Once upon a time, I realize sadly, I would have thought there was something “wrong” with a child like this one. I would have been ill at ease around him when I was a child myself. Painfully timid in my own childhood, I had almost a phobia of anything that stood out from the normal and drew attention to itself, completely unaware that I was one such subject myself. I didn’t “speak” fluent neurotypical then, but neither did I speak autistic, at least not in the sense of being able to relate to most other autistic people (though I suspect one of my few childhood friends would have qualified for a diagnosis of what was then called Asperger’s syndrome).
Now I speak passable neurotypical, and quite diplomatically at that. I also speak passable autistic– perhaps not with perfect fluency, but enough to make friends among its native people. Neither language requires much conscious effort on my part, except in extreme situations. “Speaking” is a metaphor here– it’s much less about verbal language than about mental and behavioral language. Perhaps I bridge the gap so well because my brain’s native language is verbal– like that of most neurotypicals– but its syntax and vocabulary are closer to autistic.
Language is on my mind because I think my young companion at the beach today speaks a very different neurological language than I do. His mind, I suspect, does not yet think in words. He seems to understand words that others say, although I have yet to gain a sense of his level of language comprehension. He shows no interest in words, so far as I can tell. I should mention that today was only my third time working with him, but within a few hours of our first meeting (when I introduced myself by reassuring him that I wasn’t there to make him sit at a table and do things), he identified me as an acceptable adult to trust and ask for help with things.
A neurotypical observer of us at the beach today would probably have identified little interaction, much less cooperation, between us. The same observer might not have known we were playing and having fun, except by looking at our smiling faces. They would have seen, mostly, a young woman meandering along the beach with an elementary-school boy, about 1-3 meters (yards) from him at all times.
The boy jumps on the wet sand at the water’s edge, squats down to gather a handful, tosses it to himself for a few minutes, repeats. He stands, lopes a few feet down the beach. Bends backward to stare at the sky. Stands with his head and leg angled to one side, like a dancer caught mid-turn, looking down at his own heel. A phrase from a piece of autistic performance art comes to mind– “stiff and stimmy, stiff and stimmy.” One hand flaps rhythmically, sometimes hanging down loosely from the elbow, at other times up near his face, his elbow bent. (I wince, recalling that as children we used that gesture as a derogative to indicate intellectual disability). He dashes into the surf and back, jumps, twirls, crouches, kneels, kicks water, scoops sand, again and again and again. Sometimes he brings sand to his face, smells or tastes it carefully. He is smiling broadly almost the entire time.
The boy is never silent. He shrieks, growls, makes sound effects, gives bird calls, vocalizes vowels, and hums– sometimes a few notes, sometimes a recognizable line or two from a song. I repeat a hummed phrase with him maybe 10 times, obviously knowing it yet unable to place it, until I finally recognize it as a middle line from a Christmas carol. Over perhaps an hour, I recognize half a dozen songs– children’s songs, mostly, in both English and French– all hummed perfectly in tune. He does not say or sing any words.
I walk along the beach near him, not crowding. I stoop to pick up shells, rocks, or seaweed. I draw patterns in the sand with my hands and feet, dig holes, make piles and shapes of sand that the boy often comes over and takes from my hands to play with. Sometimes I hum what he is humming, or join him in a yell of excitement or joy. Sometimes I hum or sing something else. Often I am quiet. I, too, am usually smiling.
Here’s what a casual observer does not see: every ten minutes or so, the boy looks up at me, as if making sure I’m still nearby, and smiles when his eyes meet mine. Although he walks looking at his feet, he manages not to bump into anyone on the busy beach. Only once or twice does the water and sand he is flinging about come near to hitting anyone. On those occasions, I come over, tap his arm, and remind him to please be careful not to get sand on other people. When he wades deeper into the waves, with me walking alongside him, he comes over to hold my hand, not letting go again until we’re back in the shallows. He doesn’t try to go in the water any deeper than where he can stand firmly, a level of safety-awareness that even many neurotypical children lack. His mother comes over at one point and asks if he is ready to leave. He gently but firmly pushes her away. At one point he takes my hand and pulls it toward his jacket. “You want me to take your jacket off?” I ask, and take hold of a sleeve. He pulls away, then brings my hand to his jacket again. “You want me to zip your jacket up?” I guess, and he stands still while I do so.
Here’s what I almost miss: a number of minutes after I pick up an interesting rock, he picks up a rock. He tosses it to himself for a while, then hands it to me to hold. Usually, as I draw patterns in the sand, he ignores them. Sometimes he comes over and steps on them. I wonder if perhaps he wants me to stop, but then I realize he’s just trying to experience them in a tactile way. Much later, he begins using his own feet to make patterns in the sand. I assume this is something he’s always done until his mother expresses surprise. I realize he’s been paying close attention to me all along.
From time to time, I tap his arm a few times to get his attention and point out something– a kite, a pelican, a crab– or make a request (“let me take your shirt off before you get in the water,” “We’ve gone far enough– let’s head back towards your Mom now,”).
I learn about the texture and feel of the sand in great detail. The warm, fine sand that lies dry above the tidemark. Sand swirling in the water against my legs. Watery sand between my toes as the waves retract. The innumerable textures and behaviors of sand between wet and dry– it’s fascinating stuff, really, the physics of how it moves and dries, clumps and scatters and melts. I stomp, place my foot lightly, press down, try to make different depths of footprints. The sand here is wonderful– white and black grains of slightly different weights that settle into beautiful patterns, and golden flecks of mica throughout both.
It’s a perfect afternoon, spent with a perfect companion. I wonder many things, about what he knows and doesn’t, when he will acquire certain skills that most children his age perfected long ago, when he will begin to communicate in words. I wonder what occupies his thoughts, remembering my own childhood hours of telling myself stories as I wandered back and forth in the yard. I wonder what it’s like to think in something other than words. I wonder what kinds of things he should be taught now, and how best to convey them, and how I would know whether or not he understands. But I have no fear– either of him or for him. He is obviously intelligent, happy, alert, and generally cooperative and considerate when he is aware of what others want from him. I can’t understand how anyone could think there is anything “wrong” with a child like this.