Mondegreens, urology, and bringing sexy back: Autism and Language

As the father to a nineteen-month old daughter, I’m deep in the throes of teaching her to communicate. For one thing, our nappy-changing conversations have become a little one-sided and repetitive for my tastes, and for another, it would make it a whole lot easier working out what she wants, what she doesn’t want, and what she’s getting stroppy about if she could just say, ‘Dad, I want to eat the cat’s breakfast instead of this slop,’ or, ‘But why can’t I put this screwdriver into that plug socket?’

Unfortunately, as a person with autism, a condition that is pretty much characterised by difficulties with communication, there are a number of potential difficulties ahead. As my wife also has autism, and a different set of communication problems, the job becomes even more fun. Not that we don’t know how to talk or communicate, of course – I wouldn’t be able to write this if that were the case – but there are some oddities in how we use and understand language.

A case in point is onomatopoeia. We are teaching Izzie animal sounds – moo, baa, eeyore, and suchlike. Like a lot of people with autism, my wife Lizzie struggles to alter the tone and pitch of her voice to express emotion or replicate sounds. On the musical scale, she can do doh, re, mi and fa, but that’s her limit, so she has a very narrow vocal range and thus a somewhat monotonous delivery. She also has limited volume control, her voice being either quiet, loud or shouting. This means that no matter what animal she’s doing an impression of, it tends to sound like a drunk guy being kicked in the nuts. Which works when it’s a donkey braying. Not so much the cat’s miaow. She’s very good at simply reading the words.

My problem with onomatopoeia is the opposite. I think my animal impressions are rather good, and my voice ranges from a passable bass right up to a passable falsetto, but I cannot read a ‘sound’ word as a word. When I was five I had to read out in class from Funny Bones. There’s a page where a mouse was saying ‘squeak, squeak, squeak,’ and I read it in a high-pitched, squeaky voice that made everyone including the teacher laugh. The truth was, I couldn’t read it any other way, and I still can’t. For this or with any other onomatopoeia.

It’s embarrassing. I can’t say my chair is squeaking without sounding like a pubescent boy on the final word. I can’t describe a loud BANG! without making everyone jump and I can’t say the word whisper in anything other than a whisper.

It’s wrecking my ability to sing Old MacDonald because I can’t make ‘moo moo here’ or ‘baa baa there’ fit the rhythm, since lowing is moooo and bleating is ba-a-a. And if you’re at a parent-toddler group and you can’t even manage to sing Old MacDonald, you’re definitely not seen as a doyen of the literati.

Another difficulty is mishearing sounds, or rather, hearing them properly but failing to connect them in the right way. For many years at school, I shared a class with a girl called Antal Mage. I thought she had the coolest name ever, like a heroine from a fantasy novel. Then came the disappointing day I was handing out exercise books and discovered her name was Anne Talmage. Not nearly so exciting, and no wonder she used to look at me funny every time I said, ‘Morning Antal.’

I often mishear songs too. For twenty years, I thought the chorus of the Radiohead song ‘Creep’ was, ‘I’m a creep, I’m a widow’. How sad, I thought – people should be nicer to the bereaved. Then I discovered it’s actually ‘weirdo’. Changes it entirely.

For the past fifteen I also thought ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’ was about a mum trying to hide her dalliance from her offspring – ‘You can try to resist, got to hide from my kids…’ Although to be fair, I seem to mix up ‘kids’ and ‘kiss’ quite a lot, since I thought Paloma Faith’s ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’ contained the line, ‘Must have been my deadbeat kids’ (it’s ‘deadly kiss’, FYI).

Of course, mishearing song lyrics is not exclusive to people with autism. There’s even a word for it – mondegreen. But even when I hear them right, I can still struggle to understand the meaning.

For the past ten years, I thought Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’, with the chorus ‘I’m bringing sexy back’, was the oddest song I’d ever heard. I mean, backs just aren’t sexy. It’s not like anyone ever said, ‘Put your boobs away, I want to see your back, yo.’ And I always thought it was a bit derogatory talking about people in terms of their physical attributes.

‘Who you bringing to the party, dog?’

‘I’m bringing Hairy Upper Lip, how bout you?’

‘I got a date with Freckly Belly. Hey Justin, you got a date for the party?’

‘Yeah, I’m bringing Sexy Back.’

I get it now.

My misinterpretations aren’t just limited to songs. I went on a coach tour a few years ago, and one stop was the museum of the Berlin Airlift. I looked around this museum for an hour, taking in the stories of the Soviet blockade, the fact they had to fly in supplies around the clock, gazed at the model aircraft, the photographs of airfields, the medals awarded to the pilots, and then I called over the guide and said, ‘I can see all the planes, and stuff, but where’s the Berlin Airlift?’

He looked at me blankly before gesturing outwards with his arms. ‘It is all around us,’ he said. ‘This is the museum of the Berlin Airlift.’

‘Right,’ I said, confused. I’d seen some stairs. No lifts, though. Nothing that would fit the grandiose title of The Berlin Airlift. It wasn’t even a very tall building. Why would you install a pneumatic elevator in such a structure? And why make a museum about it and then fill it with aeroplane models? Made no sense to me whatsoever.

I didn’t get it until after we’d left.

Just like last year when my parents asked me to stay at their place one day because they were having some tablets delivered. Mid-morning, a delivery man turned up with two iPads. I took them and waited, and waited, and waited, and nobody else turned up. My folks eventually called and said, ‘Have our tablets arrived?’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve waited in all day, and all that’s been delivered are a couple of iPads. Just how important is this medicine you’ve ordered?’

Misinterpreting the intended meaning behind single words is often humorous, but given that those of us with autism often take things literally, it can sometimes get serious. Like when I was seven and my grandfather told me to jump out of the bath – I jumped, two feet together, and almost killed the both of us. Or when my dad asked me to chuck him his toolkit, so I literally chucked his toolkit at him (CRASH! WALLOP! Onomatopoeia!). Or that time somebody said, ‘Throw that bottle in the bin,’ so I threw it, and showered us both in broken glass. You have to be careful how you phrase your requests to me!

Normally, if I concentrate, I can overcome this problem and detect the wider nuance or significance of a request – what they have asked me to do versus what they probably want me to do. If I’m tired or distracted, however, like, say, I’m the parent of a toddler perhaps, I can go full Aspie. And when I do that, it can really get me into trouble.

The other week my wife asked me to check in my safe to see if her birth certificate was in there. This I duly did, and it wasn’t, and I told her it wasn’t. An hour later I noticed her pulling out drawers and throwing things out of cupboards in what I shall politely call a highly agitated state.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘I can’t find my birth certificate!’ she cried.

‘Oh, that’s in my filing cabinet,’ I replied.

She looked at me, daggers for eyes.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘You knew where my birth certificate was all this time?’

‘Yes, that’s where I keep them,’ I replied.

‘Well why the hell didn’t you tell me that an hour ago when I asked you to look in your safe for it?!’

‘Because you said to look and see if it was in my safe. And I did, and it wasn’t. You didn’t ask me if I knew where it was.’

I understand why she got so upset (though I’m not sure threatening to divorce me was warranted), and in hindsight, yeah, I was being kind of dumb. On the other hand, I was being kind of autistic.

And she’s not exactly perfect herself. The other day I asked her what she was doing.

‘I’m reading a urology,’ she said.

‘A what?’

‘A urology. You know, when someone says nice things about the dead person at a funeral.’

Aah…when it comes to teaching our daughter to communicate, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us!

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Aspie Family Update, Pt 2

The continuing update into my nineteen-month old daughter’s past couple of months, in which she has developed from a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl into a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl who throws a tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants.

Telephones

Izzie has loved telephones for a long time, but in the past couple of months her proficiency has developed tenfold. Before, she would grab her mummy’s phone and after entering the wrong code several times, lock it for the next five minutes; now she presses the button on the side, thus opening the camera app, and uses that to get to the photographs, bypassing the code altogether. Once there, she swipes through the various pictures, lingering on those of herself (she has developed a considerable amount of vanity too), and if it’s a video, she taps it with her finger to make it play.

It’s true what they say – the younger generations really do find it easier to understand technology. I mean, she’s pre-verbal, can’t read or speak beyond monosyllabic grunts, but she can navigate a mobile phone using the touch screen. Makes me feel really stupid that I can barely check the time on my phone without accidentally sending a text message!

The trouble comes when Izzie gets hold of the house mobile. She loves pushing the buttons, holding it up to her ear, and saying, ‘Ay-oh? Ay-oh?’ She loves snatching it off you when you’re in the middle of a conversation, then chattering away to whoever’s on the other end in Izzie-ese, before saying, ‘Bye-bye,’ and disconnecting. And in particular, she loves playing with it when you’re not about.

The first time I heard it dialling out, I grabbed it off her and hung up. The second time, a few days later, I heard a voice saying, ‘That number has not been recognised.’ We’ve been very careful since then, so I have no idea how she got the phone a few days ago. I heard a voice, quiet, distant, just on the edge of my perception, saying, ‘What is the nature of your emergency?’

I used to be an emergency call operator, and of the ninety calls I took a day, at least two were from toddlers playing with phones (or occasionally people dusting them). When I worked for the police, I used to call back and give the parents a bollocking; now that I’m one of those parents, I’m so glad the 999 call taker accepted my apology and let me simply hang up.

I’m not looking forward to our next phone bill, however.

Imaginative Play

A couple of months ago Izzie would imitate our behaviours without really understanding the why’s and wherefore’s of what she was doing. Now, instead of simply imitating us, she actively plays with things using her imagination. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s a massive leap forward.

Like her dolls, for example. I never thought I’d be the father of a child who plays with dolls. Not because I didn’t want to perpetuate patriarchal gender roles, but because it never really factored into my thinking. Keyboard, teddy bear, colouring book, toy car – that’s my thinking when it comes to entertaining kids, whatever their sex.

My wife Lizzie, on the other hand, is very much into buying Izzie play kitchens, plastic food, shopping trolleys, push chairs and, since November, dolls. Big dolls, little dolls, skinny dolls, fat dolls – we now live in a doll’s house. And other than being freaky and creepy as hell, it’s rather illuminating.

When we first gave her a doll, Izzie stuck her fingers in its eyes, trying to peel off the veneer, and flung it about like any other plaything. But within a couple of weeks, she started caring for it. She gets out the changing mat, finds a nappy and tries to change it; she brushes its (non-existant) hair; she tries to feed it and give it water; and she cuddles it.

The most important thing about this is that she knows the doll isn’t real, but she pretends it is real. Instead of simple imitation, she is playing, experimenting, using her imagination to have fun. I know this because she picks up imaginary food in her fingertips, feeds it to the doll, feeds it to herself, feeds it to her mother and me, and giggles every time we pretend it’s real.

She has recently acquired a number of Barbie dolls and greatly enjoys sitting them on the sofa to watch TV, changing their outfits, kissing them, and then making them kiss each other. Much as I dislike dolls, we may be introducing a Ken to the party…

Organising and Locating

Speaking of kissing, Izzie has become very bossy when it comes to how she wants things. If I kiss her goodbye, she points at me and then at mummy, and nods her head as if to say, ‘Now you kiss mummy.’ Once I’ve kissed mummy, Izzie then puckers her lips at mummy, and as soon as her mother has kissed her, she points at mummy and then at me, and nods her head to say, ‘Now mummy, you kiss daddy.’ I’ll tell you, all this goodbye kissing is exhausting!

But the pointing and demanding is not limited to that, oh no. Every meal time, she likes to stipulate where we all sit. She looks at mummy then points to a chair, and once mummy sits, she looks at me and points to another chair. If we don’t sit in the chair she’s specified or, God forbid, we muck about and I sit in mummy’s chair while she sits in mine, then Izzie lets us know just how cross we make her.

Every morning after I’ve changed her nappy she opens a drawer and picks out the vest and tights she wants to wear, and if I dress her in those she then opens the wardrobe and chooses a dress. After which she heads to the mirror and checks herself out, smoothes her hair (vanity), and generally giggles at how good she looks. To be fair, she does have a keen eye for an outfit, but I do sometimes have to step in at some of the hideous combinations. Peppa Pig leggings don’t go with just anything, you know!

This particularity extends to where she wants things. This book? She wants it here. That teddy bear? Put it there. No, not there: an inch to the left. No, your other left. Oh, give it here, I’ll put it where it’s meant to go. There. Or maybe there. You know what? It looked better where you put it first time.

Books

And lastly, she has fallen in love with books. So much so, in fact, that when she goes to bed,  instead of cuddly toys she picks out a couple of books to sleep with. She can’t actually read them, but she likes the pictures, I guess.

This actually serves a double benefit. It means most nights she goes down without a fuss. I place her on her back in the cot and she opens her book and is happy as you like. I tell her goodnight and she pretty much waves me away as if to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, goodnight, dad, shut up, I’m reading.’ And if she wakes early, then she entertains herself with her books instead of getting us up. It’s a win-win.

Except if I have to read ‘Maisy’s Bus’ one more time, I’m going to feed Maisy Mouse to Charley Crocodile, and then who’ll drive? Cyril Squirrel? Not bloody likely!

Peppa Blooming Pig

My wife, who I used to love very much, spent about six months buying up all kinds of Peppa Pig merchandise in an attempt to get Izzie into Peppa Pig. Over the past couple of months it has paid dividends, because the little one is now obsessed with it. And my feelings towards my wife have become rather complicated since she’s the one who inflicted the Pink Horror upon this household.

Every day I have to help Izzie colour in pictures of Peppa Pig, load the massive Peppa Pig teddy into the Peppa Pig pushchair, resist her demands to wear her Peppa Pig tights (and only her Peppa Pig tights), put Plastic Peppa on the rides in her Plastic Play Park, read her Peppa books, push the Peppa car and the Peppa train, and make lunch on the Peppa plate with Peppa bowl and serve her Peppa yoghurt with a Peppa spoon. That’s before I mention the Peppa sticker book, Peppa pyjamas, Peppa Mega Bloks, Peppa Weebles, Peppa backpack, Peppa Wellington boots and Peppa toothbrush.

Now, in all honesty, I don’t have that much of a problem with this – if it wasn’t Peppa Pig, it’d be something equally as crass and commercialised. And the show itself, which I’m forced to watch at least four times a day as Izzie jumps up and down singing ‘Bear-per Big, Bear-per Big,’ isn’t completely horrible –  although I’d rather the little one would still be happy watching the family-friendly crap we used to enjoy together, like Hunting Hitler and Curse of Oak Island and sometimes Ghost Adventures (don’t judge me). But as a grown man, and particularly a grown man with autism, there are some things about Peppa Pig that drive me freaking insane.

Like the stories. Ever since I was a kid, watching things like The Littlest Hobo, Airwolf and The A-Team (I said don’t judge me!), stories had a start, middle and end. Start: when property-developing hicks arrive to bully some downtrodden woman with a perm off her dirt farm, they are soundly routed by the A-Team. Middle: the baddies respond to this with escalating TV-friendly violence, culminating in the capture of the A-Team. End: having been locked in a machine shop with all the tools necessary to make a flamethrower tank out of a washing machine, the A-Team bust out and save the day. Yay!

Peppa Pig doesn’t work like this. I’m not asking for narrative complexity in a five-minute children’s show, but the programme starts, and just when it’s building up to something, everyone falls down laughing and it ends, leaving you staring at the screen going, ‘What? Where’s the resolution? Where’s the climax? You said you were going to Pirate Island, you’ve only just got there and it’s the end credits? Where the hell is the third act? What was the point in all this? We haven’t been on a journey! We haven’t learnt anything! We haven’t followed a character arc! All we’ve done is kill five minutes!’

Okay. Maybe I am asking for narrative complexity from a five-minute children’s show.

But then there is the Pig family, who are equally as annoying. They are Mummy Pig, Daddy Pig, Peppa Pig and George. Why is he not George Pig? Why is he never referred to as George Pig? Why set up a pattern of ‘syllable-syllable surname’ and then abandon it? Or is George not really one of them? Is he actually a boar that they’ve kidnapped and are raising as their own? Whatever the case, I don’t anticipate an answer any time soon.

Another unexplained betrayal of internal logic is the animal hierarchy. I’m right behind the whole talking animals thing, and barnyard beasts adopting anthropomorphic characteristics, but how come Dr Hamster has a pet tortoise? What on earth in the Peppa Pig universe makes a hamster good enough to go to veterinary school, but a tortoise into nothing more than a pet? How come a rabbit is now a person but a budgie is still an animal? It makes no sense.

Just as the animal groupings make no sense. You have rabbits in a class with a fox. The neighbours to the Pig family is the Wolf family, and I’m no expert on wildlife but my knowledge of nursery rhymes implies that wolves and pigs don’t really mix. And if the prey animals like rabbits, deer, antelope, cattle, pigs, etc., are now people, does that mean the carnivores are now vegans? Or are there an awful lot of murders in town where the victims appear to have been devoured?

But the most annoying part of the whole programme is Miss Rabbit, and it’s not just because she has a voice that could strip wallpaper. She is the local bus driver. And she works in the local shop. And she’s the librarian. And runs the ice cream stall. She’s also a firefighter, and operates a rescue helicopter, and flies a hot air balloon. And she’s a nurse, and a dental nurse, and a train driver, and probably a rocket-ship pilot, deep sea diver and forensic pathologist too.

Look, I know it’s for kids, but is a little logic and consistency too much to ask?

Aspie Family Update, Pt 1

It has been over a month since my last post. I’d like to say it was a deliberate attempt to track incremental change over a longer timescale, but that would be a misrepresentation of reality. The truth is I could neither find the energy to write nor think of anything to say. It has, however, led to a benefit, in that, all bullshit aside, I have been able to track incremental change over a longer timescale. Which is good for all concerned.

You see, in the first thirteen or so months, Izzie changed dramatically and so did our lives, giving fertile ground for blogging. But by the time you’re over a year into parenthood, the changes become rather less profound. For one thing, by this point you’re used to the whole parenting lark, so dramatic, soul-searching incidents occur with less frequency than at first; for another, the changes in your toddler become developments in extent rather than in kind. What I mean by this is that first steps, first word, first use of a spoon, are milestones that require an entire post, but more steps, more words, and further use of the spoon don’t really warrant much comment. It’s like a person confined to a wheelchair after a horrible mountaineering accident – the first time they get up and walk they’re in all the papers and magazines, but as they continue to walk and gradually get better at it, nobody gives a crap because it’s just a person walking. We have to wait for them to climb Everest before we hear about them again.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying the time away has been a good thing, as I’ve been able to notice and reflect upon things that, had I been writing every couple of days, would surely have slipped by unnoticed.

Here, then, are the developments that have occurred in the past two months to my almost-nineteen-month-old daughter.

Communication

Izzie still can’t talk, but that’s okay, because she communicates just fine. By which I mean she points at things she wants and then grunts, nods emphatically if we pick it up, or shakes her head and screams if we fail to understand.

Which reveals a mistake that we, as first time parents, have made with our daughter – responding to her non-verbal communication. Don’t do this. It is bad.

When she first started her snippets of words and what have you, she seemed to be coming on quite well; then we started understanding her, and she suddenly stopped advancing, because who needs to talk when you can just point and grunt? So now when she asks for things we have to feign ignorance, which makes her incredibly stroppy because we hitherto understood her, but it must be endured if we want a human daughter who communicates in full sentences, and not a pet monkey.

Speaking of which, her monkey impression is great: oo-oo ah-ah. And she’s got a whole other bunch too: baa (sheep), oof oof (dog), guck guck (chicken), gack gack (duck), choo choo (train), oooo (Frankie Howerd or possibly a cow), sssss (snake, though I have no idea where she learnt that from), and ‘Ummm,’ which is her impression of a teenager and the sound she makes every time you ask her a question. At least, I hope it’s an impression and it’s not that she really is that indecisive!

To be fair, though, while she doesn’t have a broad vocabulary, she understands freaking everything. She knows all the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s of everything you say. Over there, the other one, not on your head, where’s your bellybutton, no that’s my bellybutton, sit down, stand up, if you splash me again there’ll be trouble, get out the way of the telly, shut up and go to sleep, put the knife down, let go of my leg, stop feeding your breakfast to the dog, what happened to my youth, oh God I’m old, and the like.

In fact, what I’ve noticed is that while she understands most things, she doesn’t seem to understand negatives. For example, she understands ‘eat it’ but doesn’t understand ‘don’t eat it,’ and while she seems to grasp ‘sit on the floor’ she doesn’t understands ‘don’t sit on the floor.’ So instead of saying ‘don’t touch the plug socket’, which invariably results in her touching the plug socket, you have to distract her instead by saying something like ‘go get your crayons, we’ll do a drawing’.

And nor does she understand it if you say ‘no’: she just shakes her head and laughs and does it anyway.

At least, I hope these last few examples are because she doesn’t understand it, and not because we’re raising a right little bastard…

 

Mobility

I’ve been taking Izzie to soft play. I was brought up to believe in hell. I have found it.

Over the past two months her mobility has come on leaps and bounds, pun entirely intended. All day she runs and jumps and falls and bounces off every surface imaginable. She has inherited her mother’s total indifference to danger, and it seems that the higher the object, the more determined she is to throw herself off it.

Her favourite pastime at the moment is crawling under the dining table, dragging herself up onto a dining chair, then clambering onto the back of the sofa. Perching there a moment, she checks to make sure you’re watching, then does a forward roll/somersault onto the seat cushions and bounces onto the floor with a thud, whereupon she pulls herself to her feet, gives herself a round of applause, and then repeats the whole terrifying stunt.

The self-congratulation appears to be an important part of the whole process. I think it comes from swimming – she’s been taught to stand on the side of the pool and then, ‘One, two, three, go!’ and jump in, after which we praise her. If I’m helping her down the stairs, every so often she stands, says ‘Doo, doo, doo, oi!’ and then leaps into space. She does the same from the coffee table. She even does it standing on books, all of 5mm from the carpet: ‘doo, doo, doo, oi,’ jump, clap, repeat. Half the time, it’s really cute and entertaining; half the time it scares the bejesus out of me!

A slightly safer pastime is her newfound love of dancing. She always enjoyed gyrating to music, but now she’s turned it into an art form. We discovered this in December while watching a film scarier than any horror. I don’t normally mind kiddie movies, but this one is painful. In TV, the moment a show exceeds the point of ridiculousness, it is called ‘jumping the shark’, after a diabolical scene in Happy Days. Having now seen the abomination that is Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! I would like to suggest a new term: ‘lowering the donkey’ – the point in a movie at which you realise it truly is an irredeemable piece of crap and you are wasting your life watching it.

Needless to say, Izzie loves it.

For the duration of the songs, she laughs and skips and dances and claps, and points at you to join in, and shouts at you if you don’t. Then, when it’s over, she wants you to rewind it so she can dance all over again. If you dare to turn it off, ouch, you’re in for a tantrum.

Don’t put it on, I hear you cry. Well, every day she points at the TV, points at you, points at the TV, starts to dance, points at you again, and then goes up and starts tapping the TV screen – come on, where the hell is my movie? I have nightmares I’m going to be watching this awful tripe until October, when it’ll be on again.

So we’re channelling all this talent and energy into ballet. One lesson and she’s learnt ‘tippee-toes’, so prances around the lounge all day waving her arms with better balance than I have.

And when bedtime approaches, the craziness increases. You can always tell when five pm arrives because Izzie starts to rotate on the spot, giggling and wobbling, until she cascades into the furniture or face plants into the floor. After twenty minutes of spinning she then charges the sofas, throwing herself face first into one, shaking her head to clear it, then charging at the other, like a turbo-charged, pint-sized pinball. I sometimes wonder if there’s not a little insanity mixed in there somewhere.

Which might explain the intensity of her tantrums…

(Cont’d…)