Autism: From the Inside – Chapter Nineteen

Ian’s speech was improving slowly. He knew many words but consistently refused to use them. This was deeply frustrating for me, knowing that he had such a large vocabulary in his head that he wouldn’t use. I had listed the words he had learned, and knew that he had more than 550 words at his disposal, and yet his conversation revolved around set requests like “Toy Story video please, Mummy” or “Push me, please” when he was on the swing. He could express his needs and wants, but appeared not to want to learn to speak more than was absolutely necessary.

However, there were occasional surprises, like the day I took Ian for a walk in a nearby pine forest.

The forest floor was very damp from all the recent rains we’d had, but the mossy tussocks provided a dryer path, as long as you could keep your balance. 

Ian, of course, had no trouble at all – well, he could stand upright on the back of his rocking horse, rocking, whilst reading a book, so obviously his balance was fine! Mum, on the other hand, falls over at the drop of a hat, or in this case, the shifting of a mossy tussock. 

Thankfully, I fell into a dry ditch, not a wet one, and the moss was very comfortable to land on. But what took me by surprise after I’d landed was Ian’s little voice saying “Oopsie!” as he surveyed his Mum in a heap on the ground. His “Are you okay?” as I got up was so appropriate I hastened to reassure him that I was, surprisingly, quite fine, no damage done, whilst privately I marvelled at his concern and his compassion, and knew I would never forget the moment.  

We continued our walk over the squashy moss, punctuated by Ian saying “Oops!” every time his foot moved when he didn’t expect it to. It was really very funny.

One afternoon, Neil and I were sitting at the kitchen table discussing Ian’s work and his progress, as well as his occasionally extraordinary behaviour, his growing up, etc, when Ian walked through the kitchen and opened the back door. For whatever reason, I didn’t want him to go out and said, almost to myself, “Ian, please stay inside” to which my darling, pliable, amenable little boy shouted “I want to go OUTside!” – and promptly did – thereby resolving something Neil and I had just been discussing, i.e. did Ian actually understand the concept of opposites? 

Ian was finding quite a voice for himself.

Then one day Ian brought me his barking dog, looked at me intently and said “Red” with meaning. I looked at the dog.  It was brown, black and white, with no visible red. Perhaps its tail wasn’t wagging again. I pressed its paw to make it bark. Nope, the tail was fine.  

“Red,” said Ian, again. Then I spotted a length of black cotton. Aha! Thread! 

“Fred,” said Ian, amending his request.

“Fetch me the scissors, Ian,” I told him. 

He romped off to the kitchen and brought back the tin opener. Not quite what I was after, but a reasonable alternative. No good for cutting the ‘fred’ though. 

“Rory!” I called to the kitchen. “Give Ian the scissors, please.” 

Within seconds Ian romped back into the lounge with the scissors and I cut off the offending thread. 

“All fixed,” I told him.

Ian then examined his dog from every conceivable angle, and disappeared back into his bedroom.

Ian’s thread fetish became slightly scary after that because he would spot an offending length of something and get the scissors himself. The kitchen scissors were about seven inches long, large and strong, for kitchen use. I made a point of following Ian back to his room when he took the scissors, just in case.

One day Ian ran into the kitchen saying, “Scissors please, Mummy” and taking them off the hook, he ran out again. I followed him – running with scissors, honestly! – wondering what he’d seen.

I found him sitting on his bed, aiming the scissors at his face. When he saw me, he opened his mouth and pointed to a wobbly tooth.

“Scissors… please, Mummy.” 

Horrified, I gently took the scissors out of his hand. 

“Oh nooooo, my child. No scissors for that. I’m sorry, but no. Not this time.”  

He looked quite disappointed. He sensed that his tooth was hanging by a thread; what was the difference?  Later that evening, he pulled the tooth out with his strong nimble fingers, and thankfully didn’t try to damage himself again. But boy, that was one scary moment. 

And then there were the exceptional moments when Ian appeared to have leapt linguistically in a direction no one could have anticipated.  In December of 2005 I wrote to his erstwhile speech therapist, Ruth –

“I meant to tell you about an incident which happened the other evening. I was watching TV, one of these ‘reality shows’ about a group of people walking through a desert – all of them complete novices – none of them possessing, apparently, the strength of character to avoid whining or complaining – you know, the kind of TV which seems so popular these days, and I was just about to turn it off when Ian appeared at my shoulder, looked at the telly, and said, clearly and distinctly, “Prehistoric man.” 

I looked at Ian, looked back at the TV and had to admit that yes, one of the fellows did have a vaguely Cro-Magnon face, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call him ‘prehistoric man’, and I looked back at Ian and queried “Prehistoric man?”  His mouth curved into the most gorgeous smile as he glanced at the telly, and he repeated it looking straight into my eyes: “Prehistoric man!”  And then he was gone.  

Good grief! This happens every now and then, a bizarre stunner which we cannot take credit for. God knows where he got that one from. ‘Prehistoric man’? It’s not something which one constantly uses in normal everyday conversation, now is it?

Just wanted to share.”

I had long since realised that Ian saw far more than the rest of us, heard more than the rest of us, and quite possibly remembered more than the rest of us; that his mind probably held so much information I was no longer surprised that he couldn’t always retrieve the word he needed. We dump information all the time. Imagine if you couldn’t do that, if all the information you had ever acquired, all the things you had seen and heard, sat cluttered in your head, forever. It explained much to me about why autistic children needed to ‘zone out’.

Then again, there were times when Ian’s use of language was so perfect it seemed almost impossible.

One day, I was sitting at the kitchen table playing a game on my laptop, supervising Ian who was watching a DVD of The Sword in the Stone. Neil made a comment about my figure, saying that a near neighbour who had stopped at the gate for a chat while we were gardening earlier in the evening must have been envious (What a sweet man. Surely it was a trick of the light, darling!), and I countered with the comment that I was envious of her because she had just told us she was expecting her third child, and I would give anything to be pregnant again. And with exquisitely perfect timing, Ian, very softly and almost to himself, said, “You scare me.”   

Well, Neil and I just burst out laughing! Neil agreed wholeheartedly with Ian, saying that when I made statements like that I was particularly scary, but what a moment. Heavens, it was funny!

But where did he get that one from? We had no idea. We couldn’t think of a video it came from, and he certainly hadn’t heard it at home.  One just had to wonder. It wasn’t just appropriately timed, it was an appropriate comment – in fact, Ian’s first joke when you come to think about it. Oh me, oh my. Out of the mouths of babes and autistic children…

Of course, as a parent there were times when we had to use his own language back at him, like the time Ian was fixated on an alphabet song from one of his Spot DVDs, and often delighted us with “A is for Acrobat, B is for Ball, C is for Car, D is for Dolphin…” straight from the song. On this one morning Ian was determined to leave the breakfast table long before he’d finished his breakfast, and I was equally determined that he should sit. So I quipped “P is for Please, E is for Eat, Y is for Your and B is for Breakfast.  Please Eat Your Breakfast!” And the most beautiful little smile came over his face as he worked through what I’d just said. He gave me an amused glance – I can only call it that – sat back down, and started to eat again. It was the most wonderful momentary connection, and a great start to my day. 

What a kid!  

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