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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