The Language of Autism or “I’m Gonna BOOF You!
By Pamela Rundall Mari
When my son was almost 3, he spoke his first word.. Blue. Brought about by Blue’s Clues, the TV Show. Prior to his autism diagnosis a year later, I thought he was just a late talker. He would point to things and grunt. He would stand in front of the TV, gesturing in concert with “Steve” of Blue’s Clues uttering jargon with the same intonation as Steve.
The words came slowly. Blue, cake, ball. I used a technique called “recasting”. He would say “ball”. I would say “blue ball”. Repeat the word the child said but add on one more word. He would point to the cupboard and say in a demanding, frustrated tone “pretzel”,
“pretzel”. I got so frustrated at his lack of sentences I blurted “I WANT A PRETZEL”,
Holding the desired item in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He was so angry he finally yelled “I want a pretzel”. YES..HERE YA GO SWEETY.
Fast forward thirteen years. He is now 17. He never stops talking. Some of the problem though is that as much as 75% of what he says is “scripting”. Repeating phrases, whole conversations from video taped movies. He is capable of carrying on a brief conversation, if the topic suits him. He soon drifts back to the scripting again.
He makes up words, “neologisms” that represent other words to you or me. Example: If you bump into someone you have “BOOFED” them. “I’m gonna boof into you.” He refuses to say other words. TREE is leaves, branches, trunks and roots. Every time he needs to say the word tree. You can imagine how “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” sounds. “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Leaves, Branches, Trunks and Roots.“ A friend told me this description of a tree was also used in the Blue’s Clues show.
Bee is “makes honey lives in a hive”. Pretty becomes “beautiful”. Which is ok until you get to “that looks beautiful big”. Won’t say the number “four”. Holds up four fingers and says “this one”. Chicken is “hen that lays eggs and lives in a barn”. Something - (An aversive word for him - he gets horribly angry if you say “something”. He says “different than the other”.
There are also word rules with regard to exact phrases.
Example: French fries, not just fries
Hamburgers, not burgers (unless it’s the line from the movie Pulp Fiction - “this is a tasty burger”. That’s allowed.
Slippers are slippers and never to be referred to as shoes. The pretzels we buy in the “blue bag” are called “blue pretzels” and don’t you dare forget to say “blue pretzels”. It’s not the “Spongebob” Movie, it’s the Spongebob Squarepants Movie. No shortcuts.
You could say it’s creative. His own personal way of describing things. But for our family it is a major cause of distress. Let’s face it. How many times in a day do you say
“I have to go upstairs to get SOMETHING”. And Lord only knows how many times we have messed up and said “here’s your FRIES”. No sooner does it leave my lips do I realize what’s coming next. A major upset from my son. There’s no blurting things out at our house. You truly stop and think what you are saying.
But the bigger question is WHY? Why this self constructed set of rules with regard to words? “I don’t like that word” he will say. But that’s not the reason I believe. A friend and I have somewhat narrowed it down to the concept that “you” the “speaker” are using it out of the context he first heard it in. If he heard the words “down there” in a video where “Plankton” from Spongebob said “down there you moron”, you are not allowed to use that phrase unless you are repeating that script.
So does it become a matter of rigidity of thought? Is it his way of keeping things the same. The “sameness” which seems to be so important to our kids. The security of knowing what’s coming next. The unexpected, change is so scary.
I try so desperately to convince him that these “words” can be used in other ways. “Everyone is different” I tell him. We all speak differently. You cannot control what other folks say. If you don’t like what they say, then you can ask them “please don’t say that word” but you cannot let it upset you.
At school the use the “let’s drown him in the word’ technique. If he says he doesn’t like a word they go out of their way to say it, or even play a song with the word in the title or chorus. The thinking is that over exposure to the word will result in him not being offended by it eventually.
I honestly don’t have the guts for that method mainly because there is only one of me at home to deal with the meltdowns vs. six teachers/helpers/aides in the classroom. I’ve not been very successful to date to say the least. I tell him “words are just letters of the alphabet put together and letters cannot hurt you.”
I long for the day when the old “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a reality.
Or, am I barking up the wrong “leaves, branches, trunk and roots?