John Elder Robison is an author and public speaker who has Asperger's syndrome, which is often associated with autism. John describes his Asperger's as "mild autism". There is one particular speech of his that Eric and I have listened to where he describes a personal view of missed nonverbal communication:
"If you were a kid and you came up to me and you said, "look at my new picture book", I might say "I like astronomy". And that was not the response you wanted and you would try again and you'd say, "look, it's all about horses", and I would repeat "I like astronomy", and you would wander off. And as funny as those things are today every one of those failed encounters for me, carried with it a sense of real crushing sadness because each time I wanted to say the right thing. I wanted you to like me for whatever I had done. I wanted you to share your picture book with me but I didn't know how to respond to you in a way that would work".
In our family, we often hear pretty random remarks. Adults will get asked their favorite color, then their birthday, then their age (we're working on that one). That is how Calder knows how to greet others. But when the question comes to him "what is your favorite color?", first he'll tell you his favorite color and then tell you the birthdays of all his grandparents, and just when you think he's done, he'll continue and tell you what states they all live in. And that is the answer he may give you if you asked him his favorite color. Opening up in this way is relatively new to him. Soon he will learn about 'too much information'. His interest in others is growing and he does not yet know about social expectations. One day, his greetings will be seamlessly typical, but for now, I am really loving this endearing effort to engage and commune. It puts a big smile on my face.
I had picked Calder up from school the other day and as we were walking home I decided to remind him about an appointment we had later that day. We were going to visit a speech therapist whom Calder had not worked with yet. I was a little apprehensive because I had not prepared him much for it. "Calder, remember we are going to go home and have a snack then we are going to go play with Deb at Zoe's office". Waiting for his reply, which could have easily been a protest he says: "But, but, but, but, but, but"....here I am worried what he will say next. Usually the "buts" mean that he is not going to comply. "But, but, but, but tomorrow is Veteran's day". Huh? I was really taken aback by this on many levels. First of all where did he learn about Verteran's day? Next, why didn't I remember it was Veteran's day? *embarassing*, and lastly it has NOTHING to do with the appointment I was telling him about. I was so overcome with suprise all I could do was laugh and lavish in the awkward silly beauty of the moment. I let it go, and I assumed that somewhere in all those "buts" that he actually was o.k. with the appointment and just wanted to share with me the new thing he had learned in school that day.
I know his greetings with peers must be awkward. I'm sure some kid has walked away from him after attempting to engage him. I'm sure Calder may not have known quite what was expected of him. A missed opportunity? Would he be sad? I can't know that yet. It's a sober thought. But, Eric and I and Calder's therapists will make sure we teach him these social tools. Instead of an instinctual and direct social mechanism, he'll have learned a work-around. The end product will look the same, but the journey getting there will look different.