Sunday, June 28, 2015

Alex Asks

As autism parents, Ed and I are blessed that Alex, unlike many people with autism, can speak. Although speaking is difficult for him both in terms of generating what he wants to say and in terms of articulation, or speaking clearly, he can express himself enough that we can understand what he wants to convey verbally. For many years he struggled to construct questions, yet we knew he wanted to ask about the things he had seen and heard. Even though we modeled for him how to ask questions and taught him the W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why), he could not put all the pieces together to ask the questions he had in mind. Instead, he would simply say a key word in a questioning tone of voice so that we knew he wanted to know something more about it. However, over time he has thankfully developed the ability to ask us questions so that we get glimpses into what is going on in his mind, and we recognize that the things that sometimes seem rather superficial are actually quite deep.

Since we gave him an iPad Mini several months ago, Alex asks us fewer questions because he can ask Google for information he thinks we don’t know. To make sure he is visiting appropriate websites, Ed and I regularly check his search history to see what topics he has Googled. Not only are we relieved that he consistently uses safe websites, but we are also fascinated when we see what questions he has asked Google. For example, he asked Google this week, “How much does a bathtub weigh?” Since he loves numbers and baths, I suppose this question shouldn’t surprise us. For another search this week, he asked, “How many children are there around the whole world?” Additionally, he asked, “How many home runs does Alex Rodriguez have?” The most unusual topics this week were “Rolex watches” and “Afro wigs”; I’d love to know what triggered his curiosity about these two topics.

Looking down through the Google search history list, we can see that he is most interested in learning about people, and as we know, he wants statistics about them so that he can categorize them. This week he searched for ages, heights, and weights of former baseball player Mark McGuire, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, newscaster Jim Lehrer, and singer Bob Dylan. The celebrity who seemed to fascinate him most, however, is Suzanne Whang, who narrates several shows on HGTV. He wanted to know her birthday and weight, but clearly what he finds most interesting about her is her voice. Specifically, he had Googled “Suzanne Whang’s voice,” “Listen to Suzanne Whang’s voice” and “Suzanne Whang has got a soothing voice.” Now we understand why he has shown an enthusiasm for watching home improvement shows lately. He’s really not watching them as much as he’s listening for Suzanne’s soothing voice.

While Google helps Alex answer trivia questions about celebrities he likes, he still relies upon Ed and me to answer other questions. Not long ago as we were saying bedtime prayers together and naming off all the people whom he wants God to bless––a list that seems to grow longer every week––I asked him if we’d missed anyone. He asked me, “How about Dr. [name of psychiatrist we saw only once eight years ago]?” At first I was surprised that he even remembered this doctor because our encounter was brief and long ago. Also, I was totally unimpressed with this doctor because he was rather rude and very unhelpful, which is why we never saw him again. Moreover, he basically ignored Alex during the appointment, so I have no idea why he would have made an impression on Alex. However, Alex remembered him and wanted to pray for him, and so the psychiatrist we saw only once has become a regular in our nightly “God bless” list. Somehow Alex believes this doctor needs blessings, and the more I think about it, Alex is absolutely right. Even though the doctor showed little regard for Alex, Alex didn’t take offense and showed the proper attitude by repaying rudeness with kindness, which makes me proud as his mother.

Recently Alex asked me an interesting question that also showed his compassion toward others. Out of the blue, he asked me if he could learn sign language. When he was in special education preschool, sign language was part of the curriculum to help the students with speech delays learn an alternative way to communicate. Because Alex also has fine motor delays, he could not make his hands do the symbols, and he really wasn’t interested in learning how to use sign language. Nearly twenty years later, he suddenly wants to learn sign language, so I asked him why. Immediately he explained that he wanted to be able to talk to another young man in his day program who is hearing impaired and has limited speech. The thoughtfulness behind his motivation made me proud of the young man he has become. Even though autism impairs his social skills and the motor skills in his hands, Alex wants to be able to communicate with a friend and is willing to do the work needed to accomplish this goal. Consequently, I taught him how to finger spell his friend’s name in sign language, and even though Alex’s fingers struggled to make the letters correctly, he smiled as he kept trying.

Because words come easily for me, I have often spoken for Alex, knowing that he struggles to express his thoughts and feelings. However, I realize that he has a great deal to share with the world, and I need to encourage him to allow his voice to be heard. Clearly, he has shown independence by developing his typing and written language skills so that he can discover more about topics of interest to him. What pleases us even more, though, is that he is not only improving his speech but also learning to convey his compassion for others by learning to communicate with them in ways that are difficult for him but are comfortable for them and by praying for people he believes deserve God’s blessings. And so, I conclude with a question of my own: Is it any wonder that my son makes me so proud?

“And without question, the person who has the power to give a blessing is greater than the one who is blessed.” Hebrews 7:7


Babs said...

He is such a caring and loving young man. I am so happy he is my nephew. We are blessed

Pam Byrne said...

Aw, thanks, Babs! He is happy and blessed to have you and Jack as his aunt and uncle.

Anonymous said...

Hi ,

My daughter is 3 years old. She is diagnosed with autism. But as a father I always felt her intellctual abilities are In line with peers,except she does not speak and many tantrums.

I am interested to know at what age Alex started speaking.?Was it spontaneous? Did he go through speech therapy.
I find in my daughters case she can say words when I stress her but she can not talk or request some thing
by her own, even it is some thing she desperately need like milk or water.

Pam Byrne said...

Dear Autism Dad,

As Alex's speech has developed, we have realized just how smart he is; I'm sure your daughter is the same way. I think a lot of the tantrums are frustration in not being able to express themselves. Because Alex had hyperlexia (precocious reading skills), we were able to use written words instead of spoken words to help him convey meaning. He could type (on a computer or electronic handheld dictionary and now his iPad) what he wanted to say so that we could understand him.

Alex began speaking at about a year, but he only spoke in one or two word phrases. Also, his vocabulary developed very slowly; he was behind developmentally for his age in the number of words he would say. I think when he was three, he had about fifty words total. He was in private speech therapy twice a week for a few years, and this helped. However, working with him ourselves and being patient about his progress was important.

Alex's primary problems with speech are syntax (putting the words together in sentences) and articulation (pronouncing words so that he can be understood). We continue to struggle with this, but he's patient with us when we don't understand him. He'll even spell words aloud so that we know what he's telling us.

I hope that you can get some support to help your daughter with her speech because I think that also improves their anxiety, which can lead to tantrums. If you have any questions about our experience, or if I can be of any help, please feel free to write me again. Wishing you blessings!

Take care,

ScanDePLC said...

Hello Pam,

Thanks for sharing information. Basically it will help me to take right direction so that I can avoid unnecessary stress on child with so many training . Currently my daughter is going through behavior therapy (Aba) . She almost do all the tasks easily in ABA sessions. I will think of shifting to speech therapy .

Will get back to you in future for more suggestions . Thank you.

With Regards,

Pam Byrne said...

Scande, you are very welcome. I hope everything works out well for your family. Keep me posted.

Take care,