Tag Archives: speech

Chronologically Out of Step

When our daughter Jess was little, her dad and I used to take her to see a lot of animated movies. Jess and I really enjoyed them, but The Scientist often dozed off twenty minutes into the film. He slept through Toy Story and Shrek and Monsters Inc. before we all decided that a better plan was to split up when we went to the movies. That way he was free to see the latest action movie while Jess and I watched the newest offering from Pixar or Disney.

The Incredibles, Cars, innumerable sequels in the Monsters, Toy Story and Shrek series. Nightmare Before Christmas. Brave. WALL-E. Coraline. Up. Paranorman . . . Actually, I saw quite a few of those by myself. Jess is all grown up now and The Scientist still isn’t a big fan of kid’s movies. To be fair he stayed awake for the entire Lego Movie and thoroughly enjoyed Big Hero 6, but he wouldn’t have gone to see either if I hadn’t suggested it.

I imagine quite a few adults would consider my interest in animated movies that are mostly marketed to children to be childish. It certainly hasn’t escaped my notice that most of the other adults in the theater are there to chaperone children.

I’m not sure what it is about animated movies that I enjoy so much. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia, dating back to the time when I was a young parent and the excitement that we shared as a family going to a new movie. Maybe it’s the sly humor that the writers build in for the adults in the audience alongside the simple feel-good themes that most of the movies have. I’ve even seen it suggested that many of us gravitate toward animation because the exaggerated facial expressions are easy to decipher.

Maybe I just really like animated movies.

Whatever the underlying reason, it’s hard to escape the sense that my enjoyment of the movies is somewhat age inappropriate. I don’t know a lot of other middle-aged women who were as excited as I was about the Lego movie. I do know better than to blurt out “How about that Lego movie?” when talking with most other women my age.

Fortunately not all of my tastes in media run toward children’s programming. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix created a recommendation category for me titled “Dramas with Large Ensemble Casts and Lots of Cursing.” That gives me sufficient fodder for dinner party conversation when the subject turns to movies and TV.


Age Appropriate

The concept of “age appropriate” has been one that’s always haunted me. In elementary school, from about fourth grade, I began to get the sense that most of my peers seemed to somehow older than me. As if they knew something I didn’t.

By the time I got to middle school, that vague sense of being “behind” widened into a very obvious maturity gap. Many of the other girls in my class were developing an interest in dating and fashion and other things that marked a critical right of passage, and in which I had little intrinsic interest. In high school, most of my peers spent the school week looking forward to a weekend of drinking, partying, dating, football games and dances. Again I felt left out, having barely caught up with the concept of dating.

My interests ran more toward listening to music, reading, riding my bike, and shooting baskets in the driveway. At least the ones that I would publicly admit to. I also had a huge fascination with the TV show M*A*S*H and still liked to pull out my collections of baseball cards, stamps, and coins. Occasionally I pulled out my model train set or my Matchbox cars and Barbies were still in my closet. My bed was home to as many stuffed animals as it could hold and I still had a well-worn baseball mitt that I’d gotten in fourth grade.

Instinctively, I knew that there were things that it was “okay” for a teenaged girl to be interested in and interests that were best kept to myself. Sometimes the appropriateness of an interest hinged on gender stereotypes, but just as often it was related to age, either in the sense of something being “too childish” (or sometimes “too adult”) for the age that I currently was.

I spent a lot of years assuming that I would simply catch up with my peers, that I would develop an interest in partying and chasing boys at football games and gossiping on the phone for hours after school each night. When I graduated, without that ever having materialized, I somehow went right on assuming that I would catch up with the adults that I saw around me who invariably seemed much more adult to me than I seemed to myself.

I’m sure this is a typical reaction of many young people as they make the transition into adulthood in their early twenties, however I was still thinking this in my late thirties and early forties. After being diagnosed with Aspergers, I finally realized that there would be no magical catching up with my peers. I was simply different and that was okay.

By Whose Milestones?

The really interesting aspect of this to me, is that while autism is commonly referred to as a developmental delay, no one ever explicitly told me that I was “delayed.” Many years spent comparing myself to my typical peers and seeing the obvious differences had somehow caused me to assume that I was just a few steps behind them.

It’s not surprising to me that many parents look at their autistic children and make the same assumption, often with the encouragement of doctors, teachers, and other professionals in their children’s lives. And in the same way that I passed many years simply assuming that I would catch up, I think many parents spend years operating under the assumption that the goal of their children’s education should be to “catch them up” to their typical peers rather than to equip them in ways that are practical and useful for the child.

Ariane Zurcher recently wrote a blog post about how focusing on the belief that her daughter Emma was developmentally delayed caused her to pursue therapies that in the end she felt were not helpful to Emma. Here’s a quote from that post (emphasis is mine):

“for us it meant constantly comparing our daughter to her non autistic peers (using their development, and not hers, as the ideal).  It meant pursuing all kinds of therapies that never questioned the push for spoken language.  It meant not considering AAC devices, because she “had language.”  It meant encouraging my daughter to “use your words.”  It meant asking her to focus on things that made it impossible for her to concentrate on what was being taught.  It meant looking at her through the lens of deficits, so much so that they became blinders shutting out everything else.”

Ariane’s words hint at the danger that lurks in the idea that autistic kids need more than anything to catch up to their nonautistic peers. The emphasis, when working from that assumption, is on getting the child to do things in a way that may not be the best possible way–or even possible at all–for them.

A straightforward and common example is speech. Here are some standard developmental milestones for speech and language:

  • by 3 months: makes eye contact
  • by 6 months: imitates sounds and facial expressions
  • by 12 months: says 1 or 2 words
  • by 21 months: uses at least 50 words, names objects
  • by 24 months: begins to use 2 word phrases, uses simple pronouns
  • by 36 months: asks simple questions

If an autistic child isn’t making eye contact, smiling when smiled at, or saying a couple of words by 18 months, it’s very natural for their parents to look at the other toddlers who are doing all of these things and assume that their child needs professional intervention to help them catch up with their peers.

However, autistic language development varies greatly from the developmental norms. Some autistic people speak early, some at a typical age, others at a later-than-average age and some not at all. Some of us use speech for simple interactions and text or other means for more complex interactions, while others use AAC for all communication. Some of us never reach typical milestones and other leap over milestones at an atypical age.

We are each literally our own developmental milestone chart and to compare an autistic person’s language development to their peers–autistic or not–is both unfair and counterproductive.

The typical developmental milestones are useful as a diagnostic aid, but beyond that they are simply a distraction. Rather than focusing on meeting a set of speech milestones, the emphasis should be on finding communication methods that work reliably for the individual autistic person.

The Fallacy of Mental Age

Another potential pitfall of the developmental delay paradigm is that it leads to the assumption of “mental age” in those individuals who don’t meet developmental milestones on the expected schedule.

If a child is mostly nonspeaking until the age of 5, echolalic for several years after that, and begins to use short phrases at 12, some people will make the assumption that the child not only has the language abilities “of a 2-year-old” but also the thought processes and cognitive abilities of a 2-year-old. As many parents of children who began speaking at a later age can tell you, that’s far from true.

A person who is echolalic at 7-years-old, speaks in short phrases at 12 and uses some sentences at 22 isn’t simply delayed. They have a completely different communication ability than their peers. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been capable of typing in full sentences for a decade or more before they used any sentences verbally. Perhaps not, but unless they’re given the chance to learn to use a variety of communication tools other than speech, no one will know for sure.

Chronologically Out of Step

The inspiration for this post was in part a Facebook discussion that Ariane initiated prior to the post I linked to above and in part some comments on the Intersection of Gender and Autism posts here.

I was struck by how many of us had a sense that we were somehow lagging behind our peers when we were younger or how we still had interests that might be considered age inappropriate by people given to making such judgments. In each of these comments, there was a hint (or more) of embarrassment around these interests.


That got me thinking about all of the ways that I’ve felt chronologically out of step over the years and, more importantly, why. As always, the what of it is fairly easy to quantify, but the why is trickier.

Sometimes the sense that I was lagging behind was tied to not wanting to give up a special interest or to returning to a “childish” special interest for comfort. My love of animated movies and the giant stuffed dog that resides on my couch are a couple of innocuous present-day examples.

Other times, particularly around adolescence, I think missing out on big chunks of social cues and being mostly oblivious to certain types of peer pressure contributed to my sense that I was socially and emotionally younger than my peers. I suspect most kids didn’t necessarily want to start dating in middle school, but they knew that socially it was important to show that they did. It made them seem mature or cool or whatever it was that meant fitting in. Which, incidentally, was exactly the thing I could never seem to intuit and obviously still can’t quite pin down.

Most likely, there were girls who made fun of me in middle school and high school for being so out of step with what was expected but I was mostly too clueless to notice if anyone was whispering about me behind my back. And really, when you have people who will outright tell you that you’re a dork to your face, there isn’t much point in searching for more bad news.

These things, combined with the ever-present sense that I was different from most other kids left, me always feeling the need to catch up but never quite knowing how to do that.

Which brings me to an interesting point that Anna raised in the comments: there is a difference between throwing out the concept of a delay and throwing out all hope of a person learning new skills. She specifically mentioned that as a child, she was left to her own devices a lot and not really pushed to learn organizational or social skills or to further her interests in new ways. She pointed out the value of a “golden middle way” in respecting differences while helping children develop the sort of executive function skills and understanding of the social world that will smooth the road for them a bit as adults.

When Frogs Fly

Finally, it’s important for parents and others who work with autistic kids to understand the difference between, for example, understanding the social world and having neurotypical social skills. The former is achievable to some degree for many of us on the spectrum; the latter not so much.

For example, my social skills are not and never will be those of a typical adult. I don’t have the social skills of a 14-year-old or a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old. It’s not as if I’m simply behind some imaginary developmental curve. My ability to read facial expressions and body language has been “stuck” at the basic level for decades. And I’m fine with that. I have coping mechanisms to make up for some of what I lack and the rest I’ve learned to live with. In the past, I’ve tried to learn how to read more subtle nonverbal communication and finally concluded that it’s not going to happen.

In fact, as I was talking about some preliminary ideas for this post with The Scientist, I told him that teaching me to make consistently natural-looking eye contact would be like teaching a frog to fly. No matter how many times you take the frog up on the roof and toss it off, it’s never going to sprout wings. And it doesn’t need to.


A/N: While looking for photos to illustrated this post, I saw the gingerbread people photos and thought “ooh, cute!” and decided to use whimsical gingerbread people family portraits to illustrated my Very Serious Post because it felt delightfully age inappropriate. 

Pronoun Reversal and Confusion

One of the obvious early signs of autism in children is pronoun reversal. All toddlers have difficulty with learning the correct usage of I, me and you. However, sometime between two-and-a-half and three years old, most kids gain a firm grasp of personal pronouns.

Specifically, they begin to understand that pronouns are referential rather than absolute words. I can be me but I can also be you, right? It all depends on the situation.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty challenging concept for someone who only recently learned to use a potty, but somehow most kids get it. If a child approaches their preschool years and is still using I, me and you interchangeably, that’s a potential sign of autism. The same is true of a child who continues to use their own name to refer to themselves in the third person.

There are a lot of theories about why autistic kids don’t make the transition to using personal pronouns at the same time or in the same way typical kids do. Some of them are disturbing and stereotypical:

  • autistic people don’t know that other people are actually other people

  • autistic people don’t have an intact sense of self

  • autistic children are “solitary beings” who don’t interact with others

  • autistic children are more egocentric than typical children

  • autistic children don’t pay attention to/listen to/notice/care about other people so they don’t hear how pronouns are used in daily speech

Most of those ideas are rooted in outdated theories about autism. More likely reasons for pronoun reversal in children are:

  • autistic children use echolalia to communicate and say “you” because they are echoing the way other people refer to them

  • autistic children have difficulty with pragmatics (social use of language)  Continue reading Pronoun Reversal and Confusion

The One Where I Talk About Why Talking is Hard

Today, I’m interrupting the sensory processing series to do something a little different. Okay, a lot different. I had originally planned to make a video blog about sensory diet to run today. What happened instead was a video about why talking is hard.

About 45 minutes into a very frustrating attempt at speaking on video, I gave up. I was ready to walk away from the process when The Scientist asked me to describe what I was feeling. Mostly I was feeling frustrated and angry with myself, but I eventually got past that and managed to talk a little about why I have so much difficulty speaking in this type of situation.

The short answer: The thinking and speaking parts of my brain seem to compete for resources, making it harder for me to organize my thoughts when I speak versus when I write. When I see how much I repeat myself in this video, I cringe, because if I were writing these thoughts out, I would use 1/3 as many words and probably be able to convey twice as much content.

If nothing else, I think you might find the contrast between my written communication and spoken communication interesting.  Continue reading The One Where I Talk About Why Talking is Hard

Uncooperative Words and Where I Go From Here

Something strange is going on in my brain. Aside from the usual strangeness, I mean, which I’m quite used to. Back in March I wrote about my missing word problem. Over the past few months, I’ve developed some funky new issues with writing:

  • The missing words are no longer just small words like a or the. Now I also skip right over important words, and sometimes pairs of words. A particularly bad sentence might have three words missing.

  • Sometimes I repeat phrases, typing things like “I was about to about to change directions.” Those are fairly easy to catch when editing.

  • Verb forms have become interchangeable at times, which results in me sending ridiculous texts like “I’m exciting to see you” and mixing tenses in paragraphs.

  • Contractions are occasionally problematic, specifically leaving off the apostrophe and what comes after it.

  • The weird word substitutions continue, perhaps more frequently, definitely in more obvious forms. Also substituting homonyms like to/too and you’re/your, even though I know the correct usage and it drives me bonkers when other people do this.

  • My spelling has become erratic. In some writing sessions, I backspace over every third word, often more than once until I get it right. The biggest problem seems to be the letters coming out in the wrong order. Yesterday I tried to type Walmart into my GPS and I had “mwla” before I realized that wasn’t going to get me to where I needed to go.

This all adds up to making writing–from a blog posts to one sentence emails–very frustrating. Even a single line reply on Facebook will end up with some glaring–though not to me–error. In spite of multiple proofreadings. In spite of taking my time and being extra careful.  Continue reading Uncooperative Words and Where I Go From Here

Silence II: Variation

I have more than one kind of silence. There is the very bad kind, the crushing kind. That one I could do without.

There is also the heavy silence. I can force the words to come out, but each one is an effort, like lobbing boulders out of a pit. They land in the dirt around me, scattered, muffled, obscured by clouds of dust. Lobbing boulders is hard work.

There is the accidental silence. The words fly away, leaving gestures, grunts, nothing at all. “Didn’t you see my eyes get wide?” I ask The Scientist when he wonders why I didn’t warn him about the wall he was about to back into.

There is the silence of too much. Too much input. Too much to process. Too many people, things, noises, questions, answers, objects, movement. I feel myself fading into the scenery, disappearing. I become silence itself.  Continue reading Silence II: Variation

Silence I: Frustration

The first in a 3-part series on silence. 


My silence is frustrating. For me. For others.

I don’t mean the silence between the words, the comfortable kind, the long drive in the car, relaxed lunch in the park, playing video games for hours side-by-side on the couch, reading together kind of silence.

Frustrating silence is the kind that arises in place of words, filling up all the space where the words should be. It starts with a heaviness in my chest, like my breastbone has become a plate of armor thick enough to stop a lance or a bullet or a barrage of charged emotions.

The weight holds the words down, tethered tight, floating out of reach. I can see them, hear them. Inside me, there is a cacophony of noise as the words rattle and clash, struggling to escape. It feels as if I’m shouting and yet there is no sound, except within me.

Then one breaks free. Two. Five. A phrase or a sentence. Small and inadequate to the task, they float up, fill with breath, are shaped by tongue and lips. Often the ones that escape are the most practiced. Scripts. Platitudes. The reliable “I don’t know.”  Continue reading Silence I: Frustration

Echolalia: That’s What She Said

When my daughter Jess was a toddler, we had a set of board books about the Disney Babies, which were the “baby” versions of Mickey, Minnie and Donald. Jess loved these books. For months, every night we had to read her the Disney Baby books at bedtime. The opening line of one of the books was

“It’s a bright sunny day. The Disney Babies go out to play.”

How do I remember that? Because to this day, I’ll still occasionally walk outside and say, “It’s a bright sunny day” and if The Scientist is around he’ll reply with some variation of “Mickey and Minnie go out to play.”

Yes, he remembers it wrong but that’s not my point. My point is that this is what delayed echolalia looks like in someone who has functional language skills. More than twenty years later, I associate that story with good feelings. Reading it made Jess happy and as she learned to talk, she would “read” the book to me, reciting the lines that she’d memorized.

It’s a bright sunny day has very specific emotional associations for me; It’s shorthand for feeling good about the day ahead.

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is a fancy word for the repetition of spoken words. For typical toddlers, it’s a transition period in language development. For autistic people who don’t have functional language skills, it’s a means of communication. For me, it feels like a kind of ‘found speech’, similar to the cast-off pieces of pipe and rusted metal that an artist might use to make a sculpture.  Continue reading Echolalia: That’s What She Said