and my ongoing attempts to make sense of it all, go to:

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