Decoding gestures

For anyone who struggles with the meaning of gestures (such as pointing, request for handshake, etc.) the world must be difficult to decode. For one thing, their meaning varies from culture to culture; for another thing, the different contexts in which a gesture appears at different times, or should not appear, within the same culture can be very subtle.

The okay symbol that we know in Canada and the U.S. — thumb and forefinger touching while three fingers are raised (👌) — came up in conversation after Pink Cup Sister sneezed rather forcefully in the car one day.

Frances: Are you okay?

Pink Cup Sister: (usesđź‘Ś symbol)

Frances: I don’t know what that means.

Pink Cup Sister: It means I’m okay.

(Frances struggles to imitate her sister using her middle finger instead of her index finger.)

I think this is where ageing can make features of HF ASD more distinct. Most children without ASD will probably know this particular symbol (đź‘Ś) by ten-and-a-half years of age.

But I can remember when Frances was five years old: she looked puzzled as one of Pink Cup Sister’s friends held a hand up to signify a high-five was being requested of her. At that point, Pink Cup Sister took Frances’s hand and high-fived the friend. Before any diagnosis was sought, I remember wondering if perhaps a five-year-old would be expected to know the symbol for a high-five. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected so.

When she was six, and visiting with her developmental paediatrician, I remember the doctor telling her that he needed to put batteries in the train that she was holding. He held out his hand, and Frances just looked at it and then continued to be interested in the train. He repeated that he needed to put batteries in the train and kept his hand extended toward her and the toy. She didn’t pick up that cue, and I realized that she didn’t know the gesture and wondered, then, too, if she would typically know it at her age. (I silently suspected that a child of six would usually respond by handing over the train.)

Not long after, Frances was diagnosed with HF ASD based on psychometric testing and lengthy physician-observed appointments. The diagnosis wasn’t a surprise to us, but certain features of ASD were only just becoming apparent or hadn’t even yet been revealed. 

It was becoming clearer to me that social difficulties could be quite profound and that they involved more than the verbal interaction with which she was (and is) struggling.

But now, as I listen to her play a passage of the Moonlight Sonata perfectly and with great sensitivity, I can hear her communicating using her fingers in a way that many her age could not yet manage.

Certainly, gestural and body language challenge her— such as when people point to instruct or inform Frances — but she thrives on decoding the language of music (whether by ear or by reading notation). 

And when she plays the piano, it seems as if she is encountering something mysterious and interpreting it for us using a beautiful and clear form of communication that she intuitively understands.

Advertisements

Dinosaurs, literally

One aspect of autism spectrum disorder that affects Frances is difficulty with figurative language or words that are not intended to be interpreted literally. As she ages, the difficulty becomes more pronounced but it doesn’t always involve idioms or euphemisms.

We were recently at an event for children with autism, and Frances was describing her proposed birthday theme of dinosaurs. It seemed like a good time for me to join in the conversation.

Me: We can have lots of dinosaurs at your party…

Frances: What?!?

Me: Sorry, images of dinosaurs.

Even though Frances would know intellectually that I did not intend to have dinosaurs at her party, the fact that I omitted “images of” in that sentence immediately left her thinking that I had said something nonsensical to her.

At any rate, in order to help her, I frequently use idioms, euphemisms, similes and metaphors intentionally in order to build her repertoire of non-literal language. Fortunately, there are also social dictionaries that include figurative language entries which may be of use to her as time goes on.

Heh heh…

Me: (on phone) I’m so sorry! I slept in. I never sleep in!

Frances: (shouting in the background) Yes, you do. You sleep in ALL THE TIME!

All the while, she is jumping up and down trying to get my attention so that I can realize my mistake…

Sorry. You’re right…

Frances: I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Mum, but it isn’t ‘bath time’.

Me: Oh, why not?

Frances: If it were ‘bath time’, I’d actually be in the tub right now. I think you mean that it is almost bath time. No offence.

I love her logic!

(She was six years old at the time and had just learned how to tack on ‘no offence’ at the end of her very honest observations. She still does this.)

Parting ways…

I have been teaching Frances how to say good-bye to someone at the door when she leaves the house. 

This is not something that has come naturally to her.

From the time that she could speak, there were no greetings or goodbyes for anyone entering or leaving our home; there was no acknowledgement whatsoever. Even leaving her at school met with silence.

In January 2014, something wonderful happened: I stood partially clad at my cold front door blowing kisses back and forth with Frances as she left for school. 

My daughter, who was six-and-three-quarters, had never blown me kisses before! Not once, even though I would blow her kisses; now she was doing it, and I was at once lost in the moment and aware of how joyously elated I was.

(To most people, such a typical demonstration of affection between mother and child would not merit a blog post.)

After that, as she left for her school day, she would occasionally say, “See you tomorrow!” I didn’t correct her. I thought it was cute, but, more importantly, I thought it was enough for the time being that she was aware that something needed to be said. That was a huge success!

One day, she said, “I get the impression that I’m supposed to say something else, but I don’t know what that is.”

At this point, I explained that she could say, “see you later” or “see you this afternoon”. She started using these phrases once in a while. 

Within the past year or so, at eight years old, she started to say “bye” or “see you later” after I said it. 

(And she still blows kisses to me.)

Well, does she?

  
Frances asks me to read Amelia Bedelia (by Peggy Parish) to her this afternoon.

Amelia Bedelia is a domestic helper who interprets language rather literally much to the initial chagrin of her employers.

  
For example, “undust the furniture” makes more sense than the instructions to dust the furniture do, but she dusts the furniture at any rate.

  
At this point, Frances asks: “Does she have autism?”

She, then, proceeds to show me how each page of our vintage copy differs from the more modern version in her classroom, right down to the period and the colour differences of objects depicted in the story’s rooms.

In the end, the owners of the house decide that Amelia Bedelia should remain in their employ and they adapt to her language difficulty.

Does Amelia Bedelia have autism? I don’t know, but Frances, who does not laugh throughout the reading, believes she does.