Creating Stories Out Of Life


Out of all the concerns I have about my son’s autism, the biggest is his communication impairment. He has the physical ability to talk, and he has a perfectly good vocabulary. He routinely states needs and desires using full sentences, and he even makes the occasional little joke, but the kid does not have conversations.

The reason this is such a big worry for me is that he cannot talk to me about things that happen to him during the day. If I ask him what he did at school today, he cannot tell me. If something was going on that shouldn’t be, such as bullying or inappropriate touching, he wouldn’t be able to express it. It’s not a problem now, while he’s young and under the supervision of trusted adults at all times, but he’s not always going to have that protection.

For a long time, I have been practicing the art of conversation with George. I ask him a series of questions and then reward him for giving appropriate answers. Perhaps more importantly, I expose him to conversations as much as possible so that he can learn by osmosis, the way he’s learned many of the life skills that he has acquired.

So far, I’ve had limited success with this, but I never lose hope that some day he will get it. This is a child who took nine months to learn how to point. The length of time it took was not nearly as significant as the new skill. So I don’t give up, ever.

A very recent development is that George is learning to communicate his experiences in his own way, by turning them into little stories. I first noticed this over the weekend, when we were driving home from a fun afternoon at the water park. George, who almost never utters a full sentence that is not a request, suddenly came out with a bunch of them, one after the other.

“Dad drove to the water park. George got wet. James got wet. The children got wet. Everyone got wet. Oh nooooo!”

While I thought this was absolutely phenomenal, the full significance of it went over my head at first. It was not until an incident yesterday that I realized what this could mean for George’s communication.

George has a fascination with water running out of taps, and he turns taps on as far as they will go, and then just lets them run. Usually we’re able to keep this in check, but occasionally he gets out of sight, the way kids do. He turned on a tap in the upstairs bathroom that just happened to be temporarily disconnected from the plumbing. A pile of water went into the space beneath the floor, which is also the space above the ceiling of the living room downstairs.

We didn’t know that George was turning taps on and off, but when water suddenly started gushing from the living room’s light fixture onto the carpet, we had a clue that something might be wrong.

A flurry of activity followed, like laying towels down on the living room carpet, and drilling holes in the ceiling to allow the water to drain out. While this was going on, George was hovering nearby, simultaneously nervous and excited. There was no doubt that he knew he was responsible for the chaos, and he seemed to be anxious yet oddly proud of his accomplishment.

All of a sudden, he produced another group of sentences.

“George turned on the tap. The carpet got wet. Dad stood on the ladder. Dad got cross.”

That is when it hit me that George was starting to use simple little stories to communicate events from his day, and that this could be the key to conversation that I have been searching for. I feel that I now have something to latch onto, something that I can encourage and expand on.

I am beyond excited about this. I have a feeling that we are on the cusp of some fantastic developments, and I will be listening out for more of George’s little stories.

(Photo credit: Bludgeoner86. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Santa and Autism: A Special Brand of Magic

This morning I was faced with a minor dilemma, brought on by the fact that it was Pajamas and Stuffed Toy day at my son’s school. If it had been my younger son – the one who doesn’t have autism – it wouldn’t have been a problem. But since this is my older son we’re talking about, I had to make a choice. Do I encourage him to take part even though the idea of wearing pajamas instead of clothes to school could make him feel seriously disoriented and possibly distressed? Or do I let him just wear clothes even though that would mean yet another thing that sets him apart from the typical kids in his school?

See? Dilemma.

As an autism parent, I constantly have to make tradeoffs of this nature on behalf of my child. On the one hand, I want him to have as many “typical kid” experiences as possible, but on the other hand, I don’t want to cause him to be upset.

It always come down to the idea of choosing my battles, and by now I know that I should only pick the battles that really matter. And let’s face it – wearing pajamas to school does not exactly count as an essential life skill, especially when he’s part of a class of special ed kids who probably wouldn’t be into the whole pajama thing either.

And so I decided to let him exercise his preference in the only way he knows how. I would dress him in a clean pair of pajamas and then see what happened. And what happened was that he promptly crawled back into bed. It was only when he realized that he was actually going to school that he started to resist the pajamas idea. Within seconds the pajamas were coming off and George was rummaging around for clothes to wear.

Surprisingly, though, he did want to take a stuffed toy. I say “surprisingly” because George has never really been into stuffed toys. This is a kid who sleeps with about a dozen Mr. Potato Heads and a pineapple. But not only did he want a stuffed toy today, he wanted two. In an intriguing fusion of holidays, he selected an Easter bunny and a stuffed Santa.

I was sure he’d lose interest in the whole thing by the time the school bus showed up, but he went off to school with Santa and the bunny, and by all accounts he had a great day.

Friday is always Show & Tell day in George’s classroom, and from time to time we send him in with something and his teacher gets him to “participate”. In a dramatic break with tradition today, he independently – independently! –  joined the Show & Tell circle and proudly showed off his Santa.

This moment of progress proves to me that although Santa is not real, he is capable of producing magic.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)