A couple of weeks ago, I described in my blog post “Farewell, Double!” how Alex seems to be recovering from the effects of allergies that have been bothering him lately. Thankfully, he has overcome the fatigue that was annoying him. In fact, he has returned to his old self with a couple of notable exceptions. First, his anxiety attacks have been popping up with less warning than usual. In the past, Ed and I knew Alex was agitated because we could foresee triggers and note behaviors that signaled he was upset. Lately, he seems to go “from zero to sixty” without any obvious provocation (e.g. the cable is out, his computer isn’t working, etc.), and he hasn’t been muttering (as I explained in the entry “Flow Chart”) to signal that his volcano is ready to erupt, allowing Ed and me to run figuratively to higher ground, or at least to put away any potential projectiles. These anxiety attacks, less predictable than usual, have kept us on our toes all summer, but fortunately, they have been less aggressive than those in the past. Most of the time, we have been able to console him through talking about his concerns, which brings up the second change we’ve noticed this summer.
Although Alex has always been rather reticent to talk, this summer he has definitely been a man of few words. One of the primary manifestations of autism in Alex has been his difficulty with expressive language. While his receptive language, or ability to understand what he hears and reads, is quite good, he has always had trouble generating speech and written words, despite years of speech therapy and our constant work with him. Along with his difficulty in trying to talk, Alex is intelligent and self-conscious, which makes him realize that he doesn’t speak as clearly as he would like. Through the years, Ed and I have tried to help him with this issue, alternately speaking for him when he’s out in public so that he won’t be embarrassed, or fighting the urge to finish his sentences for him when he’s at home and has no need to feel uncomfortable that he can’t always find the words he wants to say. Over the years, through time and practice, Alex’s speech has improved so that he can express himself through brief statements, and he has developed a surprisingly strong vocabulary, probably from his extensive reading and from conversing with his two English teacher parents. This summer, though, Alex has reverted to not volunteering information verbally and pretty much confining his answers to responses of “Yes” or “No.” In fact, sometimes, he doesn’t even answer those questions and will respond with gestures or facial expressions instead to indicate what he wants to convey. Needless to say, this regression of language skills has been worrisome and frustrating to Ed and me because it feels as though Alex has built a wall between himself and the rest of the world by refusing—and I do believe this is a conscious choice on his part—to talk. Moreover, as I reminded him the other day, we spent a great deal of time and money on speech therapy, which we’re not putting to good use when he won’t speak.
An added twist in Alex’s recent silence lies in his sudden bursts of eloquence during anxiety attacks. When Alex is agitated, he expresses himself quite clearly verbally, letting us know what the source of his anger/frustration/concern is. He uses precise adverbs such as, “approximately,” “actually,” and “exactly” to tell us about incidents from the past he remembers that bother him. While most of his complaints have to do with never wanting to use his typewriter, graphing calculator, or the computer game Monopoly Junior (all of which were previous obsessive activities he engaged in when he was younger), he also discusses abstract concepts, such as the passing of time and infinity. Despite his difficulties in using first and second person pronouns correctly, when Alex is in ranting mode, he never refers to himself as “you” or “Alex,” as he often does; instead he correctly uses “I” and “me” to express his feelings. While he usually speaks in words, phrases, or short sentences, during these verbal meltdowns, Alex seems to construct longer compound and complex sentences effortlessly. For example, the other day he expressed his frustration by telling us, “When I was 14 and 15 years old, it seemed like 30 years.” Ed and I questioned him a little further to see what was behind his mathematical analysis, and he explained, “Those years were boring; each one was like seven years.” I guess he was trying to deal with the idea of how time seems to drag when life isn’t interesting. Ed, who is more mathematical than I am, figured out that by adding Alex’s proposed seven years of boredom together, he came up with 14 years and then added that to age 16, which was apparently a less boring year in Alex’s eyes, which gave a total of 30. Ed ran this theory past Alex, who confirmed that was exactly what he meant by his cryptic comment. Another interesting observation I’ve noted during these word oases in the middle of Alex’s word desert is that Alex’s eye contact is significantly improved when he’s talking with us. Not only will he look at Ed and me when he’s telling us his worries, but he will also look us right in the eyes when we talk with him. These odd conversations ironically mark the most interactive and social behavior Alex has ever shown. As Alex talks with us during these times, we watch his anxiety gradually fade; by expressing his concerns and knowing that we care, Alex can address these fears head-on and regain his composure. While we miss the everyday conversations about the weather and game shows and what foods he likes to eat, I have hope that Alex will soon regain his desire to talk with us more often and suspect that his verbal outbursts indicate a progress in his development. We’ll just look forward to conversations that begin in delight instead of aggravation so that we can learn more about how Alex thinks because I suspect there’s a lot more on his mind that he has to share with us.
“For my words are wise, and my thoughts are filled with insight.” Psalm 49:3