Tag Archives: interpreting words

Asking Emma

Imagine for a moment if you had an idea.  It was an idea that was in keeping with a conversation taking place by others in the same room as you, but when you opened your mouth to share your thought, instead of using words that would convey what you were thinking you said something that sounded like, “Peacock!”  Not only did you say “Peacock!” but your voice was loud, some would suggest you were shouting, even though you hadn’t meant to shout, even though you weren’t thinking of a peacock, that was the sound that came from your mouth.

Now imagine that, in addition to this, you smiled and maybe laughed too.  Maybe you laughed because as you said what sounded like “peacock” you were also hit with a memory of a time that was funny, or maybe saying those two syllables made you happy, maybe the act of saying them made you laugh, or maybe you laughed, but nothing struck you as funny, the laughter was merely a response to anxiety or maybe it wasn’t any of these things.  Maybe the laughter just escaped from your mouth, unbidden.

Whatever the “truth”is about why the person suddenly shouts what sounds like “peacock!” and then laughs, while others are having a conversation about global warming or are discussing their concerns with a project they’re working on or are talking to each other about what to have for dinner, they are unlikely to assume the peacock shouter is listening to their conversation, much less that they have anything relevant to add.  In fact, the people having the conversation may regard this outburst as an intrusion, or an unwelcome distraction.  Or maybe they don’t, instead they stop their conversation and smile, or laugh and say something like, “is that funny?”  “Are you thinking of something funny?” or “Oh!  Do you like peacocks?” and when all of this is met with silence or some other utterance unrelated to both peacocks and the conversation they were having, they continue  with what they were saying to the other person.

Richard is good about saying to me, “we should ask Emma” or “Emma, what do you think?” or “Let’s find out if Emma has anything to add” or just turning to Emma and saying, “Hey Em, we’re talking about _____.”  Including Emma in our conversations is not something we regularly did.  It’s not that we never did, it just wasn’t something we regularly did.  Including Emma in conversations was not something we once considered doing, not because we didn’t want to, but because it didn’t occur to us that she was listening and understanding, much less had something she might like to add.  This is where her being able to write her thoughts has changed everything.

Once we began presuming her competent we began including her, but as she didn’t have a way to express herself, the – “do you have something you want to add? or so what do you think?” questions were not asked of her.  But once she began writing, all bets were off.  Suddenly and quite dramatically her words propelled me to reconsider even more what I’d once thought.  All of my assumptions, all those misunderstandings, I now view differently.  Now when Emma shouts, “peacock” I do not assume she is interested in talking about the colorful bird.  She may be, but she may not be.  But and this is a big but, I’m able to ask her and she is able to reply.

Emma has written often that the words that come out of her mouth do not always reflect her thoughts.  I used to think that whatever she said out loud, was indicative of what she was capable of and, in addition, was what she intended to say.  My misunderstanding of what was going on for her made for a great many misunderstandings.  Had Emma not found a way to communicate, had she not found a way to write what she knows, thinks and feels, many people would not question that her spoken language is representative of her mind.  They would not be able to believe that she has the complex and brilliantly observant mind that she has.  For most people this is a very difficult concept to fully grasp.  It has taken me daily exposure to such a mind to begin to stop making incorrect assumptions about not just my daughter, but all people I meet who do not speak or whose language is not an accurate reflection of their thoughts.



Experiencing Without Words

Over the weekend we played a story telling game.  The round robin story telling was an idea Emma came up with during an RPM session she had a few weeks ago and it seemed like a great idea for a rainy Sunday morning.  (Unfortunately, I didn’t get everyone’s permission to print our story here.)  Suffice it to say, it involved rain, a family made up of two parents, a girl, a boy, and a tornado carrying a herd of walrus.

Emma began the story with one sentence, then each person added a sentence and we continued going around in a circle.  Emma spelled out her sentences by pointing to letters on her laminated letter board, my husband and son said their sentences out loud while I transcribed what they said, but when it was my turn, I found it very difficult to think of what to add out loud, and so I wrote my sentence down first and then read it to the group.

After each person’s contribution there was much laughter and ad-libbing.  At one point Richard, who, it must be said, couldn’t help himself, constructed perhaps the longest, and wonderfully, creative run-on sentence every spoken.  He did look a bit sheepish afterwards, but the story moved along until it was Emma’s turn again, where upon she said, “All done.  No.  You have to work!”  Her comment reminded me that for Emma this “game” that was intended as fun, was “work” for her.  As no one else was viewing it as work we stopped after the fourth go around, at which point Emma raced off.

I think a great deal about how hard it is for Emma to communicate, whether that is through spoken language or writing; they are both hard.  This surprises many people who assume, as did I, at least in the beginning, that someone who cannot rely on spoken language to communicate, would be more than a little relieved to finally find a way to express themselves by writing instead.  However Emma has told me on several occasions that while she is relieved that people finally can understand her when she writes, it is also very, very difficult for her.

Emma recently described writing as, “It’s too hard work,” but it’s easier for the rest of us, particularly as it tends to be more accurate of her thinking than her spoken language.  Not long ago Emma wrote, “I can’t talk the way I think.”   But it would be a mistake to then assume writing is easy or that she eagerly does it.  And I was reminded of all of this when it was my turn to come up with a sentence for the story.  I couldn’t come up with a sentence through spoken language, but had to write it down first.  What if everyone had insisted that I say my sentence out loud, what if someone had said that it was against the rules to write the sentence down first?

I can tell you it would have been much more difficult for me, though it still would have been fun.  But what if I experienced the world in other ways and not with words?  What if my experience of people and things was not through pictures, words or anything that can even be described with words?  Wouldn’t both written and spoken language through the use of words be equally difficult for me?  What if my experience of the world was completely different and having to translate this experience into words was actually impossible?  What if so much was lost in the translation that it no longer represented my experience?  What then?

Em with her string

Em with her string