Tag Archives: autism and speech

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:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma and her Singing

“Sing Zoo Zoo Zoo with your mouth closed?”  Emma said this morning as she was getting ready for school.

“Good idea!” I said.  And then began to sing one of her favorite songs with my mouth closed.

She waited patiently until I had finished the first refrain and then said, “Emma’s turn!”

I knew, before I began singing that she meant she wanted to sing the song with her mouth closed, but since repeatedly correcting her over the years hasn’t made a dent in her continued use of “you” in place of “I” or “me,” I have begun taking her words more literally and seeing how that works.  Other than mildly irritating her, I’m not sure it’s making much of a difference.  The elusive pronoun continues to trip her up.

In addition there are words which she finds impossible to articulate.  A few of them can be found in another of her favorite songs – “Fabulous”.  Emma says – Sandy lot – or something that sounds suspiciously like that, in place of Fabulous as well as humming the word “imported” which is used repeatedly in the song, instead of making an attempt to say some version of the word.

Yesterday I tried more than a few times to have her repeat my enunciation of “imported” first by singing the lyrics “towels imported from Turkey, Turkey imported from Maine…” but when that didn’t help I tried to have her say “imported” all by itself.  I could see how hard she was trying, she watched my mouth as I said the word, she tried her best to mimic me, all to no avail and eventually wandered off into our bedroom where I could hear her singing loudly her own special version of the song, the tune utterly recognizable even as the words were not.

Richard found the lyrics of the song online and printed out several copies so each of us could review and sing along with her when she launched into yet another rousing rendition of it, which happens more than a few times over the course of a day.  Emma articulates a few lines of the song beautifully – “I want MORE!” and”Excuse Me Thank You” then lapses into her “Emmalish” – impossible for anyone to decipher.  Sometimes Emma will allow all of us to join her in singing, but often, particularly when it is her brother, Nic who is singing along she will stop abruptly and yell, “Nicky L. stop singing!”  or “Nic!  Stop talking!”

To which we respond, “No Emma.  Nic can sing too if he wants.”

“Forget it, it’s no fun now,” Nic will say as we wait for him to continue.  “She ruined it.”

Or if Nic does have the fortitude to continue, Emma will stand silently for a moment before seeking refuge in her bedroom and shutting the door.  It seemed as though it was as much a gesture of contempt for the whole unruly scene as a desire to escape the singing.  Nic usually shrugs and returns to whatever it was he was doing before the whole thing began.

I cannot hold a tune.  This is a fact I came to terms with early on in junior high school when I was contently singing along to “Angie” by the Rolling Stones and was ridiculed for my off key trilling.  My ego bruised, I was careful to hum or sing quietly under my breath or in the privacy of my own room.  Something I have continued to do ever since.  Emma however, did not inherit my tin ear.  Hers is the voice of an angel or Broadway singer, (depending on the song) as she belts out songs in decibels I didn’t know were possible.

The other week when we gathered to sing Happy Birthday, the one song anyone can sing off key with abandon, with no fear of ridicule, Emma out sang all of us put together.

“She’s  got a set of pipes on her,” Richard said, proudly when the song had come to it’s end.

“Yup.  She sure does,” we agreed.