As the father of a twenty-month old daughter, the issue of learning to communicate in the English language is obviously high up on my list of current interests. We’re lingering at the monosyllabic phase, and while it’s fascinating that the word ‘bear’ can mean biscuit, water, bath, yoghurt, playroom, daddy sit in that chair, I want to watch Peppa Pig, and a number of other concepts we haven’t yet been able to figure out, all at the same time, it can make life a little more stressful than it needs to be. I mean, being able to tell us what she wants (biscuits), and being able to understand our response (no, you’ve already had three, you greedy little madam), would probably avoid a few of the meltdowns we’ve been experiencing lately – although, on second thought, maybe not, since the answer would still be no and she’d still have a tantrum because she wants biscuits! Regardless, learning to express our thoughts, feelings and desires through language is an important step on the road to becoming a fully-fledged member of society i.e. the moment at which you can leave home and give mum and dad a break.
Unfortunately, learning to communicate in English is easier said than done, pun entirely intended. Normally, way before the formal teaching of language in schools, kids learn to speak by being immersed in the language of their parents, and develop their communication skills through both imitation and experimentation. With two parents on the autism spectrum, however, there may be some problems with this process.
‘But you can clearly speak English!’ I hear you yell. What you really mean is that I can clearly write English, because in actual fact, a written language and a spoken language are two completely different things. I am only now realising just how true this is.
It is a well-known fact, and one I have written about before, that people with autism often take things literally, and therefore struggle with the nuances of language. While this is true, the reality of communicating in English when you have autism is far more complex than simply struggling to interpret homonyms, homophones and idioms. I mean, there are plenty of books out there that explain all of these things, and oftentimes you can work out the meaning by context. By focusing on this ‘literal interpretation of language’ spiel, it overlooks the other really weird and confusing ways that we communicate in spoken English. I’m talking about the vagaries of language that only English teachers and pedants tend to know about.
Like the way we add negative tags to positive questions, and vice versa. This morning, I said to my daughter, ‘You will be good for Granny, won’t you?’ Will you, won’t you – way to confuse the poor kid! Or when I say, ‘You haven’t done a poo, have you?’ you can almost hear the cogs whirring away as she thinks, ‘I haven’t have? Does yes mean no or yes mean yes? I don’t know, so instead I’ll just say “pooooooooo,” and leave daddy guessing.’
These constructions – a declarative statement followed by a question – are called tag questions (or question tags, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re reading this), and these parts of spoken English can cause problems for people with autism. The modal ones – that is, those those that request confirmation of information of which you’re not certain, like, ‘You’ve just pissed in the bath water, haven’t you?’ – aren’t overly important since they simply concern knowledge. It’s the other type, the affective tag questions, that can screw up your relationships.
These are the ones that soften statements or include people in conversations – the ‘I care about you and invite you to share in my life’ questions. My wife, bless her, is a lovely lass, but she sucks at affective tags. She thinks ‘Get me a drink,’ and ‘Get me a drink, could you?’ mean the same thing, no matter how much I try to explain to her that the first is an order and treats me as a slave, without respect or consideration, while the addition of the softening tag ‘could you?’ in the second turns it into a request, that acknowledges I am a person with feelings and a need to be treated with dignity. If you can detect hurt feelings in the previous sentence, well done – even though I know she doesn’t mean it, I do sometimes wish she could speak to me with a soupcon of grace.
She’s equally bad at using the other kind of affective tag, the so-called facilitative tag, in that she doesn’t use it at all. This is the tag question that’s all about sharing and reassurance. I’ll show her a video of 2Cellos playing Thunderstruck and say, ‘This is so freaking awesome, isn’t it?’ In this manner, I am sharing my excitement and tastes with her, and inviting her to join in by agreeing with me that yes, it’s the greatest ever video on YouTube, or bringing her own opinion to bear, such as, ‘No, it’s shit’ (although nobody who has seen 2Cellos doing Thunderstruck has ever or will ever say that). If there’s something my wife is thinking about – the weather, for instance – she’ll say something like, ‘It’s so much warmer than yesterday.’ Full stop. And I look at her and think, where’s my ‘isn’t it?’ Where’s my ‘don’t you think?’ How is our daughter meant to incorporate question tags into her speech if her mother, thanks to her autism, doesn’t use them?
In all fairness to my wife, though, I tend towards the opposite extreme and use enough for the both of us. Given my problems with Theory of Mind (understanding how other people think and feel), I’m paranoid that the people I’m talking to don’t understand what I’m saying, or that I’m not understanding them correctly, or that they’re bored, or that they don’t like me, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that my thinking is flawed, so that, constantly seeking reassurance and feedback, I litter my speech with modal and affective tags – you know? Right? Yeah? Innit.
A constant problem of conversing with my wife is that she fails to respond to these cues, making me even more paranoid, and that is another aspect of spoken English usage that totally differs from the written – instant feedback. You know what I mean? You see? Do you?
Silence. As an autistic individual, she again doesn’t get that during conversations, she’s meant to go, ‘Uh-huh,’ or ‘Oh,’ or ‘Yes,’ or ‘Hmm,’ or make any one of a hundred different random noises to indicate she is listening, understanding, and involved. The silence freaks me out. Has she slipped into a coma? Have I lost her completely? Am I making any gosh-darned sense?
But then, perhaps she’s right and I’m wrong. Whenever we have an argument, I’ll throw a line at her, something like, ‘How many times have I told you not to leave your wet towel on the floor?’ and she’ll reply, ‘Sorry,’ because she knows that’s how rhetorical questions work. I don’t. So I’ll reply, ‘I’m not asking you to say sorry, I’m asking how many times I’ve told you not to leave your towel on the floor?’ And she’ll say, ‘Sorry,’ again, because that’s still how rhetorical questions work, and I’ll reply with, ‘Sorry is not a number! I’m looking for the response, “Somewhere between dozens and hundreds,”‘ because I can be quite a dick and if someone won’t argue with me the way I want to be argued with, I’m not above telling them exactly what to say.
Then there are these wonderful things called hedges, which we slip into sentences where we’re being negative in order to reduce the impact on the other person’s feelings, because most of us don’t actually want to be mean. In spoken language, hedges often take the form of making our statements a little vague – expressions like ‘sort of’, and ‘kind of’, and ‘a bit’. I don’t think either of us use them properly.
You’re meant to say things like, ‘You’re looking sort of unwell, today,’ or, ‘Your work is a tad below what I was expecting.’ The way I use hedges is that when my wife asks me how she looks in a particular outfit, I’ll be honest and reply, ‘You look kind of like a pregnant whale with a thyroid problem.’ And then she’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole, aren’t you?’ confirming that, yes, I am an arsehole.
And lastly, for the people still reading, in spoken English people fill their sentences with crutch words, something I tend to incorporate into my speech and my wife does not. These are, basically, those utterly pointless words that, honestly, aren’t even, actually, effective as intensifiers, but that we use anyway to, like, buy ourselves time to think and, well, can turn into vocal tics if we’re not careful, really. You get the picture.
Given that our biggest problem at the moment is teaching my daughter to say down (‘Nom.’ Down. ‘Nom.’ D-d-d-down. ‘D-d-d-nom.’), these problems may be a way away. But, monosyllabic as she is, we’re already encountering problems with the weirdness of spoken English.
‘Have you finished your dinner?’
‘So you don’t want any pudding, do you?’
Dammit. ‘Yes, you don’t want pudding?’
My English teacher never taught me how to resolve this impasse!