Talking with Our Son: Helping an Autistic Child Navigate the World of Neurologically Typical Communication

Here is an interesting story written by a mother who has a son with autism and how she and her son communicate.


We all have an inborn and immediate need to communicate with the world outside ourselves. Of course, the nature and extent of that need differs depending on who we are, but for most people the ability to communicate — or at least the ability to learn how to communicate — is nearly effortless. Parents chatter and coo with their newborns, but we really do not teach them how to talk. We model the behavior and they infer the myriad rules of speech almost effortlessly. What are the distinct sounds used in producing speech? (Or symbols, for deaf children) What are the words? What is the syntax? How is that modified by the tone of one’s voice or the non-verbal cues of body language and facial expressions? How can nearly all of these things be modified depending on the social situation?

If you ask an adult who is not trained in linguistics or speech therapy to answer these questions, they will be quickly overwhelmed. It requires years of study for someone to even begin to offer a coherent explanation. And yet, most infants and toddlers absorb it the way a dry towel absorbs water.

But what if your child doesn’t?

My son, Alex, is autistic. When he was diagnosed at the age of 3 he could not recognize faces. His speech was almost entirely marked by echolalia until he was in first grade — that is he did not generate new sentences but just repeated sentences and sentence fragments that he had heard previously verbatim. Teachers at a special pre-school taught him how to have a conversation. First he says something, then the teacher responds with a related thought, and then he responds with another related thought.

He did not know how to pretend. As a baby he never babbled or cooed. In second grade, he was still working on greeting people. As a high school student, he could define sarcasm but often could not identify it in “the wild”.

I should also mention that Alex is brilliant. He has scored extremely high in national mathematics competitions and recently finished a graduate degree in computer science from a top university on full scholarship. And while he still hates the telephone and small talk and at times gets confused with things like social niceties, sarcasm, or double entendres, he can be remarkably clear when speaking about subjects he loves. He lives independently and apart from some relationship issues and certain subtleties of speech, I am pretty sure he would say that communicating with people is not a problem for him. I think he is mostly right, although he misses some of the problems that he does have — which is the nature of his situation!

I love Alex dearly — and he has brought an amazing richness to my life in part because of how he has cast light on communication and socializing that I wouldn’t have thought about for two seconds without him. But still, I cannot talk to him like I can speak with my other son, Simon. Simon and I can talk for hours, breezily segueing from personal topics to silly topics to intellectual ones. For Alex, the communication has to happen on his terms and be proscribed by certain rules if it is to be not stressful for him.

I am not a professional speech therapist or linguist or psychologist, but I do know what it is like to hold my young son in my arms and know that at some level I will never understand the world as he lives it. I know what it is like to struggle to teach him things — like the proper usage of “me” versus “you” — that most parents never have to think about. And I know what it is like to have to work to understand him well enough so that we could build even a basic relationship, or have a conversation. And I know the success that I could not have dreamed of when Alex was small — though that is mostly his doing and not that of his parents. In the next few pages, I hope to give you a taste of our journey.

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