“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”George Bernard Shaw
Danny has been in some form of speech therapy since he was about 3 years old. At first, it was to coax out as many intelligible words as he could give us; then, it was to help him craft and deliver more complex phrases and sentances.
Eventually he developed a reliable playbook of volleys, if you will. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you” “Have a great weekend!” If you only need to talk to him for a minute, you might not understand why he is still in therapy. He speaks just fine; in fact he talks all the time.
But speaking and communicating are two completely different things. Which is how we have landed at his current, and only, speech goal: conversation.
This is a complicated endeavor; make no mistake that – should you find yourself engaging in authentic conversation with an autistic – what you are experiencing could well be a laborious act of love. For Danny, conversation means that first he must be fully present with you. Any of the extra noise of his mind has to be actively silenced, not just tuned down. He then has to hear the things you say and draw a picture in his mind of the items or the experiences so that he has an image in his mind to reference as the back and forth continues. Assuming that he has been able to do these things, he then needs to craft a response that makes sense (and not just to him: a response that would make sense to you) and assuming that there isn’t something already in the playbook or some wayward movie script that will get the job done, he needs to flip through the file cabinet in his head to find the word he knows was right here the other day…..where did it go….
Conversation does not come easily for that child, but the times that he has invited me into one have been some of the most sacred moments of being a mother that I have experienced. On the other hand, as a person with many many words and a strong desire to use them, communicating with him has been some of the most humbling.
Because in order to communicate with him I have to slow down; pare down. I have to consider how he is feeling and what he is in the position to receive. I need to edit and review the words before I release them. Most of all, I have to be patient.
This year, because of distance learning, I have been in earshot of his speech sessions with his teacher at school. Some of the things that she works on with him seem like the simplest concepts but they make a big difference in forming relationships.
- Look at the person who is speaking; what does their facial expression say?
- Listen to the things they are saying and respond in a way that shows you care about what they have said.
- Don’t talk over them, don’t be in a hurry to turn the conversation back to something you like.
- If you disagree with something they say, don’t get angry. Ask them why, and then listen.
He struggles with these things, but honestly I think we all do. It makes me wonder how much better the world would be if we all approached communications with each other the way Danny is being taught to. I think we might be shocked to find how far from the mark we are falling in many of our interactions.
Our most important relationships are built on conversations that carry us through our lives. They are worth the effort.