Friday, October 30, 2009

You're Breaking Up

A few days ago during one of Ben's not-so-good days, I became quite frustrated with him. I lectured him for several minutes and then, noticing that he wasn't hearing a word I said, I asked, "Ben! Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" He looked up at me and replied, "Actually, no. You're breaking up. Sorry."

I laughed at first, but then realized that he might have been accurately describing his experience. James Ball, author of "Early Intervention & Autism," stresses that autistic children struggle to process verbal information--particularly in chaotic situations. I'd say that between my raised voice, the blaring television in the next room, and his siblings' nearby hooting (apparently I've given birth to a parliament of owls), Ben wasn't able to process much at all of my tirade. It may truly have sounded to him like I was breaking up, as the synapses in his brain fired on and off in an effort to process all the sounds around him.

Ball's comments also help explain Ben's urgent need to find signs and symbols that represent verbal words. For example, last summer Ben and I were attending one of Joey's (my 9-year-old) baseball games. I was so pleased to look over at one point and discover that Ben was standing among a few other children who were about his age, rather than wandering around by himself. Suddenly, though, he reappeared back at my side and said, "Mom, how do I say 'I don't know' in sign language?" I told him that I wasn't sure. He responded, "Oh. Maybe it's like this," and then he made a series of enigmatic hand motions, pointing to his head, then waving his fingers away from his body. Satisfied that he had figured it out, he ran off again toward his new friends and immediately repeated his signals as if everyone might take his meaning. He didn't seem to notice the blank look on the children's faces as they watched him and then turned back to their own games.

One evening several months ago, I instructed Ben to go upstairs and get his pajamas on. He turned to me, blew directly into my face, and then explained, "If I blow on you, it means yes." And then he trotted upstairs to change his clothes. For several days after that, he regularly blew in my and others' faces as a way to express his opinion--sometimes positively, and sometimes not.

It's hard to have a conversation with Ben, partly because he loses interest a few sentences into the effort, but also because if Ben's train of thought gets derailed midway through a sentence, he can't just pick up where he left off. He has to go back to the beginning of the sentence and start over again. Often Ben will begin a sentence four or five times before he can get all the way through it--and he and his listeners get frustrated after too much of that. Tonight, Ben was trying to tell me about something he learned in school. He started talking, but then stopped and said, "Wait. That was a mess up." He tried again, but again stopped mid-sentence and said, "No wait, that was another mess up." And then he started a third time, only to stop yet again to announce that he had made another "mess up." Finally, on the fourth try, he was able to verbally express his thought.

I know the frustration of talking to someone on a cell phone that cuts in and out. I wonder what it might feel like to have regular, face-to-face conversations cut in and out in the same way. Probably I'd do just what Ben does--I'd find new ways to communicate, preferably without using words, or I'd simply stop trying to listen. Because really, there's not much more frustrating than having to tell someone, "I can't hear you--you're breaking up!"


  1. I don't know about your kids Hadoo, but I remember very well when Ryan and David would do similar things to the "If I blow in your face it means "yes"" thing. Normally it would be some weird hand action or motion...I wonder if there is any sort of developmental milestone that was reached there with Ben.

    Also, is there any evidence that autistic children are able to process visual stimuli more efficiently than aural input? If so, maybe it's time to start sign language? If he naturally is drawn to that as a means of resolving conflicting signals then would he benefit from learning ASL and using it when he becomes frustrated?

  2. Hey Dan. Actually yes: autistic children respond very well to visual communication. In fact, when he's really freaking out, we are ideally supposed to find hand motions and other visual cues to help him calm down, and avoid speaking at all.

    At the same time, though, I think it's important for Ben to develop verbal communication. Chris and I talked about returning to the sign language that we used when he was a baby, but we decided that we need to encourage his verbal development. We do try to use some visual signals as we talk to him...and we probably should learn ASL as a family and use our hands and our voices as a way to reinforce the verbal messages with visual cues...Ben might get less frustrated.