Suffering fools: an Aspie perspective

As a person on the autism spectrum, I’m often told that, as a result of poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy, I am remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my opinions. This is not true at all. I’m remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my knowledge. That’s something different altogether.

I mean, if I know something, everyone else should know it too, right? How can they not? Are they stupid? Yes, poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy means I struggle not to be a dick to those less well-informed than me.

This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that I know pretty much everythingThat’s another consequence of my autism – I’m obsessed with facts, I have no problem recalling information, and I care more about being right than people’s feelings. Whenever at job interviews I’m asked about my weaknesses, I reply that I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard (ha ha), and then quietly slip in that I don’t suffer fools gladly.

That’s an understatement – I don’t suffer fools at all.

Over the years I’ve learned to control it, mostly. I’ve come to understand that people don’t spend their time looking up facts and figures and memorizing them, so my favourite pastime is educating others about things that interest me and should therefore, by rights, interest all of mankind – the equivalent ranks in army, navy and air force, the reason the days of the week are so named, what distinguishes a barque from a barquentine, a brig and a schooner, and so forth. I’ve learned to appreciate that people might not have had the opportunity to come across these facts in their everyday lives and therefore I am more than happy to address the gaps in their knowledge – I’m a giver, you see.

But what I cannot tolerate – what really brings out the beast in me – is when people are unaware of things I think they really ought to know. Things that you don’t have to go and look up to understand. Things you couldn’t have missed unless you’ve chosen to switch off your brain and walk blinkered through the world. That’s when I go ‘full Aspie’.

Like when I meet someone who doesn’t know who won the Second World War. Or who the belligerents were. Or that Hitler was a bad guy.

How uninvolved with the world around you would you have to be not to know that? You didn’t know about the Arctic convoys or PQ17? Fine. Didn’t know about kamikazes or the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Forgivable. Didn’t know Hitler was a genocidal madman? Oh come on!

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve got in a little trouble with a work colleague. She’s very nice and she does the job fine, but boy is she ill-informed about the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone quite as ignorant as she is, and it is triggering all my worst behaviour.

Right off the bat, she didn’t know what Brexit is. Admittedly, nobody does right now, least of all our politicians, but you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we voted to leave by a small majority, and it’s torn our country apart for the past three years. Her excuse – ‘I don’t watch the news’ – makes me want to tear my hair out, or would if I had any. How she’s avoided hearing about Brexit, when it is the dominant topic on sitcoms, panel shows, current affairs programmes and at family gatherings, is nothing short of a miracle. What next? Who’s Trump?

Another time she came in all excited to tell me she’d seen a document – no matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of using the word ‘documentary’ – that said autism is caused by vaccination, and isn’t that amazing? Rolling my eyes, I said it might have been, twenty years ago before it had been thoroughly debunked and is now only believed by celebrities, crazy people, and whatever overlaps there are between the two. I proceeded to tell her all about the MMR scandal, and how, far from ruining his life, Andrew Wakefield is now a feted celebrity in America with no less than Elle Macpherson as a lover.

‘Elle who?’ she asked.

‘The supermodel? Nicknamed The Body? Magazine covers, catwalks, movies, TV? Was in Friends as Joey’s roommate? Ring any bells?’

‘No.’

‘Moving on.’

The next snafu was when she insisted that September 11 was an inside job and the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, which inspired this rant (9/11 – the Truth) a few weeks ago. In the course of that conversation, it became clear she didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, had never heard of Al-Qaeda, didn’t know why Palestinians might be upset with America, wasn’t aware of the previous attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993, had zero knowledge of how the Twin Towers were built, and thought that despite its name being the World Trade Center, it was residential. But no, she was convinced it was the naughty government that did it and nothing I said would change her mind.

Another time I discovered she had never heard of the Cold War, or the USSR, or knew that we pointed nuclear missiles at each other with our fingers hovering over the launch button for forty years. Her excuse this time gave me a nosebleed – ‘I wasn’t around then, it was before I was born.’

Yup, we can’t know anything that happened before we were born. Since I was born in 1979, I don’t know who The Beatles were; don’t know about the moon landings; slavery; the Holocaust; Queen Victoria; Vietnam; Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination; or Martin Luther King, Jr. If only there were some way I could discover information about the past, information I could access from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone signal, whether in written, audio or visual form…you can see how hard I had to work not to call her out on this bullshit!

When my manager asked me how things were going with her, I was honest. She’s a good worker, she’s good at her job, but oh my gosh I just want to scream at her for being so…I don’t know what word to use. If she was on a quiz show, I’d be shouting ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ and ‘dumb-ass’ at the screen, like I did this evening to the guy on The Chase who thought Charles de Gaulle was from the Middle Ages. But I don’t think she is ‘thick’, for want of a better word, just completely blissfully ignorant of anything you might expect a 30-something to know.

My manager told me I had to accept that not everybody is into the same things as me. Fair enough, I said: maybe she’s just totally cut off from politics so doesn’t know about Brexit; wasn’t properly trained, so doesn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism; has never heard of Elle Macpherson because she’s never opened a magazine; believes whatever rubbish people tell her as she has zero knowledge of geopolitics or structural engineering; and is unable to learn about the past without access to a time machine. Okay. It drives up my blood pressure, but I’ll find a way to get past it.

But I really struggled to hold my tongue when I discovered, in a conversation about the murder of Lyra McKee, that she’d never heard of the IRA.

‘The IRA.’ Blank stare. ‘The Irish Republican Army.’ Blank stare. ‘Oh my god, are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard of the freaking IRA? The Troubles? The army patrolling the streets? The bombings? The Guildford Four? The Birmingham Six? Bloody Sunday? They fired mortar bombs at 10 Downing Street. They killed the Queen’s cousin.’

‘When did it happen?’

‘Since the late 60s.’

‘Before my time.’

‘They blew up the BBC in 2001. You’d have been 14.’

‘No, I don’t remember that.’

Well, I got cross. I got cross because it frankly boggles my mind that somebody can live in this country and not know that for a period of thirty years, 3500 people were killed on our streets either for or because of the cause of Irish Republicanism. I got cross because I grew up in the 1980s, and even as a child was well aware of the risks of bomb attacks whenever I went to town, got on a train or saw an unattended bag. And I got cross because I was profoundly affected by the 1993 deaths of three-year-old Jonathan Ball and twelve-year-old Tim Parry, a boy almost the same age as me, killed by an IRA bomb planted in a town centre.

It more than boggles my mind – it offends me that somebody should be so ignorant. She will have come across it multiple times in her life – at school, on Remembrance Day, in films and books and music and everyday conversation. She knows all the words to Zombie by The Cranberries and has seen the music video, what the hell did she think that was all about? It means she’s chosen not to take it in, not to pay attention, not even to notice it, and whether it’s my autism or just me, I find that impossible to understand.

But the real bust up, the real head-to-head, came from something small and insignificant, as do all straws that break the camel’s back. It came when she picked up a roll of fly paper with the words Fly Paper on the side and said, ‘What’s this?’

‘Fly paper.’

‘What’s fly paper?’

‘You don’t know what fly paper is?’

‘No.’

‘Oh my god, have you spent your whole life living under a rock with your eyes closed, how the hell can you not know what fly paper is?’

‘Because I don’t, okay? And you having a go won’t change the fact that I don’t know what it is, so why don’t you just tell me?’

‘It’s sticky paper that you hang up to catch flies!’

And I won’t tell you what I said next. My manager tells me I need to be more tolerant of people who have had different life experiences than me. I get that, I do, but surely there are limits, right? I wouldn’t get annoyed with someone who has genuine reasons for their ignorance –  they have a learning difficulty, they have only just moved here from another country, they’ve been in a coma the past fifty years – but someone who is, by all accounts, ‘normal’ has no excuse or justification for being so ignorant.

Like I said, maybe it’s my autism or maybe it’s just me, but I cannot understand how people like this even exist – people who either don’t know or don’t care who’s running the country, don’t know about major things that are happening or have happened in the world around them, don’t even know about pop culture. What on earth do they do with themselves? What do they talk about with their friends? I don’t get why somebody would come across a word they don’t understand, or hear something referenced that they’ve not heard before, and not look it up. Do people do this? Go through life so happily ignorant that they simply skip over everything they see and hear that they don’t understand? How can they understand anything?

Let me put it this way. If you don’t know about politics (Brexit, Trump, the growing polarisation of society); current affairs (Climate Change, #MeToo, terrorism); pop culture (Star Wars, Kurt Cobain, Batman); high-brow culture (Jane Austen, the Mona Lisa, Picasso); science (medicine, plate tectonics, evolution); or history (Pompeii, the Crusades, Pearl Harbor); then what the hell do you know? And where have you been all your life? And why should I listen to anything you have to say? Because without knowledge to back it up, your opinions are worthless.

Hmm. So maybe I am remarkably intolerant of people who don’t share my opinions. Or maybe I just don’t suffer fools gladly.

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

A Toddler’s Social Understanding

The first eighteen-odd months of a child’s life, their social skills are fairly simple, given that they revolve around another person’s ability to meet their needs: ‘feed me or I’ll scream, too late, waaaaaahhhhhhh!’

Their first hand gestures – pointing – are merely to make it easier for you to meet those needs. ‘I want that. No, not that: that! What are you, a moron?’ At this stage, it’s difficult to argue that kids are social beings at all, given that they’re self-centred hedonists who think other people exist solely to satisfy their desires, and they only acquire social skills as a cynical ploy to better manipulate those around them. If they were bigger, we’d call them psychopaths, or perhaps ‘rock stars’. It’s a good thing they’re small.

Then things get a little less selfish. They start to understand the pleasures of giving and receiving affection, by kissing and hugging and asking to be held. Around the same time they discover it can be fun to share their enjoyment with others – playing basic games, singing interactive songs, dancing, joking and imitating the behaviours of others (making pretend phone calls, cuddling pretend babies, preparing pretend cups of tea). They start to make friends, or have people they prefer to be with and those they wish to avoid. And they even learn a few key words (hello, goodbye, please, ta) to facilitate their entry into the social world. So far, so simple.

And then, after about eighteen-months, their level of social understanding mushrooms so quickly you struggle to recognise the increasingly complex creature that you share your home with.

My daughter is at this stage, and it is a daily dose of crazy.

For example, she has discovered hierarchy. A month ago, the dog was just another person around the house – albeit a hairy, smelly, waggy-tailed person. Now my daughter has realised that the dog is a non-human animal, and thus lower in status in the household than she is. And that means she is in charge, and can tell the dog to ‘shush!’ and ‘down!’ and ‘g’way!’ And woe betide if the dog doesn’t do as he’s told. It’s like having a pint-sized drill sergeant wandering around the lounge, demanding obedience at every turn. ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ cries the dog. Poor thing. She’ll be shaving his head next.

My daughter has also discovered the joys of storytelling, which is incredibly cute and incredibly confusing given her lack of spoken language. The other day I asked her what she did at her grandfather’s.

‘Izza da bed, bong da whoosh!’ she said, swinging her arms around and spinning on one foot.

‘You did what?’

‘Da bed. Dee bosh tan dum bin bed. Da whoosh da bed, an bed, sa bed, whoosh.’

‘What about the bed?’

‘Inda ban bed,’ she said, bewildered that I couldn’t understand. ‘Da bed, whoosh, bong ta bed. Whoosh. Da bed ta whoosh!’

Nope. Ten minutes of this. Something about a bed, that’s all I got.

A phone call to her grandfather established that what she’d been trying to explain was that she had been jumping up and down on the bed all afternoon. So obvious (not)!

Now, storytelling is a complex skill involving careful selection and omission – knowing what to include and what to leave out. My daughter will spend ages talking about something that lasted two seconds, and the rest of the day won’t even get a mention. She also has a weird predilection for the more morbid aspects of a toddler’s experience.

It doesn’t matter what she’s done, where she’s been or for how long – ask her what she did and she’ll tell you how she hurt herself. You went to the beach today? She’ll rub her eyes to show she got sand in them. What did you do at the park? She’ll point to a graze on her knee. Did you see your aunt? She’ll indicate where she banged her head on the table. You do not want to babysit my little girl – you make the slightest mistake, she’ll act it out and tell me all about it.

And that’s another complex social skill she’s developed lately – the concept of blame. After I put her to bed the other night, I came downstairs with the monitor and started to write. After a while, I started to hear giggling through the speakers – child and adult. This went on for around fifteen minutes until I popped upstairs to see what was happening. My wife had climbed into the little one’s cot and they were playing peekaboo. Nice.

I stood and watched for a moment, such a lovely scene of innocent joy – and then my daughter saw me.

The change was instantaneous. The smile vanished, her face fell and she pointed at my wife. ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ she shouted, as though saying, ‘It was her, daddy, it was her!’ She then gestured over the side of the cot. ‘Mummy, bed, da bed, mummy,’ she said, which I interpreted as, ‘I told her to get out, daddy, but she wouldn’t go, it’s her fault, I didn’t want to, she made me, it wasn’t me!’ Forgetting, of course, that I’d stood there and watched her, and she was in every way an active participant in the game.

Scary how quickly she’d sell out her mother. Scary that she’s already developed a concept of behaviour and consequence. Even scarier that she sees my wife as a playmate and me as the lawmaker who’ll tell them off for messing about after lights out. I guess that answers the question of how she sees the hierarchy between her parents.

For the next few nights, every time I walked past her room I could hear fake snoring as she pretended to be asleep. At 21-months! What a devious little sod. And what a socially-complex kid compared to a couple of months ago.

You have to watch out for these toddlers. One day they’re crying for a bottle of milk; the next, they’re planting evidence to frame others for their misdeeds. If your kid is approaching eighteen-months of age, watch out: the next few months are going to be interesting!

I speak English, sort of

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you don’t want any pudding, do you?’

‘Yes.’

Dammit. ‘Yes, you don’t want pudding?’

‘No.’

My English teacher never taught me how to resolve this impasse!

First Words

One of the major milestones all parents look forward to is their child’s first word. After all, a spoken language is what distinguishes us from the rest of the intelligent apes, and the first word is the moment when your little bundle of neediness and poop becomes a fully integrated part of the human race. Every baby diary dutifully stipulates you must record this sacred first word, and people can often tell you what it was as it sinks into the familial consciousness as a treasured anecdote.

I’m finding it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Izzie talks. That is, she makes lots of babbling noises that she combines in long streams of phonemes. Every so often, she’ll therefore come out with something not simply resembling a word, but as clear a word as you’ve ever heard. By accident.

Do these random noises count as words? I bloody hope not. About five months ago when she was sitting on our bed, she looked at me, smiled, and said as plain as day, ‘Murder.’ When I was bathing her a month after that, she pointed at me, all innocent and sweet, and said, ‘Man-boobs.’ There’s no way in hell I’m writing that in her baby diary!

Then there are the words she uses that aren’t actual words. Whenever she sees my father-in-law’s dog she says, ‘Wo-wo,’ and does it consistently enough for us to know what she means. If a word is a bunch of sounds that carry a specific meaning that is used to communicate information, then ‘wo-wo’ is definitely her first word. But ‘wo-wo’ isn’t a word – at least, not in any language of which I’m aware.

And what about words she mispronounces? If you greet her and say, ‘Hello,’ she replies with, ‘Ay-oh’. There are two problems with this one. First, she’s simply repeating what you’re saying rather than volunteering the sound herself. Secondly, ‘ay-oh’ is not ‘hello’. So do these facts invalidate it as a word?

Anyway, what she can say seems, to my mind at least, far less important than what she can understand. It’s said that for every word they can say, a child understands ten. I think that’s an underestimate – Izzie seems to understand freaking everything.

Mummy, daddy, Nana, Granny, Poppa and Gramps are a given by this age, and there’s no doubting she knows her own name. Yes, no and don’t are also in the bag, even if she chooses to ignore them more often than not. And key events are well known – bedtime (rubs eyes), nappy change (runs away), bye-bye (waves).

More impressive are the actions. Most of them are quite simple, one-action commands. ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ will prompt her to seek it out. ‘Get it for daddy,’ results in her fetching it. ‘Put it in the box,’ will make her do just that, and she’s very good at ‘hands up’, ‘clap’, and ‘twinkle, twinkle’ (opening and closing fists).

Some, however, are far more complex. If you say, ‘Mummy needs to put on her shoes,’ she crawls over to a shoe, picks it up, brings it back, and tries to put it on mummy’s foot. Generally the wrong foot, but it’s still remarkable when you consider she can’t actually speak yet. Before you know it, she’ll be making daddy his morning coffee.

So if anyone asks, many years hence, about Izzie’s first word, it was ‘murder’, followed by ‘man-boobs’, ‘wo-wo’ and ‘ay-oh’. But until she says something like ‘mummy’, I’m leaving the baby diary blank!