The event that I’m going to tell you about in this post happened the other week, but at the time felt too overwhelmed to write about it, and then when I tried I found it tricky to put it into words. I’m not sure I’ll be entirely successful now either, but I’m giving it a try. Please bear with!
I was tidying up and going through a pile of papers, and in that pile were some drawings from a few months ago. One of them in particular caught my eye, as it was more a little more elaborate than most of Penguin’s drawings to date. It looked to me as if it could be a group of animals of some kind, but I couldn’t remember in what context this drawing was made, and (annoyingly) I hadn’t jotted anything down on the back about what might have inspired it.
So, I decided to ask Penguin (our 12 year old autistic son, who’s non-verbal) about it, to see if he could reveal any clues at all. But before I go on to tell you more about the exchange we went on to have, I feel that I need to explain a few things, in case you’re not very familiar with our Penguin yet:
Firstly, you might think that his drawing looks more like something a toddler would do, rather than a boy who will very soon be entering his teens. This is (simply put) due to Penguin’s developmental delays. In some aspects he’s what you’d expect from a 12 year old boy; Eating like a horse, almost constantly wanting a snack, can sometimes be hormonal and have a bit of an attitude, lol. But in many ways he’s at a much younger age developmentally, he still needs help with most aspects of daily life, he prefers tv programs aimed at preschool aged children, he doesn’t play with ‘age appropriate’ toys, and he lacks awareness of dangers (such as traffic, or getting burnt, etc.) so needs constant supervision.
Although many autistic people have no developmental delays at all, Penguin’s developmental differences are intrinsically linked to him being autistic. All sides of who he is and all his neurodevelopmental differences are interwoven, and him being nonverbal is also an aspect of his autism. Many young autistic children are nonverbal, but most will learn to speak sooner or later (and some have no delays in this area to begin with). A large minority will however remain nonverbal, and the older a child gets, the more likely it is that they will belong to that category.
With Penguin still being nonverbal at 12, it is highly unlikely that he will ever use speech fluently. He doesn’t use any alternative form of communication fluently either, though we’ve got an AAC app on iPad which we are working on gradually using more and more (it’s a VERY slow process for us so far, but interesting and – for the most part – quite enjoyable). So currently, Penguin’s communication is mainly through body language, behaviour, and pulling someone by the hand to show them what he needs or wants. And his lack of spoken language is part of more pervasive communication difficulties, so it’s not just an issue of ‘finding his voice’.
He does however have a few speech sounds, and although ‘nonverbal’ is the established term for someone who lacks functional language, as he does, I quite like the alternative terms of ‘pre-verbal’ or ‘minimally verbal’. I feel that those terms give him credit for the fragments of spoken language that he does have, and also hope of continuing to increase his verbal ability, even if it is likely to be very limited. At the moment however, he doesn’t really have the ability to answer even simple questions of yes or no. He will say ‘naa-na’ meaning ‘night-night’ at bedtime, he might say ‘mar-ma’ when choosing Marmite to go on his toast, he has managed to communicate his need for a toilet visit a few times by saying ‘po’ (meaning ‘poo’), and he can name quite a few animals, though he can’t pronounce the full words, it’s more like unclear fragments. He will also attempt to fill in some of the words in a select number of songs that he’s familiar with.
Back to the drawing!
Now that you’ve got more of an idea of Penguin’s differences in development, communication ability etc, I shall get back to the main subject of this post: His drawing, and our ‘conversation’ about it. I’m probably being very generous in calling it a conversation, but this is the closest we’ve ever really been to having one, and it felt like a conversation to me, even if a very simple one.
I went over to Penguin with the drawing, got his attention, and said “I love this drawing you made a while ago! But could you tell me about it, what’s this?”. I pointed at the large orange object, and asked again, “What’s this?”
“Tao”, replied Penguin loudly. “Cow?”, I said, “Is it a cow? Aah, I like it!” (Penguin can’t pronounce sounds like K, hard C, or G, so cow usually sounds more like “tao”, cat is usually “ta(t)” and so on).
I went on to point at the red creature: “What’s this then?”
“Po”, said Penguin. I was quite surprised, as it didn’t look a great deal like the red Teletubby character called Po. But the only other thing I’ve heard Penguin use “po” for, is when he’s meant to say “poo”. And this sure looks more like Po than poo. “Hmm, okay…”, I said, not entirely convinced that I’d understood that one correctly.
But I moved on to the green object: “And who’s this then?”. I thought that perhaps he’d say Dipsy, the green Teletubby, as he’s just said the red one was Po. I was thinking that maybe he couldn’t remember what he’d intended to draw, but was assigning meaning to it now. If so, that would (in my perhaps biased opinion) be pretty good creative thinking!
The green object however wasn’t Dipsy, but “Ta!”, according to the artist. That usually means “cat”, as again it’s that tricky hard C sound, plus the fact that Penguin often only manages to say the first syllable of a word.
“Ooh, it’s a cat!”, I said, and then asked about the last of the objects, the dark blue one on the right: “What’s this one then?”. Penguin didn’t answer me but took my finger and pointed to the green one again “Ta!”. “A cat?”, I said, and he repeated “ta”, as if to confirm it. Then he pointed at the red one and said “Po”. “Ah yes, that’s Po”, I said, “and this orange one was a…?”. “Tao”, said Penguin.
“But what about this one then, what’s this?”, I said pointing to the blue thing again. “Do” said Penguin. “Is it a dog?”, I said, and he said “do” again. Okay, a dog it is.
I still felt unsure about the red object. Perhaps he’s said Po just because it was the first red thing that came into his mind? Surely it looked more like an animal than a Teletubby?? So I asked again. “What was this one again?”. Penguin paused for a bit and then said “Po”. I was thinking what else it could have been that would have made sense together with the other creatures in the picture… some other kind of animal, perhaps? “Or… is it a PIG maybe??”, I suggested. “Or a hip-PO??”. Penguin looked at me like I was getting annoying. “Po”, he said.
I wanted to check if he’d give me the same answers again, so I asked him to remind me what the green thing was. “Mao”, said Penguin in a high pitched kind of voice. Well that’s “meow” like a cat, great! So I asked about the orange again and got a “tao” again, so I said “aah yes, a cow, and what sound does a cow make?”. “Mmmooo”, said Penguin.
So far so good. I asked about the blue object what sound it would make, and Penguin looked unsure. I said “Is it a ‘meow’?”. He stayed quiet. “Is it a ‘moo’?”. Still quiet. “Is it a ‘woof woof’?”. “Oof oof”, said Penguin, confirming that it was indeed a dog.
I asked one more time about the red one: “Is this a “oink oink”, or rather I made that grunting sound pigs make. “Is it a Pig?”, I asked again. “Po”, said Penguin. “Oh yeah, it’s Po!” I said, and thanked him so much for telling me about his drawing.
Why write a blog post about this?
Obviously this little episode of interaction and communication between Penguin and myself is of great value to myself. But in what ways could this be meaningful to others, and worthy a read? What is my message?
I guess what I’m hoping, is to share insight, understanding, hope and happiness. And I want you to know, that children like mine understand more than they let on. Just because they don’t have the ability (yet) to communicate what is going on inside their minds, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in there. They have thoughts, feelings, imagination… Keep listening, keep communicating and connecting with them.
Don’t assume that they can’t understand and can’t learn. Try different ways of doing things, find what works for the individual you’re with. Presume competence. My child is just different, not less.
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Until next time, take care x
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