Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Speaking Tate's Language

Tate, like most children with autism, is not proficient at beginning or maintaining conversations. Tate demonstrates this for us repeatedly. He begins conversations inappropriately often. Almost always the language is abrupt and sounds awkward. Occasionally the topic is inappropriate and sometimes even seems rude.

He's 12 and 6'2" and she's 10. Her BIG brother loves her. 
So many people start their conversations with Tate about his height or how much he has grown since they last saw him. Tate is over 6’ tall at the age of 12. We went to his doctor for a check up a few days ago. The doctor is a very small, petite woman. Tate began his greeting with, “You have gotten much smaller since I was here last time. Are you shrinking?” This sounded so very rude but Tate was not intending to be rude and it was not an attempt at a joke. He was just trying to start a conversation the way people often start one with him. Luckily, the doctor is an autism expert and did not skip a beat but continued the conversation about her size compared to his.

Last week we visited a mall and approached a clerk who was going to take our payment. As soon as the clerk opened her mouth to speak I feared what would follow. She had a very thick accent and was hard for us to understand. Tate did exactly what I thought he would. He said, “Hey! What language are you speaking?” I quickly said, “Tate, she is speaking English.” The clerk was very nice, told us where she was from, and said, “The next time you see me say, ‘Shalom.’ That is how we greet people in my country.” Tate responded with some gibberish that sounded something like, “Sinamma Coo Seendia oh oh new” and the clerk gave me a blank look. I said, “He thinks he is speaking Spanish when he does that.” She asked him to repeat it and he did. She smiled huge and asked him to say it one more time.” We walked away with Tate feeling very proud, but it could have gone the other way. I’m so thankful that people are usually understanding and friendly when Tate exhibits behaviors that appear peculiar. It is so much easier on his Mom.

Much of the time the topics of Tate’s conversation are unusual and appear odd but sometimes they are more inappropriate than others. Until a couple of years ago Tate frequently wet his bed at night. (See: "Wet or Dry" for that story.) This meant he had to have a bath or shower every morning. He would sometimes walk into his classroom first thing in the morning and announce to his class, “I took a shower this morning” or on one of the dry mornings he might broadcast that he had NOT had a shower that morning. He still occasionally tells people that he has showered and cannot seem to understand why we all keep telling him it is not an appropriate topic of conversation. This brings me to another story… Last week I saw a pair of underwear in his trashcan and I asked him about it. He told me they had a hole in them and it was no big deal. Since that day he is constantly telling me that we need to go purchase a replacement pair. I have assured him that he has plenty of underwear. It is a hot topic so it occurred to me that I should probably warn him that it was not something he should discuss at school. I was very clear when I explained to him that we do not discuss our underwear with our classmates or teachers. Yesterday, one of Tate’s teachers told me that Tate explained his “need” for some new underwear to her. She also explained to him that underwear is not a topic of conversation we use at school. Sigh. He just doesn’t get it. I know that if I buy him a new package of underwear he will stop talking about the need to get some and switch to telling people he has on new underwear instead.

Those awkward conversations are not always because Tate chooses inappropriate topics to discuss, but sometimes because he misunderstands so much of the language others are using. Last semester there were several babies born in our “school family” and the teachers gave the lucky families a baby shower. The morning after the shower, Tate overheard his teachers discussing the big shower they all attended from the night before. In Tate’s mind a shower involves water and soap so he pictured a bunch of wet teachers passing the soap around I am sure. Tate asked a question about their group shower and a red-faced teacher quickly explained that a baby shower entails no water or soap, but only gifts and refreshments. Tate’s world is such a confusing one.

Sometimes Tate makes loud observations about the people around us.  When Tate was much younger we were in a store and saw a man who had one arm missing. The man was wearing a western shirt, boots, and a cowboy hat. Tate very loudly said, “This place has one-armed cowboys.” I do not know if the man heard or not but if he did he was gracious enough not to say anything while I tried to hush Tate. It gets even “better” though, we saw the man again later in another place and stood right behind him in a line. I did my best to keep Tate’s attention on me and was successful at avoiding another outburst. Then, we found a seat to eat some lunch, and who came and sat at the very next table? You guessed it. The same man. I often think of Batman’s line in the old Batman movie when these kinds of things happen: “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” For a year or two after that experience, Tate always referred to the store where we saw that man as, "the one-armed cowboy store."

Similar things have happened many times since I tried to hush Tate that day. We were in a nursing home once and Tate told an elderly woman that her face was very old and wrinkley. Another time he told a young staff member at his school that her face looked old. She was wonderful and gently told him that those kinds of things were better left unsaid. Just a short time after that, Tate was in the school office on Grandparents’ Day and there were a lot of older folks coming through to eat lunch with their grandchildren. Tate opened his mouth to comment and a teacher quickly said, “Tate, think about what you are going to say before you say it.” Tate stopped himself and said, “never mind.” When you hang out with Tate you need a good sense of humor and a lot of self-esteem.

I’ve been working hard with both of my special kids about talking ABOUT people in front of them. They will question me about a person’s clothing, their skin color, the language they are speaking, or anything else that is “different” about them. It is sometimes extremely embarrassing. A year ago we were heading into a movie theater when Tate stopped to look at a young man who was in a wheel chair.  He asked me, in front of the man, why he was in a wheel chair. I did not have many options that were not going to appear to be rude. I told Tate that he could speak to the man and ask him. The man, hearing everything that had been said, told Tate that he was born with a disease and his legs did not work. As Tate walked toward our theater I hung back and said, “My son was also born with a disability. I’m sorry he was rude and I thank you for being nice to him.” The young man told me that he could tell and he was not offended. When things like this happen I am sometimes horrified but then try to remember to count my blessings. Tate has strengths that so many mothers of children with autism would give anything to see in their own child. He can talk. He is interested in the world around him (even if those interests are limited and often peculiar). He can understand so many things that he is taught. Some things are just taking a lot longer to teach him than others. 

Tate’s Bible class teacher is fantastic with him and has a genuine love for him. I am so very thankful for her. She has a lot of patience and has listened to many of Tate’s long talks about movies and things that are important to him. When they are going to have a visitor in Bible class there is potential for disaster. A few weeks when a visitor came to class, Tate acknowledged her presence with, “Hey. What are you doing here?” It sounds so rude but he is basically just curious and wants some answers. His routine is broken and he needs to know why in order to feel comfortable with the change. Luckily the young lady was not offended and was very nice to Tate. I met her later and explained that Tate has autism but she had already figured it out. I’m finding that a lot of kids today are often very familiar with autism and both accepting and understanding. I would imagine it is due to full inclusion in the schools. When the general population is exposed to children with disabilities then it takes away so many of the questions and the fear of how to relate to them. Autism awareness is so important to families like mine.


Sometimes the moments that leave me horrified are the ones I can laugh really hard about later. I hope you enjoyed this read and will pass it on to someone else who might like to walk a mile in the shoes of a mom who has a wonderful son that thinks unconventionally.

Another post about language is: Who's on First? And here is one more: What brought you here? 

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