Me: Boker tov, [Monster]. Do you want waffles or french toast for breakfast?
Monster: Papa Johns!
Me: That wasn’t a choice I gave you. Waffles or french toast?
Me: Ask nicely.
Monster: Want juice.
Me: Ask nicely.
Monster: Can I have juice please?
This is verbatim my conversation with the Monster this morning when I got him up, or conversations with him in general for that matter.
His use of language was probably the first thing that really raised our attention that we were facing some kind of difficulty with him – while he was a little bit slow in his motor skills early on, the way he communicated was the red flag that got our attention. He’s always had a fabulous ability to pick up vocabulary, but by the time he was closing in on two, he was still speaking largely in single word phrases, and mostly nouns.
Midway through the twos, he was put into the PIEs program, which meant he was getting speech therapy twice a week among other intervention services provided by the Baltimore Infant and Toddlers Program. His use of language rapidly got better, to the point that we could see differences month to month in how he was expressing himself. The problem went from being his single-word declarations to canned phrases, as illustrated above. He’s figured out that language works in a plug-in fashion (I want X. Can I have Y, please?) and riffs on these themes. This can lead to fairly complex phrases when he’s feeling up to it, but those are few and far between.
The other side of the coin is the fact that he’s a sponge when it comes to reproduction of what he’s heard. If something’s said to him in a given intonation and rate, he’ll memorize it as that exact pattern and reproduce it precisely. Notice the emphasis above – the I in his requests for things are always higher pitch and more emphatic than the rest of the sentence, since that’s what we were working on at the time, not just the format but trying to get him to use the pronoun. If he’s misheard something, he reproduces what he thinks he heard. We spent weeks trying to figure out what “Hola! Suidoda!” meant – I speak some Spanish- only for me to realize one morning on work-from-home that he got it from a game on my iPod (“Hola! Soy Dora!”).
And yes, I realize that this is also the process that typically developing children go through, much less learners of any second language. Even my Hebrew is fairly scripted, but as most learners would also assert, this is generally due to not having very many things I’m capable of saying (and learning more verbs and adjectives allow for constructing more advanced, non-scripted phrases). It’s more that we keep seeing surges and settling in the rate that he’s picking up the concepts of putting words together that is the issue, and it’s frustrating when you see other kids the same age who are doing just fine with the concept…
But more than that – as most parents with an ASD can tell you, it’s the use of that language. The Monster loves to talk about his environment. “We’re at school.” “This way to Miss Kim and Miss Nancy.” But.. he still doesn’t respond if you ask him about how his day was, what he did, what he’s doing, if he likes something, et cetera. And to be fully honest, I have to admit that I don’t know what I can do, how I can structure activities, to teach him those concepts.
On the other hand, he’ll make one hell of a play-by-play announcer some day…