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Use your words

In the comment thread of the previous post, aanna_t asked:

When my kids were very little, I often had to ask them to "use their words" rather than just glowering. That really clicks with what you explain about your son.

To take that one step farther, might that phrase be a helpful tool with ASD, too? I teach one ASD student, and my best friend's son also has Asperger's. They seem frustrated so often... I wonder if this is one reason why.

How would your son react if asked to say what he is thinking? Do you think it would be helpful?


This is an interesting question.

Teachers and daycare workers use this phrase constantly in an attempt to have children in their care communicate verbally (rather than, say, hitting someone or throwing something), so it was a phrase my son did hear frequently. It wasn't even always directed at him. The tone of voice in which it was used was never threatening or angry.

However, as a phrase, half of its meaning is sub-verbal. "Use your words" means, if made explicit, "communicate your feelings with words rather than violence or screaming". In order to understand how to communicate one's feelings, one has to understand that they need to be communicated. And at a certain age, children don't understand this. Any child, not just a child with developmental delays. Most children will understand the unspoken parts of the phrase by the time they hear it a lot. They can fill in the half that's unspoken, and they can focus on the act of pleading their case.

But it requires a base understanding of the fact that what they know and what the other person knows is not the same. Also? Putting an emotional reaction into words is difficult; one is a response that is entirely sub-verbal; one is an intellectualization of the cause-and-effect followed by an explanation of that cause-and-effect. Asperger children are often (but not always) precociously verbal--on tests. They know and can use a much wider range of words than their developmentally normal peers at the same age.

This doesn't mean, however, that the knowledge of those words maps well to the ability to communicate their own thoughts. Could my son use longer, more complex sentences than most of his peers? Yes. Did this mean that he understood the words and sentences? Yes. But...

I've mentioned that my son never let me finish a book without asking a dozen questions about the logistics of the story. He was particular frustrated by Goldilocks and the three bears, because in his experience, small chairs did not suddenly collapse under you if you were too large for them. But no story escaped unquestioned.

There was one element of import I discovered through reading with him: He did not appear to be able to break sentences into their component words. So, when he was two, he would say "he was still hungry" (a phrase exactly from The Hungry Caterpillar) to mean he himself was hungry. He did not change the pronoun. As he learned more sentences, he would apply them -- in their entirety -- to the appropriate situation.

So it became clear that he understood what the sentences meant in the context of the story; it was not clear to him that what that sentence meant within the story could not them be applied wholesale to the non-story environment. This would not be a problem if he could separate the verb and add a different pronoun; he couldn't. The sentence was a whole unit, for him. (This is apparently an issue with motor-sequencing). "He was still hungry" described great hunger. My son could use simple sentences with the correct pronoun "I", but he did not use the phrase "I'm hungry".

(This might be because he almost never was; he hated eating with a passion. He would eat one bite of anything. If we were lucky, he would eat two. So if we had twenty-five different things at a meal, he would get enough food. Oddly enough, we didn't. Food was an issue.)

Because the sentence was a whole unit, if he flubbed one word or syllable in a long sentence, he would start again--at the beginning of the sentence. He would start again at the beginning of a paragraph, as well.

The phrase "use your words" was used a lot in junior and senior kindergarten -- but at the time, he couldn't parse it. He couldn't fill in the missing, sub-verbal bit. My son's junior and senior kindergarten teachers, as mentioned before, were shocked when they realized that he wouldn't tell them when one of the other kids had hit him with the wooden blocks; he didn't tell them because he assumed they already knew. Yes, it's theory of mind, or its distinct lack.

I tried for two years to get him to tell the teachers if something unpleasant happened; I tried to explain that they couldn't know what they couldn't see. But clearly, that made no sense to him on a very instinctive, visceral level--and, as any small child, when he was upset he reacted emotionally, not intellectually.

So the phrase had no meaning for him until much later.

My son did not like to be asked what he was thinking, either. It made him uncomfortable. In part it made him uncomfortable--and this is entirely a guess on my part, as so much of our early parent-child interaction was--because he hadn't yet found words/sentences/constructions that resonated with the internal and as yet poorly grasped instinctive reactions. He understood--dimly--what the question was asking, but he had no way at all of answering it that made sense to him.

So yes, using words - that was the important lesson that had to be learned; but the basis of actually doing what that phrase implied was something that was beyond his grasp until he was at the edge of the epiphany: What he knew and what other people knew were not the same thing.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
lyssabits
May. 28th, 2011 06:28 am (UTC)
He would eat one bite of anything. If we were lucky, he would eat two. So if we had twenty-five different things at a meal, he would get enough food. Oddly enough, we didn't. Food was an issue.

Argh, my one-year-old is like this. I know my husband sometimes worries, there's a hot spot of austism here in the Bay Area that he attributes to the concentration and inter-breeding of all his fellow techies in Silicon Valley. (He's half convinced he may have a problem himself, but I think that's just a result of being the only introvert in a family of extroverts and being told for decades that he's abnormal.) I'm not worried as much about what it might mean about his mental development as much as I am about his physical development. Kid's about to fall right off the weight and height curves if he doesn't start friggin' eating... Oddly enough, I also don't provide 25 different things for him to eat. ;) Who has time for that?? The day he stops breastfeeding is going to suck, that's pretty much the only thing he'll eat reliably and happily. And that he can't throw over the side of his high chair.
(Deleted comment)
lyssabits
May. 28th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah I'm not worried about him being on the spectrum. ;) If for no other reason than he clearly lacks the motor development delays that usually accompany that based on how I found he'd climbed up onto the arm of the couch so he could lean over and grab the votive candles off the MANTLE. At 13 months. Little monkey. He started walking at 11 months, so he seems fine. ;)

I am worried about him being short though, so it's good to hear that your picky eater grew up to be tall and healthy. It's just been hard to watch him steadily drop from being 20th percentile when he was born to 3rd percentile at a year. Someone has to be 3rd percentile, if he had started small and stayed small I wouldn't care but.. He's been a terrible eater since he was born. I can only assume this behavior will continue. *sigh*
domynoe
May. 29th, 2011 02:36 am (UTC)
My understanding is that food is an issue for most autistic kids—it's one of the sensory issues they deal with. I remember when Taz only liked maybe half a dozen things, and now that I think about it, most of them were soft foods: mac 'n cheese, pb&j sandwiches, etc. His reaction to food changed over time, but we had to insist he try things and eventually food didn't become such an issue. The first time we knew we were making progress is when we bought a bunch of taco specials and he ate nearly two dozen. No, seriously. We were laughing because he was on the last one and was having so much trouble that we finally told him he didn't have to finish it.

Which I think was another problem with food: I think maybe he was hesitant to try food for a long time because he thought if he didn't like it, he'd have to eat it all because he'd started it. Once he realized he could eat what he liked and only had to take a bite or two of new things, unless he liked it, we had a much easier time of it.

Now that he's 18, we're not having too many food issues unless: a) one of his sisters indicates she doesn't like it or b) it's too spicy. We try to be very careful with the seasoning to avoid the latter.
iamshadow
May. 28th, 2011 07:05 am (UTC)
As an Aspie adult, a highly verbal one at that, can I just say that when I am agitated or upset, being asked to verbalise what I'm feeling is often counter-productive. High emotion or frustration causes what is in essence a traffic jam between brain and mouth. I literally can't force the words out. And being asked to talk, being asked to verbalise, compounds my frustration no end, because I know if I could say what I'm feeling, it would make things easier, but that pathway is broken at that point in time. Repeated questioning is a sure-fire way to provoke a meltdown.

If it's just over-sensitivity or stress that are inducing it, often time and space without someone 'hovering' for a response is enough to get over it, and I can come back ten, fifteen minutes, half hour later and explain what the issue was.

If it's an emotional crisis that needs expression to relieve it, I can sometimes type if I can't talk. It's a different pathway in the brain, which is why people without functional speech due to autism or aphasia or apraxia or auditory processing disorder (or combination of these) can often communicate through typed speech, PECS or electronic communication devices but not spoken language.
beccastareyes
May. 28th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
As an Aspie adult, a highly verbal one at that, can I just say that when I am agitated or upset, being asked to verbalise what I'm feeling is often counter-productive. High emotion or frustration causes what is in essence a traffic jam between brain and mouth. I literally can't force the words out.

This. It's one reason why I'm thankful all the psychologists I've worked with don't mind me waiting to speak or babbling because I can't figure out how to verbalize things. I'm not always aware of why I feel the way I do, so it helps in the long term, but I can't make it go faster, so it's kind of bad in the short term.
kuangning
May. 28th, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
I am not Aspie -- or at least not diagnosed Aspie; I looked at my Aspie son and know perfectly well where many of his behaviours came from -- and this describes me too. I can tell you perfectly well what I was feeling and why, once I'm past it. I can describe with high accuracy how some future situation will feel. But when I'm highly upset in the moment, you will get no spoken explanation from me. To this day, I prefer to have emotional discussions in text rather than speech; my fiance hates it, but he's learned to work with it, because it's better than the alternative, which is me raging or crying silently and not responding to questions.
finnyb
May. 28th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
Yes! Yes, to all of this! (Is partly why I prefer the internet to talking to people in person or on the phone--typing or writing to get words out makes it far more likely that what I actually want to express will appear, than talking does.)
salanth
May. 28th, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
Hm, traffic jam. Fascinating. Yeah, I often shut down and that gets people frustrated at me, since I don't respond. Yelling at me won't make me react! Great description! I understand better now.

I'm just an ordinary introvert with other issues here, but I love all this analysis. Thanks everyone!
(Anonymous)
May. 28th, 2011 07:38 am (UTC)
おい、るる。
chrysoula
May. 28th, 2011 07:46 am (UTC)
"You want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into a real square."
These days I've started saying, "Who wants it?"
"/I/ want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into a real square, /please/."
"Ok, I'll make you a peanut butter sandwich."
"A peanut butter and JELLY sandwich cut into a real square!" (or sometimes a 'special square all sealed up')

At almost four, he still doesn't understand the question 'why'. He now has an answer for when I ask him what he's thinking about, but since it's usually 'planets', which he's fixated on, I'm not sure he understands the question.

I wonder some about the difference in diagnostic criteria between 'high functioning autism' and 'Asperger's'.
msagara
May. 28th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
At almost four, he still doesn't understand the question 'why'. He now has an answer for when I ask him what he's thinking about, but since it's usually 'planets', which he's fixated on, I'm not sure he understands the question.

The "Why" question would send my son into a meltdown for years. It had a 50/50 chance of sending him into a meltdown when he was eight. It was, of all the questions we could ask, the one he loathed the most.

In retrospect, this makes sense. Why implies an understanding of internal causality, an ability to both follow the steps from the beginning to the end (action, reaction) and to explain them to someone who isn't living on the inside of his head. The need to explain to someone is something that doesn't even make sense until you've developed theory of mind.

The good news is, theory of mind does come, and my almost-eighteen year old is actually pretty damn good at answering the Why question, now. But, well. 18 seemed like an incredibly long way away when he was four.
zingerella
May. 29th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
One of the really useful things I got out of one of the parenting books I read when I was trying to get a handle on a challenging phase was the notion that "why" is a difficult question for most, if not all, kids to answer, and that asking it just plain doesn't work up until they're about 8 - 10, depending on the kid. So it stands to reason that it would be an even more difficult question for a kid whose theory of mind developed more slowly.

Apparently "why" is a grownup question. I'd never really thought about that.
joycemocha
May. 29th, 2011 12:05 am (UTC)
As near as I can understand, much of the difference comes down to significant pragmatics language dysfunction. While "Asperger's" was used in relation to my son's diagnosis, in reality, based on his level of dysfunction (at age five, speaking in very short, uncomplicated sentences, pretty much subject, verb, object, bottom 1 percentile on a language pragmatics test), I'd say he was high functioning autism, not Asperger.
msagara
May. 29th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC)
While "Asperger's" was used in relation to my son's diagnosis, in reality, based on his level of dysfunction (at age five, speaking in very short, uncomplicated sentences, pretty much subject, verb, object, bottom 1 percentile on a language pragmatics test), I'd say he was high functioning autism, not Asperger.

Asperger's at one point was frequently used interchangeably with the phrase "high functioning autism"; I have no idea how that's changed, though. When my son was diagnosed, Asperger's was part of the PDD spectrum (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), which also included ADD and ADHD and a number of other things. At some point between then and now, terminology and classifications changed, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) began to be used instead. Asperger children are not always precociously verbal; my son was.

But I've seen ASD children who, when they are willing to interact, are much more socially compliant or comfortable than my oldest son (will, for instance, come running to the door when they hear it open, will greet people or interact with people in a room); they are often not interested in interaction.
capplor
May. 28th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
I read this to understand younger kids
Quite a bit of what you write, I recognize as happening with 2 -4 year olds. For that age child, people expect "strange behavior" but most don't consider that it might be perfectly logical and possible for an adult to understand. One thing that fits, that you haven't mentioned. At one point we were getting frustrated, because the kid KNEW she was supposed to ask (permission or something) but seemed to have no concept of whether the adult being asked was in the room, or paying attention, or capable of understanding a whisper/mumble. Theory of mind? (You ever see that with your son?)
msagara
May. 28th, 2011 07:43 pm (UTC)
Re: I read this to understand younger kids
At one point we were getting frustrated, because the kid KNEW she was supposed to ask (permission or something) but seemed to have no concept of whether the adult being asked was in the room, or paying attention, or capable of understanding a whisper/mumble. Theory of mind? (You ever see that with your son?)

Until my son was four and a half, he did not acknowledge us when we came home from work (or anywhere else). We would still, of course, say hello and give him a hug, but unless he was specifically waiting for one of us to get home because he needed us to do something Right Now, he didn't turn, didn't say hello back, didn't smile.

He knew we were home. When we were leaving, we had to say good-bye; he also didn't acknowledge this. BUT, on the one day my mother insisted I leave without saying good-bye "because it's not like he notices it anyway" -- and I did, against my better judgement -- he ran to the door when it closed on me and then stood there screaming his lungs out for an hour. (And after that, my mother never, ever let me leave without telling him first, because she was the babysitter and had to try to console him for that hour). He was aware of both the good-bye and the hello; he understood on some level that it was his emotional due, if you will -- but connecting that to any response on his own part? Not so much.

finnyb
May. 28th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
I'll be thirty next month, and I still can't put emotions into words most of the time. Don't even know what most of these emotion-things are, only wish they'd go away. They're annoying and uncomfortable.

And always, if someone asks me how I'm doing, the answer is "I'm here." Simply can't manage other words to answer that question. Feels too much, invasive, just too much (rather like with eye contact--which is so-so with strangers but near impossible with anyone I care about).

But yes, saying something along the lines of "use your words" to me, either when I was a kid or now would not work very well. Even once I understood the question in its entirety, I wouldn't necessarily be able to answer it. Though I am very verbally-oriented--I was scoring in the college/university-range on standardized tests by the time I was six or seven--I have great trouble putting my thoughts and feelings into words. Also, frequently when I'm saying something, the wrong word will come out, such as when I famously told the husband I wanted pancakes for Christmas, when what I meant (and thought I'd said, until he drew my attention to the actual words) was that I wanted pancakes for breakfast.
reneekytokorpi
May. 30th, 2011 07:22 am (UTC)
This is so helpful, and I'm very grateful that you're sharing. While I'm not familiar with Asperger's or Autism, my family struggles with my brother's Kleinfelter's and your insights are helping me explain things in new ways. They're not related disorders, but the coping skills and ways you approached things give us fresh things to try to clear up confusion. Thank you!

An unrelated side question: with food, does it appear to be a flavor or texture issue? Does color play in at all that you know of?
msagara
May. 30th, 2011 07:50 am (UTC)
An unrelated side question: with food, does it appear to be a flavor or texture issue? Does color play in at all that you know of?

It was two things. Texture was half of it. Smell was the other. He was extremely smell sensitive, even as an infant, to the point where he would start screaming his lungs out the minute I *opened* the door at the photo development store a few blocks away. He identified people by scent, as well.

I remember when I had been forced to change my deodorant, because the one I'd been using had been discontinued. He was just under four years old at the time, and he asked me:

"Mom, why do you smell terrible?"

(I said, "Not terrible. Different." He repeated the question he'd asked, because of course, different was terrible.)

Having said that? He loved olives. I can't stand them because of the strength of smell and taste; he could.

Colour played, as far as I can tell, no part in it at all; the only time appearance mattered was if something "familiar" looked different. Taste mattered only in minor ways. If he ate a cake that *looked* like it should be delicious, and it wasn't, he'd stop eating it, but never in a forcible way.
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