Sunday, August 11, 2013

Alex the Low Talker

For some reason, Alex has developed the habit of speaking so softly we can barely hear him at times. Since spoken language has always been quite difficult for him, I suspect that he is self-conscious about the way he talks, which may be why he speaks in such a quiet voice. His behavioral therapist has been working with him the past few months, encouraging Alex to “turn up the volume” so that he can be heard easily. While his quiet voice seems preferable to one that is too loud, trying to hear what he’s saying can be a challenge. His therapist has impressed upon us the importance of getting him to speak up so that he can convey his needs, wants, and ideas to other people who may not be as patient as Ed and I are about trying to figure out what he’s saying. In many ways, Alex reminds me of a character from the television comedy Seinfeld, a woman who spoke too softly and whom they nicknamed “the low talker.”  Since the other characters on the show couldn’t understand what she was saying, they simply nodded and smiled, which led to Jerry unwittingly agreeing to wear a “puffy shirt” that she had designed. The other day, Alex said something to me that I couldn’t hear, and I just agreed with him to appease him. When my mom asked me what he had said, I told her I wasn’t sure, but I thought I might have agreed to wear a puffy shirt the first day of school. [For a clip from this Seinfeld episode, click here.]

While having closed captioning beneath Alex as he speaks would be very helpful, we must instead tell him to repeat what he has said in a louder voice and try to figure out what he’s trying to tell us. The results of these efforts are a cross between moderately frustrating and very amusing. Ed and I have developed a sequence of steps to decipher Alex’s code. Sometimes we must go through the entire process, and sometimes we’re able to figure out what he’s saying on the first try. Thankfully, Alex remains remarkably patient as we try to understand him, never getting upset that we don’t know what he’s saying and often finding our attempts hysterically funny. We frequently see him in the back seat of the car, the setting for most verbal misunderstandings, laughing at us because our guesses at what he’s said are apparently way off base. Nonetheless, we keep trying to keep the lines of communication open with him, leading to a process that could be a new game show: Guess What Alex Just Said.

1. First, we ask Alex to repeat what he said a little more loudly. Although he usually complies with this request to repeat, he often repeats in the same low volume as the first time. Sometimes we can figure out what he’s saying by reading him lips.

2. Next, we madly search for context clues. Is he holding something that would help us figure out what he’s saying—a magazine or book, for example? Did he see something out the car window that caught his attention? This is the part of the process where Ed and I usually work as a team, putting our ideas together cooperatively to solve the puzzle.

3. Prior experience can sometimes help us understand what Alex is saying. For instance, he finds the recent closing of a local appliance store interesting, so whenever we pass that store, he’ll jokingly tell us that he wants to go to Sun Appliance. This has become so routine that as soon as the sign for the store comes into view when we’re driving, we’re ready with a response for him.

4. To make hearing Alex easier, we remove all sources of background noise as much as possible. Ed and I have become adept at quickly turning off the car radio and air conditioner to remove any noise that competes with Alex’s quiet voice. Sometimes we also tell him to wait until we get to the next stop sign or stop light so that we can hear him over the car’s motor. Instead of simply raising his voice so that he can be heard, Alex prefers to wait until the next intersection where he won’t have to compete with the running motor.

5. Besides his issues of talking quietly, Alex has articulation problems that make understanding him difficult at times, even when he does speak in a normal tone of voice. Fortunately, he can spell words aloud easily, and we often ask him to “Spell it” so that we can decipher what he’s saying. This is a good strategy because he likes to spell words aloud, and Ed and I have become so good at this game we can frequently figure out the key word halfway into the spelling.

6.  Often, Ed and I just start guessing, using what clues we have at hand and what we think we are hearing him say. This often leads to funny misunderstandings that Alex finds hysterical. The other day in the car, he was trying to tell us what he wanted for dinner, but I thought he was talking about people instead. I guessed Grandpa and game show host Bob Barker, neither of which were anywhere near what he was saying. When we finally figured out what he was saying, we then understood why he found my guesses so amusing. Many times, as with the spelling strategy, Ed and I work together in our guessing, and between the two of us, we can come up with what Alex is saying.

Although trying to figure out what Alex is saying in his quiet voice requires some patience, understanding, and even creativity, we are thankful that he not only wants to communicate with us verbally, but that he also is patient with us as we try to understand him. As much as he seems to find our failed attempts funny, I even wonder if he deliberately speaks softly just to see what we will do. Considering that nearly half of all people with autism are essentially nonverbal, we realize what a blessing it is to have a child who can speak. As we continue working with him to raise his voice so that he can be heard, all three of us find humor in the Guess What Alex Just Said game where we all win when we finally understand what he wanted us to know.

“They longed for me to speak as people long for rain. They drank my words like a refreshing spring rain.” Job 29:33

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