Every now and then, Penguin surprises us with new examples of how his mind works. He’s autistic and nonverbal, and in many ways he experiences the world differently to most of us. His sensory processing is different to the norm (as I’ve written about previously here & here) and his thoughts, learning and communication are all areas that are affected by this, for better and for worse.
There are severe difficulties, such as being nonverbal, having learning difficulties in many areas, and experiencing higher levels of stress, anxiety and sensory overload (sometimes resulting in meltdowns or shutdowns). But there are also some quite fascinating abilities, such as an exceptional memory for certain details. Not always in a useful sense, but fascinating nonetheless.
Due to Penguin’s severe communication difficulties, we often don’t get to be part of what is going on inside his mind. But every now and then he gives us a little insight, and this post is about one of those moments.
This happened a little while ago, in the middle of the night, as I was laying next to Penguin waiting for him to get tired enough to go to sleep. He had an iPad and was using it for looking at pictures, making drawings etc. (Some will say that technology isn’t helpful for getting to sleep, and that is probably right for most people, but for some it seems to help them wind down and relax, and that’s often the case for our Penguin. We have tried other bedtime routines and so far nothing else has been significantly more successful.)
We have an app on the iPad called Drawing Pad, which is like a box of art materials (pens, brushes, backgrounds etc), and Penguin has been using it quite frequently lately. He often grabs my finger to use it as a pen for drawing on the screen, and that was the case on this occassion as well. This time, he chose a sunburst background, selected a white coloured pen in the apps tool box, then reached for my finger and started writing a sequence of letters. When he let go of my finger, I took a quick screenshot to save what he’d been writing, and it looked like this:
I tried to figure out what it said, but couldn’t quite make it out… can you?
He then went on to add a whole lot more writing, and finished it off with drawing a green cloud-like shape around part of the text. This was the final result:
I thought the text within the green ‘cloud’ looked like “Nick Park”, which is the name of the creator of Shaun the Sheep (as well as Wallace & Gromit, and some other amazing animations). Penguin is a huge fan of Shaun the Sheep and watches it daily, so it didn’t really surprise me that he seemed to have picked up on Nick Park’s name, although this was the first time I’d seen him write it.
A little bit of background and context regarding Penguin and his use of letters: He isn’t yet literate in a traditional sense, he doesn’t read or write fluently, and doesn’t yet use written language for communication. He’s always loved letters, he learnt the order of the alphabet very early on, and used to be able to name the sounds of some letters before he regressed around the age of two. He later regained that knowledge, and knows all the letters and the sounds they make, although he isn’t able to pronounce all of them correctly.
Now and then he’ll write down certain words he’s seen in logos or videos, as well as a few select dvd titles, from memory. He used to do this mainly with magnetic letters or letter tiles etc, but nowadays he’ll more often use pens or crayons, or screen-based writing of some kind. Most of the time it’s only a very short phrase, or just one word (for example, the place names ‘Prestwich’ and ‘Seaton’, or the phrases ‘own it on dvd’ or ‘smelly cow’, see blog post here about the first time he wrote the latter). He’s also able to search for some of his favourite videos on YouTube, by writing the names of them in the search bar.
Anyway, back to the mystery of those scribbles in the dark… Penguin has a communication app (called Grid for iPad), and in it there is a text to speech application. I opened that (on a separate device) and asked him if he could write the same thing there, as he’d just written on the screen in his drawing app. I figured that might give me a clearer idea about what all those letters were supposed to say. This is what he wrote:
I figured that he was probably writing something backwards, as he sometimes does, but I still couldn’t quite make sense of it, so I asked him if he could write the rest of it (as there were clearly more letters on the drawing app version). He added a couple more letters, and I could suddenly make sense of it, read backwards:
It says ‘original idea by nick park’ (backwards and without spaces between the words)!
I was pretty happy just to get that far, but Penguin then went on to clarify it further for me, by showing me this photo he’d taken (some time previously) of the final credits of Shaun the Sheep:
So the green ‘cloud’ was – of course – a representation of the green grass, and the other letters he’d scribbled down in the drawing app were the names of other people involved in the making of Shaun the Sheep. And all done from memory, backwards and without spacing between the words!
I’m pretty sure that Penguin’s memory often works in a photographic way, where letters, visuals, colours and patterns register as an image, rather than him remembering the ‘meaning’ (when there is one). As in this case, where he probably hasn’t thought about Nick Park being a name and who he is etc, but rather memorised the information on that part of the credits as a kind of mental photograph.
I find it fascinating to see how the human mind can work in unusual ways, and I love exploring alternative ways for us to connect and communicate with each other.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have any thoughts, comments or questions about what you’ve just read, please let us know below. Perhaps you have experience of something similar? If so, I’d love to hear about it. And if you’re interested in learning more about AAC, this post I wrote last month is a great place to start: AAC: Basic Facts And Helpful Resources
Until next time, take care x
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