Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Speech Matters

When it comes to his general use of language and residing on the autism spectrum, Ethan's done well. He's done very, very well. The child who had maybe 20 words at his 2nd birthday soared through speech therapy, including the use of pragmatic language.

Ethan's doing great. He does have some idiosyncrasies in speech that we talk openly about all the time. For example, his tendency to use the more formal version of words (so, "hurt" becomes "injured," or "throwing up" becomes "vomited"). It's very hard to explain why he should use the more casual version of the word in everyday conversation, because in reality I'm not sure why he should, except to avoid ridicule from fellow fourth graders.

He also hates relating to people with meaningless pleasantries. So if Chloe says, "Ethan, I found my blue shoe," and Ethan has no interest in that or really doesn't care, he just doesn't say anything. For a while I told him he could just say something like "that's cool" but he protested that it really wasn't, it was something silly that wasn't "cool" at all. I realized he was technically right and asked if he couldn't respond with a simple, "Oh?" that would show he had at least heard what the person said. "It's not always about you," I tried to explain. How does anyone really successfully use that argument with a kid? Nevertheless, I tried. "Sometimes you respond just to show you care about the other person even if you don't care about the information they shared." We're still working on this one.

Lately, Ethan has discovered something about the English language, and yeah, it kind of falls in with the whole "formal-speak" issue. He's realized that not only does he dislike shortened versions of more formal words, he really, really dislikes contractions.You know, like can't, won't, shouldn't, and the whole mess of them.

I don't even remember learning contractions, except when everyone would argue about how ain't wasn't really a word. I don't know when you learn them -- first grade?? Who knows. As usual, this is something I've rarely thought about, but autism has a way on shining a spotlight on many things we wouldn't otherwise have thought about.

First he shared he really prefers saying "thank you" rather than "thanks." If I told him "thanks" for something he would correct me. I responded that I understood, but it was really the purpose behind what I was saying that mattered -- the important thing was that I was thanking him. Of course he always remembers to chime in "you forgot to say you're welcome" if I do. Or maybe I should say, in his case, "you are welcome."

We will be in the car and Ethan will say that he's going to make sure he doesn't use any contractions. I'll ask him why he dislikes them and he doesn't really have a good reason.

Kind of like asking me to explain why I dislike NOT using contractions.

At church he asked to hold the door for people as they were leaving and we were still getting coats on and chatting with people. He must have stood there for 15 minutes as people streamed out. Once we got going, he confided: "Mom, 37 people thanked me for holding the door. And not one of them said 'thanks.'" He was very happy about this. Not that they thanked him...but because they said "thank you."

The next week he was holding the door again and I purposely said, "Thanks!" as loud as I could, then tousled his hair. He knew I was just kidding around.

One morning he announced, "I like the Bible."

I kind of had a hunch what was coming.

"Because God, when he talks, never uses contractions," he continued.

"You like that, huh?" I asked. "Why?"

"It just SOUNDS better," he said.

"More powerful?"


That got me thinking about how God or Jesus really spoke minus the King James translation. I wondered: how DID God speak, thundering from the mountaintop? How did He speak through Jesus to a group of people? Was it ALWAYS like Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings ("YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"). Or was it a little more like Jesus Christ Superstar? Somehow I figured it was NOT a bunch of thee's and thou's. But then again...

Thanks to Ethan the speech matter momentarily becomes an existential one. I start thinking that a being that is otherworldly truly speaks the language of galaxies, of the universe, far too complex for a mere human mind to understand. However, God reaches to our level and communicates in a language we can follow. Even if it's not His natural one.

The least we can do is meet Ethan at his level. We can work to understand the translation and hear the heart of what he's saying rather than just the words. And it's what we ask him to do all the time. We meet people where they're at because we love them. That's why we ask him not to correct a friend that's using contractions, or to show interest when someone says something benign. It's a way we die to the ever-present disease of self. It's a way we show love.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

When a Reward is Not a Reward

A few weeks ago Ethan came home from school with a paper. All the kids in his class who'd scored high marks for good behavior were invited to a special breakfast before the start of the school day to reward them for their exceptional behavior.

"That's so nice," I ooohed. Ethan grumbled.

The morning of the breakfast did not start well at all. He'd had trouble falling asleep the night before and wanted to sleep late rather than get up early, of all things, for the breakfast.

Then he couldn't find his homework. And he realized he had health that day and really, really didn't want to go to school at all. (He hates health. Who can blame him?). He wanted to play with his circuits. Lately he's loved doing his circuits. School was an interruption.

"We need to get going," I urged.

"But what about my bagel?" Ethan's favorite breakfast is a bagel with butter. He'd eat it just about every day if I let him.

"Eeth, you can't have a bagel today. They said it's a pancake breakfast."

"But I want my bagel!" I could feel his anxiety rising.

"Look," I said, deciding to bargain. "If you get ready, I'll make you a bagel too, since you hardly ever eat at these school breakfasts."

He liked this idea, but didn't want to get ready. Today the world was against him. This Tuesday was like a Monday. I tried to tell him so many people feel the same way, getting up not wanting to go to work or school. Or health class. It was part of life. You just had to push through.

The pushing was feeling like slogging through mud. By the time he had stopped shooting baskets in his room and doing other fiddling around, there was no time for a bagel.

"WHY?? Why do we have to do this?? Why can't I just have my bagel and relax!!??" he wailed.

"Ethan, this is supposed to be a REWARD, you know, not torture."

"Well it's NOT a reward for me!" he shot back.


I knew he was right. It wasn't a reward for him. This special pancake breakfast was an interruption to his schedule; a disruption of the norm.

Getting to school early, having a different breakfast, being forced to make conversation with peers and teachers in an unfamiliar setting...these were scary propositions.

I knew it wasn't his two teachers' fault. They were doing something commendable in making sure to recognize this group. It's just...for Ethan, it was more like facing a punishment. Or at least a difficult homework assignment.

It reminded me of the time my reward for high honors in my small private school was going out to lunch. Everyone else at the lunch turned out to be older than me. Torture. Then there was the perfect attendance dinner in 9th grade in which I was assigned to sit at a table with a girl who hated me. I still shudder.

We got to the school and followed the smells of pancakes down to his math/science teacher's classroom. The kids were sitting around a table. Ethan lurked at the door, pacing and staring intently at a bulletin board. "Don't make me go in," he pleaded.

I felt simultaneously bad while knowing I had to give him that gentle shove in. It might be harder for him than any other kid, and we were compassionate about that, but -- he's a not quite typical kid in a typical world. He will face these situations again. We have to keep encouraging to take another step, to make the harder choice.

It's not just him. It's all of us. It's learning how to do something less instantly gratifying now to help us gain something much greater for the future. I have so much to learn, when it comes to this lesson.

That afternoon Ethan came home gushing. "The pancakes were CHOCOLATE CHIP!' he announced. "They were so good! I loved that breakfast!"

For a moment, I felt a little smug. "Now aren't you glad you went?" I asked.

"Well...kind of. But I still didn't really like it," he said. "Can I PLEASE have my bagel tomorrow?" he pleaded.

The reward really hadn't been a reward. Yet it was -- one a little less tangible but rather part of a very long process of laying building blocks for life.