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Monday, February 05, 2007

Communication skills

It is just as I hear the garage door close with spouse’s departure that I realize that I am in a pickle. My son, even in the morning is technically non verbal. After jaw surgery, I am effectively non verbal also. The cleaners are coming. Senior son is home with me as his asthma is too severe to go to school. I debate how to explain this to the cleaners, that there will be two bodies skulling around the place getting in their way? I have no-one to interpret for me. I consider waving my wipe board at them, but my Spanish speaking is of ‘Dora the Explorer’ standard and I certainly couldn’t write anything in Spanish. I mutter mentally, moaning and complaining, what am I going to do? I have 45 minutes to come up with a plan.

I don’t know how much spouse explained about my condition to them during the previous fortnight? [translation = two weeks of recouperation] I run a finger tip check over my mouth and count the pins and needles per square centimeter; no chance. We snuggle on the sofa whilst my sluggish brain begins to plot. I start scheduling with my son. I write a list of our days ‘events’ to pre-empt repeated questions along the lines of ‘what we do next?’ at 35 second intervals throughout the day. I am lazy and befuddled. I write rather than be imaginative and use icons.

At three he could read. Somewhere between that time and now, when he is seven and a half, he has mislaid that skill. Therefore, this is not my hyperlexic one, this is my ‘I never read anything under any circumstances unless you put hot coals to the soles of my feet’ one. I tap the board to save speaking and catch his attention. He reads aloud. He reads aloud perfectly. His eyes flick between my eyes and the board. I write another sentence and we repeat the exercise inbetween his coughs and my dribbles. We appear to be in agreement. I know this, not because he verbally agrees, but because we both put our hands in a thumbs up gesture and make eye contact. He reads additional sentences and we make the same gestures; four points of acquiescence.

I cannot fathom if this really is a complex social situation or whether I am making mountains out of molehills?

When the door bell rings he scampers out to the hall where Maria and her team appear with copious cleaning equipment. I am a few steps behind. As I approach, I hear my son talk to her on his own volition: “I am ill, so I am home. Mum is ill. Er, mum is more iller dan me. We are bowf home together but we will be good.” Maria blinks. She has known my son since he was 18 months old. I doubt if she has ever been honoured with as many words in as many years. My puff ball face smiles at her. She shakes her head slowly and runs a hand over his silky hair.

Harsh Reality

Many of the difficulties that parents experience with their autistic children is the vast disparity between different skills in different situations. This, in some situations, is referred to as an inability to generalize skills, which means that if they learn a particular skill in a particular place, often they are unable to use that skill at different times and places. The skill is encapsulated within a discrete area which can be difficult to expand. I whip him of his cat and explain that his head is as heavy as a medicine ball, which will surely crush the middle of the cat into a pancake. His understanding is immediate. He is flustered, uncertain whether to make amends with his pet cat or with me, for his inadvertent error. I scoop them both up and collapse on the sofa together for a group cuddle. I stroke the cat and my son in exactly the same manner. He mimics his cat, they both purr with contentment. Whilst we sit I recall a couple of years ago when his first original cat went missing. Jasper the cat, was lost and I suspected that he had come to untimely end. I decided to prepare my son for the loss by actively addressing the matter. We made posters and pinned them up in the neighbourhood. When the weekend came Spouse took care of the other two whilst we went round house to house to make enquiries. We had the script and had been practicing. He held a photo of his cat. We would approach each house, ring the bell, wait for the owner, ask ‘have you seen my cat,’ hold out photo for viewing, wait for a response and then depart having given thanks. It is a variation on our ‘trick or treating’ skills which we also needed to break down into steps and practice.

We started with the real locals, the people who know us, the people with patience, kindness and understanding. We went further afield, but still no more than 50 yards away from our own front doorstep. He was motivated because he understood the logic of this method of cat finding and he really wanted to find his ‘lost’ cat. He had been pump primed for years with ‘try, try, try again,’ and ‘use your eyes, keep looking.’

We would amble up each driveway with his usual gait. At that time, is was his gait that immediately gave the game away that something was different. The simplest description I can come up with, is that of a badly strung marionette with an apprentice puppetier holding the controls. He moved in slow motion to the front door by a circuitous route. I would prompt him to find the bell and remind him to press it. When someone arrived I would squeeze his shoulder to induce speech. Technically he was standing, but his body moved as if his skin were infested with ants but he could only respond in slow and perpetual motion. His body was not orientated towards the homeowner, nor was his face. Eye contact was out of the question. Eventually the ‘exchange’ would be over and we would leave to go to the next house. I walked close to him as he stumbled in the general direction of the road, oblivious to traffic and the next step in the sequence of the task that we were trying to accomplish. It was a time consuming exercise. In all I think we managed a dozen houses.

During that time, every so often we would come across a dog or a cat. He’s not keen on dogs. Each ‘pet’ we bumped into evoked the same response. He would skip up to the creature with alacrity, almost agile, squat down and start chatting face to face, “Hi, you live around here? I’m looking for Jasper he’s my cat, here’s a photograph of him, here, take a look, ain’t he cute, have you seen him at all?” He would whitter away having an animated one way conversation, body orientated, face and eyes locked on to his target.

It was so extraordinary to witness that even now I don’t think I can do it justice, he behaved like two different and completely unrelated children, the contrast could not have been more stark. It was watching the switch between the two; the discombobulated, inarticulate, disinterested child talking to the homeowner and then the gregarious, talkative, energetic whiz to the pets that was mesmerizing, back and forth, off and on, over and over again.

I think is why all parents need to continue to try different experiences, as you never know what may be lurking just around the next bend.

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