A couple years ago—hard to believe how long we’ve been at this—I lamented to Martin’s (then) biomed doctor that, while Martin’s behavior, sleep, and overall health had improved, I had not seen as much progress in his language. The doctor told me not to worry. “Language,” she said, “often comes last.”
I carried that mantra for a long time: Language comes last. When it took Martin so long to start asking questions, or to use the command form, or to pick up nuances and idioms, I thought, well, language is going to come last.
Or will it?
This year, Martin’s language is much improved. As I’ve written, his speech is not perfect. It often sounds scripted, or rote. Sometimes it seems like he’s exploring a foreign language: Unable to find the easiest or most direct way to express himself, he searches his capabilities and comes up with an unusual (original?) formulation. And his receptive language, his processing delays, still poses challenges; I might be explaining to Martin that we’re going out after lunch, only to have him melt down because he wants lunch, and the “going out” part has registered but not the “first, lunch” part. At his time, he still very much needs the intensive-language-based school program he attends.
That fact notwithstanding, Martin can speak. He speaks in sentences. He asks questions. He orders me around. When he’s not frustrated and mixing up his words, he can express himself, in a manner understood by most anyone who listens with care.
To that extent, language has come.
Language has come, and it did not come last.
Martin’s recovery has two additional, gigantic roadblocks that are not language, though language-related.
First, Martin still can’t “attend.” He doesn’t pay attention. He doesn’t listen. He talks when others are mid-sentence. Unless an activity is one he enjoys (music, eating, drawing), he shows little interest in what others are doing. And even when something does catch his attention, he doesn’t stay with it for long, except for example to stim by hitting one music key repeatedly, or to read his favorite book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, over and over.
Martin’s teachers have identified attending as his most significant challenge in the classroom; even with a 3:1 student-teacher ratio, he has trouble following. At home, the nanosecond attention span means it might take Martin 20 minutes to change clothes, because he gets distracted, or succumbs to boredom and starts complaining instead of dressing. It also keeps us from sharing experiences. If I say, “Oh, wow! Look at that bird!”, Martin might glance out the window, then jog away before I can comment on the bird’s color or size, or he might not look at all.
So language didn’t come last, because language has developed more than attention.
Second, Martin still has a lot of trouble socializing.
When we were in Austin around Easter, I arranged a playdate with “Stewie,” the six-year-old, typically developing son of a college friend. Martin and Stewie had never met, and Stewie was not informed in advance that Martin has challenges. We met at a crowded playground. The playdate went remarkably well. Although Martin was less interactive than an NT child would have been, he didn’t spend the playdate in his own world. Several times (some with prompting) he went to find and engage Stewie. He and Stewie stood together and gazed at an inchworm hanging on Stewie’s finger. When one family at the playground brought out a bubble pumper, Martin joined the other children, clapping his hands and chasing the bubbles. Stewie never even shot his mom that quizzical look that means, “Is there something different about this kid?”
The experience with Stewie gave me a sort of high. I texted Adrian: “Martin is having a playdate with a typically developing boy, and he’s doing FANTASTIC!”
But of course, in autism recovery, disappointments find a way to deflate any high, and four days after Martin played with Stewie, we had a much less successful playdate back in New York, with four classmates from Martin’s kindergarten. Martin attends a school for children with speech and language delays. About half the kids in his class also have autism or some other social impairment. By coincidence, none of the four boys other than Martin who attended this playdate had any social impairment. They are the social kids.
What happened was typical of what we experience when Martin attempts to play with more than one child at a time: Martin was left out. In a one-on-one situation, a playmate has few options other than to engage Martin. In a multi-kid situation, those without social impairments gravitate to each other, and away from the awkward boy.
Martin’s classmates, at the playground where we met, decided to fight dragons. They scampered about as a group, swinging imaginary axes, wielding nonexistent swords, screaming with excitement at the game they’d created.
Martin climbed on rocks and monkey bars. He went down the slide and wandered across the playground’s bridges. When I suggested that he join his classmates’ game, he approached the crowd and, using the social skills he’s been taught, ask shyly, “What are you doing?”
But the other boys were too boisterous and engaged to hear, and they ignored him.
Martin sat down, alone.
As he and I were walking to the car to return home, I asked, “How was the playdate? Did you have fun?”
My son responded, “No. I would like to do a playdate with only grown-ups.”
The next morning, Martin said he did not want to return to school. Thinking that he was experiencing end-of-spring-vacation blues, I tried cajoling him with his favorite subjects—“Do you think maybe you will have computer class today? What will you make in art class?”—and enumerating his classmates. “Do you think Christopher will be there? Are you looking forward to seeing Jack, and Quinn?”
When I finished my song-and-dance, Martin shook his head and said, “No. My friends at school don’t like me.”
Some defeats just crush your soul, don’t they?
So language didn’t come last, because language has developed more than socialization.
Which begs the question: What’s going to come last?
How will I know when we’ve reached our destination?