Every now and then Poss comes into my work. She’s become a bit of a favourite of the front desk staff, after she made them all loom band bracelets earlier in the year, and they often ask after her. With holidays on the horizon, I was chatting with one of them earlier this week and she asked after Poss.
Would she be in? She’s lovely, but really, she’s a bit of a handful isn’t she? Well, yes, I responded, because what else do you say? They followed it up with “someone said she has Autism, but I’ve met her a few times now and she speaks just fine – surely I heard wrong?”
No. No you didn’t. And while I wasn’t up to getting into a long conversation about the ins and outs of Autism and the different ways it can show itself, I felt I needed to explain that actually, lots of people on the spectrum are verbal. That doesn’t mean they don’t have issues with language though.
In Poss’ case, her verbal skills are fabulous. Or what I should say, is that she’s a fluent talker. An epic talker. Her vocabulary is huge and her ability to speak at length on a topic that interests her is impressive.
However, that’s not all that language is.
Sometimes Poss goes back and forth. We have conversations. We can pass the baton of words between the two of us, each sentence adding to the stream of discussion. We build on the understanding, taking turns to add our piece, like a thread the words pulling us into the same world.
Other times, there is no back and forth. Open ended questions are met with closed question answers, or a rote response delivered flatly. If we’re lucky. Sometimes it’s just a grunt, or nothing at all.
When she was younger, we celebrated each extra strand that was added to the conversation. Her speech pathologists worked with her to build her concentration. Endless games of I-Spy and memory, where the point is to take turns and expand on the back and forth. Role playing to help her understand, to truly comprehend, the words she was using. Reading with her to help her see the big picture, and not just focusing on the individual details.
They spoke with us about the ins and outs of pragmatic language; the ability to understand and abide by those ‘social rules’ that go along with speaking. The rules that make it not just speaking, but connecting with others.
As she gets older, these skills become more important. Her literal interpretation impedes her ability to interact with her peers. Her difficulty in deciphering sarcasm, tone and those non-verbal language clues mean she’s always one step behind, trying to catch up, while they absorb those things via osmosis.
So yeah. She does talk. And for that I’ll always be grateful. But that doesn’t mean language comes easily.