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Behavior Modification: Use Sparingly and With Caution

November 5, 2017 Leave a comment

I don’t categorically object to behaviorist methods. They can be very useful in certain situations, and can be used on neurotypical people as well as (or more than!) with disabled people. But behaviorism can also be extremely harmful when used inappropriately. 

I want to compare two scenarios. In both cases, a preteen client was being physically violent. However, the two situations required very different responses. In one case, a behaviorist approach worked well for everyone involved, including the client. In the other, it would have been catastrophic, especially for the client.

***
First scenario
[edited 11/6/17]

Lisa has a moderate-to-severe developmental delay due to a genetic condition. She often used to kick people to get their attention. She wanted attention all the time, and a busy family, no matter how loving and patient, cannot provide nonstop interaction. 

Frequently, her mother and brother would be discussing something– schoolwork, sports schedules, chores, errands, weekend plans, whatever, and would ignore many of Lisa’s attempts to engage them. Lisa can’t jump in and join a typical conversation. She is moderately verbal and very social, but can only understand and say short statements or questions. A conversation with her consists of many, many repetitions of her few standard exchanges, such as her asking or answering:
“How woo day?” (How was your day?)
“Whuh day id?” (What day is it?)
“I wike yooce” (I like juice)
“What’s your favorite animal?” “Dawd” (dog)
“Where is your bedroom?” “Ubstays” (upstairs)

So obviously she couldn’t be part of most household conversations. Lisa would then get frustrated and kick, which usually got a response, even if it was just someone scolding her or sending her to time-out. She did a lot of kicking.

This was a job for behaviorism because:

1) Lisa is able to ask for attention in other ways. This is an important prerequisite for reducing an unwanted behavior. You must have a viable alternative that will meet the same need.

2) The family had already tried all the standard ways to get her to stop: asking politely, explaining that it isn’t nice and that being kicked hurts, telling her no, yelling at her, giving her time-outs.

3) This was a bad habit supported by the behavior of other people — the family was unwittingly encouraging Lisa’s kicking (“reinforcing it,” in behaviorist language) by not paying attention to her until she resorted to violence. The environment needed to change at least as much as Lisa did.

So the ABA staff trained the family (Lisa has two hour ABA sessions three times a week). The family were told that if Lisa kicked them, they should ignore her completely and walk away (unless she actually needed help, of course. Behavior modification should NEVER interfere with a child’s needs.) However, if she used any acceptable way to ask for attention (tapping someone’s shoulder, calling their name, waving in front of them, saying “excuse me” or “hello”), they should respond, even if they just said “hi Lisa!” or gave her a high-five. They should also regularly remind her of ways to request attention nicely.

This approach isn’t ABA-specific. Think of how often we tell typical kids “you need to ask politely,” or “What do you say when someone gives you something?” as prompts to say “Please,” and “Thank you.” If the child is over age 3, I often just ignore a rude request (“Gimme that!”) and they immediately understand and correct themselves (“Can I have that please?”).

The ABA techs also helped Lisa practice positive attention-getting methods. They would take turns pretending not to notice other people and then responding to their name or a tap on the shoulder. They also practiced waiting patiently for a response when someone says “just a minute” or “hold on” or “wait.” They practiced ending conversations calmly, so now her Mom can say things like, “Ok, five questions and then I have to get back to work.” Lisa seems calmed by these practice sessions; she enjoys repetition.

Practicing good habits reduced Lisa’s frustration, which made her less aggressive. She rarely kicks for attention anymore, just when she’s actually upset or in a bad mood. That’s still not ideal (it’s still a lot of kicking), but she no longer thinks of kicking as a good way to start conversations, and that’s a big improvement. Her family has developed better habits, too, so Lisa gets more regular responses.

One downside: Lisa also sometimes kicks people when she wants them to go away, and this behavior is reinforced by people leaving the room when she kicks them. She does know how to say “Leemee ‘lone” (leave me alone), and now we also need to encourage that more.

***
Second scenario:

Charles is profoundly autistic. He is completely nonverbal, with poor fine motor skills, and has only recently learned to use a small handful of photographs to request concrete things: Bathroom, Pretzels, Playground, Beach, Home, and a few others. This development has improved his mood greatly, but it’s obvious that he’s still got a lot on his mind that he can’t express.

When upset, Charles tends to scratch people and pull hair. He is never violent unless he is clearly distressed; often he starts crying when lashing out. Sometimes I can figure out what’s wrong, but not usually.

He recently went on a nature walk with his ABA tech (he has two hour ABA sessions five times a week). His mother was furious when she reported to me. Apparently, every time he scratched the tech, Charles was told to sit down. “Why should he have to sit?” she said. “He is not a dog! He isn’t being naughty! He isn’t hurting her for fun. He’s trying to tell her something.” I agreed.

Here’s why an ABA approach is NOT acceptable here:

1) Charles clearly understands that people don’t like being hurt, and uses violence as a last resort. This isn’t a bad habit or just mean or petty; it serves the very important purpose of indicating that something is seriously bothering him.

2) Charles currently has no other way to communicate his distress. If he feels sick, or frightened, or has nightmares, or if someone bullied him at school, he has absolutely no way to tell anyone. The closest he can get is to show us that something is wrong. Punishing him for scratching only teaches him one thing: that instead of trying communicate his unhappiness, he should suppress his feelings for the benefit of the adults around him. This is a horrible rule to teach a child. It’s like saying “stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” You may not be threatening physical abuse, but the message is the same: adults would rather see you suffer silently than share the burden of your pain.

Obviously, the only long-term solution is to build his communication skills so that eventually he can express his pain in words. I also know that Charles won’t tolerate ABA for language lessons either. He’s far too intelligent for the way they speak to him, and he quickly comes to hate anything he is forced to do over and over. So communication practice has to be slowly integrated into his life when he is calm and happy, in a good state of mind for learning. It will take time.

Even once he learns, he might not always be able to use words when he is too stressed or overstimulated. Haven’t you ever been so upset or angry or shocked or offended that you didn’t have the words to express it and all you could do was yell or curse or cry? I know I have. It might also be possible to show Charles some other ways to deal with anger– punching pillows, throwing water balloons, kicking tires. What do you do when you are unbearably frustrated?

Charles and I were walking along the beach recently. He kept scratching me and pulling my hair. Here is how I respond to this behavior:

1) I step back and ask him, gently, to please stop scratching me.
2) I tell him I understand he is unhappy but I don’t know why. I tell him I’m sorry that he’s unhappy and that I want to help if I can.
3) I offer him my hands, and ask (several times, with pauses between questions) “Can you show me what you need? Can you show me what’s wrong? Are you feeling pain somewhere? Show me where. Do you need the bathroom? Do you need to rest?”
4) I try to move us away from any stimuli that might be distressing him– crowds, loud noises, cold wind. I offer to sit quietly with him or to give him some space. Sometimes he takes me up on one of those offers and seems calmer after.

None of those options helped. So I did something that is not really allowed by my job, but is required by human decency, at least when you’ve known a kid as long as I have known Charles: I gave him a big hug. Opened up my arms and allowed him to choose if he wanted a hug. He did. He leaned his head against my shoulder and took big shaky breaths. I stroked his hair. I told him he was a great kid and that I was glad to be his friend. I told him that life can be really hard sometimes. I told him he is brave and strong, and not to give up, and that he’ll learn how to tell us more things someday.

I comforted him as I would comfort any other human being I cared about. I showed him that I wasn’t angry at him, that I wouldn’t stop liking him even if he hurts me. I reminded him that his family love him just the way he is. I reassured him as I would reassure any child who is suffering.

(If I didn’t know him well, I might have put a hand on his arm, or offered to hold his hand. Many autistic people can’t stand being touched, especially when upset, but touch is also one of the most profoundly soothing ways people can interact. Being touched without warning and initiating touch yourself are also very different experiences. I never insist on touch, but I offer it frequently, and most of my clients love it. I also pay close attention to learn what kind of touch they prefer– a firm hand-squeeze or a gentle rub on the back, a high five or a foot massage.)

Charles had been lashing out at me every few minutes.

After the hug, he scratched me only twice in the next half hour.

He needed comfort. He needed compassion. He needed care. He needed these things above all else. They are basic human needs and basic human rights.

Autistic people must have their feelings honored, their humanity respected. They have the same emotional needs as anyone else, and it is up to caregivers to discover those needs, understand them, and meet them. Any other approach is unforgivable.

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Just Amazing

Sometimes my job is difficult, frustrating, or annoying. Sometimes it makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world. This day was the second kind. And not just because I got to wear a bathing suit to work!

***

Less than a year ago, I would arrive at his house, pile into the car with him and his mother, and buckle his seatbelt for him. We would drive from place to place– park, playground, and so on– and try at each place to get him out of the car for some exercise and fresh air. Sometimes he would come out and play. Sometimes he would refuse to leave the car at all. Sometimes he would sob and claw at me or pull my hair. This never made me angry, but it did make me sad. Sad because I hated for him to be so unhappy.

Today I arrive at his house and he whoops with excitement. I lay out some laminated photos on the counter– beach, playground, pool, park– and call his name. He comes over, and without hesitation taps the picture of the pool.

“Ok!” I say, “We’ll go to the pool.” He grins. We get ready and head out to the car. By the time I get there, he’s already in his seat with his seat belt buckled, ready to go.

When we arrive, I ask him to carry his lunch box while I carry his backpack. He does.  We pick a bench and put down our belongings. He kicks off his sandals and runs into the pool. I don’t need to hold his hand. I join him in the water and watch him while his mom takes care of the toddler. 

***

He’s in a great mood, and is eager to interact with me (sometimes he wants to enjoy himself all alone and that’s ok too). He tugs my hands and tucks them under his arms. I bounce him up and down in the water to the best of my ability (he’s grown so much in the past two years!). I spin him around, and we both laugh with delight. I push off the wall of the pool with my feet, and after a few minutes he imitates me– another thing I couldn’t imagine him doing last year. We work together to find different ways I can hold him and move him in the water. He’s so relaxed, so happy, so affectionate. He could easily swim by himself, but he wants me to hug him, put my hands under his back while he floats, roll him over and over.

***

I notice him watching a younger boy who is practicing swimming underwater, pinching his nose with his fingers. I suggest to my client that he try it too, and explain to him about the need for exhaling or holding his nose so he doesn’t get water in it. In response, he dives, blowing bubbles like a pro. Obviously, he’s known how all along. What’s cooler is that he was displaying that knowledge for my benefit– letting me know that he knew. When I first met him, he seemed uninterested in communicating with me except to make requests.

***

He watches a group of kids his age playing catch in the water. This is another recent development– he used to ignore other children completely. I encourage him to join in, but I can’t blame him for hanging back. Only once have I witnessed him really playing with another child, and it was an autistic boy a few years younger than him. Seeing him watching this game, my heart aches for him. I know what it’s like to be the kid who can’t figure out how to participate, or is too afraid of rejection to try.

I get him a ball from his backpack, and he plays with it by himself for a few minutes while I stand by the edge of the pool watching. Then he tosses it out of the pool. This usually means he’s tired of playing with a thing, but on a whim I pick up the ball, call his name, and throw the ball back at him, expecting him to ignore it. To my amazement, he turns to look, reaches up, and catches it. 

“Wow! That was great! Throw it back!” I suggest enthusiastically, cupping my hands. He pauses a moment, not seeming to pay attention… then gives the ball another gentle toss out of the pool, but not really in my direction. I retrieve it and throw it, and again he catches.

“Throw it right at me this time,” I say, and again he seems to be ignoring me at first, but a few moments later the ball lands at my feet. The next time it almost makes it to my hands and I cheer as if he’s just hit a home run. 

I’m grinning like crazy. He’s playing catch with me. It’s beautiful. I don’t care about him doing this to be more “normal” or because it’s what the other kids do. I care because he’s having fun and he’s sharing that fun with another person. 

I’ve never before seen him choose to do any kind of structured activity with another person. Never seen him do something that involves taking turns, that involves this level of response to someone else’s actions. I want to grab the people next to me and tell them they are witnessing a miracle. I want to call the national news. I can’t imagine being any more excited if he were my own son.

***

It’s a day full of moments like this. He swings on the rope dividing the pool into sections. 

“Off the rope, buddy,” calls the lifeguard. He doesn’t respond. I call his name, and he looks up.

“Leave the rope alone please” I call, and he lets go of it immediately. His mother and I have always suspected that he understands most if not all of what people say (in more than one language, too). But only in the past 6 months has he started regularly responding with actions that make it clear that he understands. 

In response, I’ve completely stopped using the short, simplified sentences that I often used when I wasn’t sure of his comprehension level. Now I just talk to him like I’d talk to any other preteen, chatting about all kinds of random things.
Later, a few other kids are playing on the rope, and the lifeguard again instructs them to let go. To my surprise, my client also looks up at the sound of the lifeguard’s voice, seemingly alert to the possibility that he’s done something wrong. I reassure him that he’s ok where he is and he goes back to playing. 

His awareness of everything around him seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Or perhaps he’s always been paying attention but hasn’t been able or willing or interested in responding. Whatever the change, it means I no longer have to hover over him and, for example, physically drag him away from that rope. It allows him more independence.
***

By now, I’m sure any autism parent reading this is dying to know how these changes were accomplished. So first, let me point out that he is no less autistic. All these wonderful new things he’s doing, he does them while stimming and shrieking, flapping around, sniffing and tasting things that he probably shouldn’t, and having meltdowns over tags in his clothing. He is and always will be autistic. But he is becoming a more communicative, interactive, cooperative, friendly, self-confident, and independent autistic person, and to me, that’s the true measure of success. And the best kind of success.

Because there’s been no special diet or medication or new therapy. In fact, most of those things were discontinued completely over the past few years. He has made these changes himself, with the support of the adults around him. 

Some of his independence came of necessity. There have been a lot of life changes for him that were totally unrelated to autism. One grandparent died and another moved away and his mother had a baby. As a result, there were a lot fewer adults tending to his every need or making demands on him, which gave him both more freedom and more responsibility. He’s matured a lot emotionally.

The other thing that happened is that he’s gotten some autistic adults in his life– first me, then a man who has a remarkable knack for visual communication. There wasn’t any lenthgy teaching involved– they’ve worked together for no more than a dozen hours. But somewhere in those few hours, there was an “aha moment” for both my client and his mother as they finally zeroed in on a method of communication that both could understand. There’s still a long way to go before he’ll be able to tell us more than a handful of things, but the breakthrough has happened and now he knows that it’s possible for him to make himself understood in a way that he never could before. Since that realization, I feel he’s become much more interested in learning new things.

I think it was crucial for him to meet adults who were somewhat more like him, who intuitively understood thimgs about him that his parents and teachers and therapists did not. It doesn’t take much. The vast majority of his time is still spent at home with his family, and his mother also provides the other crucial ingredients to his success: unconditional love and constant encouragement.

Accept. Love. Encourage. 

Keep accepting. Keep loving. Keep encouraging. 

Celebrate every new attempt, no matter how unsuccessful, every step forward no matter small. Not the fake programmed encouragement of tokens or rewards or empty praise, but genuine appreciation for the effort you see a child making. Acknowledge difficulty and setbacks. Children learn best when they feel safe and supported. When they are learning because it enriches their life, not out of desire for praise or fear of disaproval. Learning is its own best reward. Success builds confidence, and confidence leads to trying new things, and trying new things leads to more success. 
***

Here are things I say to him often:

Try.

You can do it.

I believe in you.

Try again.

Thank you for trying.

I’m proud of you for trying.

I know it’s hard.

You’ll get there. I know you will.

You can do it.

That’s better.

You’re making progress.

Keep trying.

It’s ok to fail. 

You can try again later.

You’re wonderful.

You’re the best.

You make me happy.

Keep trying. You can do it.

I love it when you _____.

***

Unconditional love. Unwavering acceptance. Unending encouragement. They are magic ingredients.

As I drive home from his house that afternoon, the radio plays a song that always makes me think of my clients. As Billy Joel sings “I love you just the way you are,” I find myself crying. I cry in happiness for the wonderful children in my life and the joy of seeing them grow and learn. I cry in sadness for every autistic child who doesn’t have unconditional love and acceptance. I cry because I am lucky to know that perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and I wish more people understood that. I wish every person in the world could hear those words when they matter most:

“Don’t go changing/ To try and please me…. I want you just the way you are.”

Communication is a collaboration

August 8, 2017 1 comment

It takes (at least) two people to communicate. The transfer of information does not happen in a void. Lots of professional people have written professional things about this, everywhere from brain injury journals to Star Trek fan forums. Here’s what it looks like (sometimes) in real life:

My client takes his mother’s hand, tugs. She follows him into the kitchen. He pushes her hand in the direction of the cupboard that holds cups and glasses.

“You want water?” she asks him. She doesn’t expect a reply, at least not the normal kind– a word, a nod. His response will require a little more decoding.

She takes a glass out of the cupboard, puts some water in it, hands it to her son as she and I chat. He sets it on the counter beside the sink. Takes her hand, pushes it back toward the glasses. She offers him an empty glass– perhaps he wants to fill it himself? He waves it away.

“You want me to get you something different to drink?” She opens the fridge. “Juice? Milk? Show me.” He closes the fridge. Brings her back to the cupboard. She is baffled.

“Maybe he wants to play with the bubble cup?” I suggest. The cup appears to have bubbles suspended in the sides, and sometimes he enjoys looking at it. We were blowing bubbles earlier in the day. It could be a matter of association. She offers him the bubble cup. No. He pushes her hand back towards the shelf.

It’s easy for people to get frustrated at a time like this. It’s frustrating to her that she can’t understand, that her son seems to be requesting something and then rejecting it. It’s frustrating to him that he can’t make himself understood. But they don’t give up. She knows her son isn’t doing this to be annoying. He’s trying to tell her something. She begins taking the cups down from the shelf, one after the other, and each time he pushes her hand up again. She knows the message is here somewhere, if only she can be patient and find it… and she does.

She brings down a mug, and her son stops pushing her hand, rests his hand on her arm instead. Her confusion clears immediately.

“Oh! You want tea!” I am surprised. I would not have thought of this. I had no idea he liked tea. He wants tea, on a hot summer’s afternoon. His mother makes him tea.

These moments of working together towards a shared understanding are so simple and so complicated at the same time. They can be as trivial as a request for tea, and absolutely crucial to building a common world, a relationship, a mutual language. It is beautiful. Communication is a basic human need. Every time I see someone succeed at it, I smile.

Fidget Spinners and Social Hierarchy

So, I got an article published recently… Apparently it’s gotten over a million views! I’m slightly in shock.

http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2017/05/what-fidget-spinners-fad-reveals-about.html?m=1

Categories: Disability Rights

Learn To Be Autistic

Fortunately, increasingly many schools of thought and “therapy” are beginning to understand that in order to teach an autistic child effectively, an adult has to learn, at least a little bit, to communicate in that child’s native language. That “language” (or culture, perhaps?) is the neurology called Autism. An autistic child has automatically been thrown into a full-immersion Neurotypical classroom that we call the “normal” world. They didn’t have a choice about this. But we can choose to learn a bit more about how to make them comfortable in that unfamiliar space. We spend so much time and energy and money and research on bringing them closer to being like us. But really, in order to have a good relationship with anyone autistic, we have to meet them halfway.

NOTE: You may notice that I alternately include myself in the “us” of autistic people and the “us” of the typical world. This is because, as one of the many who grew up “passing” without a diagnosis, I have something of a dual citizenship. Depending on the context, my knowledge and experience may align more or less with one side or the other. I often find myself explaining neurotypical things that I mostly understand to autistic people. I also often find myself explaining autistic things that make perfect sense to me to neurotypical people who are utterly baffled by them. In both cases, I feel a bit like a cultural anthropologists: knowledgeable about a culture without exactly belonging to it.

***

For example, neurotypical people tend to require a lot of feedback when they communicate. If you say something to me, especially if I am a child, you expect me to acknowledge your speech verbally or by looking at you, or oftentimes both. Autistic people aren’t always capable of this kind of response, nor should they have to be. It’s a waste of their time and energy to mimic a behavior that serves no purpose other than to meet societal expectations.

6-year-old Carl is carrying a big bowl of paint and soap and water across the patio. I have told him I don’t want him to bring it into the house, but I know that when he is busy having Ideas, he is likely to forget, ignore, or not even notice the rules.

“Carl, where are you taking that?” I ask. No response. I’m not offended. I know he’s not ignoring me “on purpose” or trying to be disrespectful. His mind is just too busy to process my request.

I step in front of him to make sure he’s aware of my presence.

“Where are you going with that bowl? Remember, I don’t want you to bring it into the house.” He notices the obstruction in his path (me) and turns to walk around it. It’s possible that my words haven’t yet penetrated into his conscious awareness.

I step to the side with him, not letting him past. I speak clearly and firmly.

“Carl, I need you to tell me where you are taking the bowl. Where are you taking the bowl?” He stops finally, and looks at me. I can almost see the wheels churning in his head. Now I recognize his specific dilemma. He heard and understood my request, but, although he has significant verbal abilities, he can’t tap into them right now. His brain is too busy doing something else to produce language.

Have you ever found yourself multitasking too many things at once and finally said to the person you’re talking to, “Hang on a minute, I need to ____ and then I’ll finish what I was saying to you” (or some variation on that theme)? I know I’ve it happen to plenty of neurotypical adults: they get to the tricky part of a task and pause mid-sentence because they can no longer do both things at once. It happens with competing language processes, too, such as when you try to hold a conversation while still listening to the commentators when watching the game, or when you try to speak to one person while writing a text or email to another.

So I waited patiently for Carl to be able to switch gears enough to communicate with me. He wasn’t able to verbalize, but after several seconds he nodded with his chin towards a small table. “Ok,” I said, stepping out of his way. Message successfully sent and received, he turned his full attention back to his project.

It would have been very easy for us to get frustrated with each other here. I could have considered him rude and disobedient. He could have been angry with me for interrupting him (if I had been a stranger, he probably would have gotten upset). If I had pushed him to respond faster, or insisted that he answer me verbally, I might have completely disrupted his train of thought, resulting in an even longer wait, or a confrontational response, or a meltdown. But I chose to work with the way that he works, and as a result, we both got what we wanted.

Language Stories

No lesson here, just reminiscing. I have a client, age 13, with moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities. Very social, loves music, loves simple word games such as being asked what sound various animals make, or asking me my favorite color, etc.. I generally see her for 3-5 hours a week, and have done so for the past two years. And just the other day, I had a very disquieting thought. It occurred to me, suddenly, that I probably understand more of what she says than anyone else in her life. Which is both unacceptable and understandable.

You see, in addition to assorted other disabilities and delays, she has a very profound speech impediment. She sometimes uses an iPad to communicate, but not often, and not with much fluency. She prefers speaking verbally. And, provided I pay very close attention and have had enough coffee, I can understand perhaps 75% of what she says. I don’t think anyone else in her life gets more than 50%. Teachers and therapists aren’t in her life long enough to learn. Her parents, in addition to being very busy people, are not native English speakers. They speak English quite fluently, but when you’re trying to decode speech based on minimal clues, there’s no substitute for having grown up with the language.

It’s not just the fact that her pronunciation is hard to understand. There’s also her unique patterns of speaking. She tends to drop consonant sounds, even the few she’s capable of making when she really tries. She drops words out of her phrases, syllables out of her words. And she speaks in the way people jot down notes to themselves, where a few key words stand for entire thoughts or requests. This is where it’s necessary to know her very well, because even if she pronounced those words perfectly, much of her speech would still be utterly mysterious to someone who doesn’t know what she’s referencing.  There’s often quite a lot of guesswork even for someone who does know her.

If she comes to me and says “bus” (a word she can produce reasonably intelligibly), she might mean “I want you to make the sound of a bus” or she might mean “I want you to sing Wheels on the Bus.” Even if she says “I want bus,” I know she isn’t asking to ride on a bus. Sometimes for the song, she’ll say “duh bus” (the bus) or add the “round and round” gesture used in the song. Her BIs are working fairly intensively on getting her to give more information in her speech, so now sometimes she’ll say “sound bus” when she wants the sound. And if we’re already playing “make sounds of things,” it’s a good bet she wants a bus noise. She’s also pretty good with simple yes/no questions, so I can just ask. This is pretty simple. And many of her other shortenings are relatively easy to pick up, too: “A B song” is the alphabet song, “Gaga face” is Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and what sounds like “Fie uh wayn” is Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” “Uh dime it?” means “What time is it?” Some of her abbreviations make a lot of sense, especially for someone who struggles with pronunciation– cutting out articles and other words that aren’t as important to the meaning of what she’s saying. Others are less sensible and actually interfere with the meaning of what she’s saying. I don’t know if those happen because she doesn’t want to try and say certain words, or if there’s an actual cognitive disability in terms of her ability to recognize or remember or think in full sentences. Probably some of both.

***

Sometimes figuring out the reference is pretty hard. I often run though handfuls of guesses before hitting on the right one, and then I have to remember what that particular phrase means again in the future. Not as easy as it sounds, especially when many of those phrases are very similar, or sound very different from their correct pronunciations. When she asks “How was your day?” it often comes out sounding like “Wuh woo they?” I never would have figured out what it meant on my own; the BI who taught her that question filled me in on what she was saying, and I had to hear it a couple of times before it stuck in my mind. It doesn’t help that she sometimes ask “What’s today?” (as in, what day of the week is it), and it sounds pretty much the same. The way she says “color” is identical to how she says “flavor” (and I have no idea how to write it!). “White” and “grey” can both come out sounding like “why.” Something that sounded like a cross between “hammock” and “omelet” turned out to be a request for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” So I have to guess at what sounds she is trying to produce, what word or phrase or part thereof those sounds are meant to represent, AND what she’s trying to convey by using those particular words.

Sometimes she finds a way to give me clues, sometimes not. Once, she asked over and over for “ghee ew up,” to my utter confusion. My brain started trying out possibilities: Giddy-up? Something about horses? Do I know a song about horses that I’ve sung to her before? (Many of her requests are for songs, which at least gives me some idea where to start). Or maybe it’s something about getting up. Is she asking me to help her get up? “Give it up,” perhaps. Is that a song? It might be a pop song I don’t know; she listens to a lot of pop music. Maybe I’m assuming word breaks in the wrong places. The last two syllables could be “Europe.” All along, of course, I’m saying things like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, can you tell me another way? What is it?”

Finally she added a gesture– clasping her hands and swinging them back and forth. She had to do that a few times before I finally was able to make the mental leap to a song we’d sung together a few weeks prior. She was asking for “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Really. Here’s the logic: her favorite line in the song is “Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.” (And sometimes, when I’m feeling energetic, I hold hands with her on that line and swing our hands back and forth.) So she was quoting her favorite line, but omitting most of the words, leaving her with the phrase “key her up,” which I was only able to figure out once I knew what she was asking in the first place. Sometimes at this job I feel a bit like a cryptographer. Or a linguistic anthropologist.

***

Another time, she said what sounded like “WUH wiggen.” No clue. She said it a few more times, but I was drawing a blank. Sadly, I can’t get her to add information by asking things like “What is it?” or “Can you tell me more about it?” or “Can you show me on your iPad?” but experience has taught me that sometimes she can answer certain yes/no questions that help me narrow it down.

(And rarely, wonderfully, if it’s a song, she’ll try and sing it for me. Her singing is beautiful, but not much more comprehensible than her speech. She only ever pronounces the final syllable of any line, the rest being filled in with moderately accurate vowel sounds with “w” substituted for the consonants. And while she can hold a note pretty well if she’s singing along to the radio or YouTube, when singing alone she’s very quiet, and the melody fades the same way the lyrics do, only bubbling to the surface briefly in places. Still, I love her singing, and there’s always a special thrill when she hits a line in the chorus and I finally recognize what she’s going for and start singing it with her and her face lights up with a smile about a mile wide.)

But this wasn’t one of those times.

“I don’t understand. Is that a person?” I ask. Could she have a friend at school named Mulligan or Brannigan or something like that?

“WUH wiggen,” she repeats.

“A food?”

She says it again, “WUH wiggen.” I admire her persistence. And sometimes, if she says something enough times, my brain will finally match her sounds up to actual words. The cadence helps a lot. But sometimes, we both just end up frustrated. Sometimes I work to get her attention onto something else instead, if I really don’t have a clue.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know it. Pick something else.”

“WUH wiggen.” She’s starting to look annoyed, and I can’t blame her. Could it be a game?… An animal?

“Is it a song?”

“Yeah.” Finally, a clue! But I can’t think of any song titles that match up. It could be anything from a nursery rhyme to a new release. The odds are against me, but serendipity is on my side. I somehow finally parse the words as “love again,” recognize them as belonging to the line “we can learn to love again,” and cross my fingers.

“Just Give Me a Reason? Is that what you want me to sing?” And finally, there’s the smile. Phew! I think she heaves a sigh of relief along with me. I laugh at the utter absurdity of the mental journey we’ve both just taken in order to reach common ground. And yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about myself for figuring that one out.

By the way, the song is completely out of my range and I only know about half the lyrics. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even try to sing it in the shower, much less where anyone can hear me. But I know that exchange was hard work for her as well as for me. I know it’s stressful for her to try over and over to make someone understand, with no guarantee of success. In short, she’s earned it. So I give it my best shot. Top of my lungs. And she smiles and smiles.

***

I wish more people in her life could decipher her speech too, but how could I ever explain to someone how to decode her communication? How could I teach them to seek out those mental leaps? I don’t even know how I do it, or how to improve. There’s no secret formula for this, no easy answer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve failed at understanding her requests. Innumerable apologies for innumerable disappointments. Or the times I’ve figured something out, and then forgotten it on another day.

I’m proud of the times I’ve succeeded. I’m proud of her every time she figures out a way to give me more information. The leap from just saying “bus” to saying “sound bus” is huge. I still don’t know that she could go up to anyone and say “sound bus” and be understood, but it’s definitely progress. I’m sure that eventually she’ll be able to say “make sound of a bus,” and then she’ll be able to request it from anyone, not just the handful of people who know her best. I’m looking forward to that day on her behalf.

We Are Not Amused: Problems with the First Person Plural 

September 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Today I’m writing more about language. ​I’ve been thinking about adults who say “we” when talking to or about clients or children with disabilities, as well as children in general. 

I want to acknowledge that different people have very different levels of education, English language fluency, and ability to monitor their own speech. I sometimes get frustrated with activists who seem convinced that you can’t fight for social justice without using exactly the right language– language that is unfamiliar to most people.

I am a very language-oriented person, and it is difficult for me to write simply (for example, the first sentence of this post was originally “Continuing with my prior theme of dissecting language…”). I’m trying to become more accessible, since my natural writing style is hard for many people to read and understand.

Back to the topic.

There is a tendency for adults working with the disabled to use unnecessary plurals: that is, to say “we” when talking about something the other person is doing. I’ve seen some understandably hostile reactions to this in the advocacy community. But I also realized that I do it sometimes. So I started trying to figure out when and why. 

People usually say “we” to small children, disabled or not. Sometimes it really is a plural, and sometimes not. I think it’s hard to see the difference with babies, because the adults do almost everything for them or with them. “We’re going you upstairs to change your diaper” definitely involves both parties. And sometimes the adult is really just talking to themselves. “Are we having a cranky day?” isn’t a question most babies will answer.  

Other times, it’s like the parent is talking for the baby. “We need a nap” really means “The baby needs a nap” (although I bet Mom would like one, too!). I think this way of speaking makes people angry when a non-disabled person is speaking for a disabled person. Autistic rights activists get particularly upset about phrases like “We’re having a bad day,” when the speaker really means that a child (or even worse, a disabled adult) is having a bad day. Of course, it’s often true that if a person is having a rough day, their caregiver is struggling as well. 

I’ve used “We’re having a bad day” when talking about my disabled clients, especially if they are present, and I thought about why. One reason is because saying “He/She is having a bad day” sounds a little bit to me like I am blaming that person, when the truth is that I’ve probably made some mistakes that contributed to their bad day. It also sounds like I am totally uninvolved, and that feels impolite too. “We” feels more inclusive. Talking about someone in front of them is different than talking about you and that person. It’s usually rude to say “S/He’s going to the beach” in front of that person, but it’s perfectly fine to tell someone “We are going to the beach.” Really, though, it would be best to say something like “Today has been hard on everyone,” or “I think she’s had a lot of frustration today,” or “He seems upset.” I can’t know exactly what they are thinking or feeling; I can only guess.

Sometimes”we” really means “we.” “We are going to pick up your toys,” can mean “You and I will pick up the toys together,” and that’s just fine. 

What really bugs me is when someone, usually a professional, says “We’re going to pick up our toys now,” or “We need to put away our shoes,” or “We need to finish our lunch,” or “We need to earn three more tokens,” when they really mean “you” in all those cases.  We don’t talk that way with typically developing children, even when we are talking about doing something together. We say “I’ll help you pick up your toys,” or “You need to eat your lunch,” or maybe “Let’s put away your shoes.”

Using “we” and “our” when you mean “you” and “your” is infantilizing. I remember, as a fourth grader, our entire class being horribly offended when a substitute teacher (who usually taught kindergarten) said “Let’s all follow Mrs. Spitzer to the cafeteria now!” She was guilty of referring to herself in the third person (of course, I have changed the name) as well as addressing us in the first person plural. 

Now, sometimes people do use “we” in instructions. If you watch cooking shows, you’ll hear things like “Now we’re going to put our cake in the oven” or “We need to cut all these vegetables up really small, because we want them to cook quickly.” And usually the speaker is giving a demonstration at the same time. This can work in a classroom or therapy session, as in “We can use a graph to show this trend” or “We can mix red and blue paint to make purple.” At least, it works as long as the teacher isn’t using that awful sing-songy baby voice…

The other way that it’s sometimes OK to use “we” is to make a general statement. When adults tell children, “We cover our mouths when we sneeze” or, “We need to share with our friends,” they mean “I do this and so should you” or “This is what people are supposed to do.” Making a general statement can take the sting out of being corrected. I have a client with Down Syndrome who reacts badly when confronted directly but is happy to modify her behavior when I phrase it as a general rule, such as “Young ladies say excuse me when they burp” or “Remember, we always say thank you for gifts.” But this method, too, needs to be done respectfully. 

As usual, my underlying message is about the need for respect. A good general rule is: If you wouldn’t say it to a non-disabled person, don’t say it to a disabled person. But that’s easier said than done. It’s hard, too, to speak in an age-appropriate way with someone who doesn’t understand the things a typically developing person their age understands. Remember that what goes around comes around: you can’t teach someone to be respectful unless you are respectful to them.