Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Charlie Brown Christmas

We thought it was time to introduce Ben to our favorite Christmas television experience, A Charlie Brown Christmas, this year. So Chris brought it home on DVD, and a board book adaptation of it.

Ben relates to anything more easily if he learns about it first in a book, so this pairing seemed like the optimal experience. We read the book a couple of times, then watched the show. Ben sat with the book in his lap, reading the book-specific expository passages aloud, things such as, "Charlie Brown and Linus went to a Christmas tree lot," at the appropriate moment in the video.

Watching this with Ben was a very different viewing experience than I ever had before. I was quite uncomfortable with how mean the kids are to each other. I was concerned about Ben mistaking Lucy for a role model. I was hyper-aware of how much of the dialog is ironic and satirical. These are types of humor that will not register on Ben's radar for a very long time.

On the plus side, the Vince Guaraldi score is first rate and Snoopy is hilarious in every frame.

The part Ben liked the best, not surprisingly, was Linus' recitation of the Christmas story from Luke. He sat motionless, leaning forward. He asked to see it 3 or 4 times. He seemed entranced by the drama of when the shot pulls back to the empty auditorium and Linus stands lit by the spotlight.

He must have recognized a kindred spirit in Linus - a precocious little boy who needs to suck on something, and recites sophisticated stories from memory.

Linus.jpeg

Unfortunately, Linus' entire speech is not included in the book. I think I'll make a transcript so he can learn it and we can have our own little Christmas pageant in the living room.

And I'll be the Christmas Queen.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

And More Echolalias

After the recent Echolalias post, Chris was reminding me that there are two more subtypes of echolalia that I forgot to mention.

Comedic Echolalia

A subtype, really, of Musical Echolalia, where Ben repeats a phrase over and over because he thinks it’s funny. Unlike Echolalia as Laugh Line, he does this merely for his own enjoyment and not to elicit a response from us. A current favorite includes the expression, “Yeechhh!” from the Thomas story, Dirty Objects. Earlier this summer it was, “Oh man, that’s GOOD Ben!” which his cousin Liam said while they were drinking water from the lawn sprinkler one day.

Catch Phrase Echolalia

Ben attaches catch phrases to many of the people in his life and repeats the catch phrases incessantly when those people are around. Usually the catch phrases are based on something the person says Ben finds funny.

Grampy Bill’s catch phrase is “Yuck!” after a game that he and Ben once played that involved shouting this and throwing pillows.

Grandma’s catch phrase is “You’re a little dickens!” which is something that she says that he finds wildly funny.

Grandpa’s is a falsetto, “Boo!” which he has said to Ben since he was an infant.

Nana’s catch phrase is, “Yo baby, yo baby, go, go go!” which was a song she made up about his yogurt one day.

His cousin Liam’s catch phrase is “I like to move it, move it,” based on some pop song that I don’t know because I am over 18.

His friend Oliver’s catch phrase is “No!” after a game they played when they were barely two years old that involved running around the house, shouting “No!” and laughing uproariously. It was captured on video at the time, which only adds to its staying power.


His friend Justice’s catch phrase is “Bye, bye, Boopity!” for reasons that escape me entirely.

What distinguishes this kind of echolalia is that it's clearly about intimacy and relationship. He uses these catch phrases to connect with people and show that he cares about them, not having the language or behaviors that would accomplish this in a more typical way. The catch phrase is an attempt to communicate that the person is special, memorable and within his inner circle.

The adults love it. His friends and cousins are starting to find it a bit mystifying and perhaps even a bit annoying, but seem to humor him the way that people humor the office comedian or class clown who has a nickname for everyone.

Perhaps they’ll understand one day that it’s the ultimate term of endearment.


Where do we go next? The Death Star!!

The latest story/character mash up involved casting Dora and friends in the story of Star Wars. An excerpt:

Dora, Ben and the Droids boarded Han's ship, the Millenium Falcon, with Boots hot on their trail.

This was during a 4:30 a.m. recitation of Chris' vintage 1979 Star Wars read-a-long book.



Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Echolalias

One of the behaviors that got Ben his autism checkmark on the school district's special education eligibility form was echolalia.

Echolalia is the repetition of vocalizations made by another person like so:

Q: What do you want for breakfast?

A: What do you want for breakfast?

This repetition can occur after some lapse of time, too, and this is referred to as delayed echolalia. This phrase is used to describe the seemingly random repetition of TV commercials or overheard conversations common to many individuals with autism.

In Ben’s case, echolalia is not a random tic. Over time, I’ve observed his echolalia having many different functions. In fact, Ben’s echolalia is a kind of Swiss army knife of communicative intent. Here are just a few of the subtypes of echolalia I’ve invented via observation.

Contextual Echolalia

Ben uses other people’s words to communicate when he doesn’t have words of his own. He quotes a story in the appropriate context to communicate something. So appropriate, in fact, that if you don’t know the story, you’d never realize that he has an expressive language delay.

For example, when he has to use the potty these days, he says breathlessly, “I REALLY have to go the bathroom!” It sounds totally appropriate, and is. But what you probably wouldn’t realize if you are anyone other than me or Chris is that he is quoting a Caillou episode. And that up until a few weeks ago he said the line verbatim, which is, “Sarah – I REALLY have to go to the bathroom.”

Now he’s dropped the “Sarah” as if taking training wheels off a bike.

Musical Echolalia

Sometimes, Ben’s delayed echolalia seems like the equivalent of humming a tune. Right now, for example, he’s walking around saying this over and over: “A hot and sunny summer’s day: Click on the clothes you want Elmo to wear for this weather!” This is an audio clip from an online computer game. He’s smiling like crazy and it appears that he just really likes the sound of it.

Humming or singing in the car or the shower is something done for one’s own amusement and pleasure. It makes me wonder: if Ben sang all of his books and stories rather than recited them, would the behavior be viewed as indicative of a disorder? I know people who are constantly singing one song or another at random and it can be charming to mildly annoying, but they don’t get a DSM IV classification for it.

Reverse Echolalia

About nine months ago, Ben was doing this a lot: He would recite a story and after each line he would look at us and prompt us to repeat the line. If we either didn’t repeat it, repeated it incorrectly, or tried to redirect him, he would continue to say it over and over prompting us more urgently, almost obsessively, to repeat after him.

I remember walking around a petting zoo last spring, with him tugging at my pants and insisting that I repeat each line from Dr. Seuss’ ABCs. My attempts at redirecting were met with an almost panicked insistence.

Chris captured a video of this reverse echolalia at the time. Here, Ben is getting me to recite part of Time of Wonder for him. He’s not doing this because he doesn’t know the story and wants to hear me tell it. He clearly knows it better than I do and is correcting me, for example, when I say began instead of begins.

I’m not sure why he used to do this. Was he simply enjoying exerting control? Was he compensating for his poor diction at the time by asking to hear the line as he knew it should sound rather than his own approximate pronunciation? Was he using me as a CD player or an instrument to “play” the sounds he wanted to hear?

This obsessive reverse echolalia continued for some months until he learned how to act out a story. Now rather than just enlisting us to say the lines, he casts us in re-enactments of stories, which, while it appears a more developmentally-appropriate behavior, is no less obsessive or controlling.

Echolalia On-Demand

I admit that as a mom, I’ve used immediate echolalia to my advantage in situations where I want Ben to appear polite. I’ve surreptitiously whispered in his ear at the library check-out counter “Say ‘Thank you for the library books.’” He obliges, and the librarian inevitably says, “My, what a lovely young man!”

I smile smugly, racking up “good mom” points in public – even if it clearly involves cheating.

Echolalia as Laugh Line

Lately, his delayed echolalia seems like a way to engage us and sometimes even make us laugh. He’ll look at us with a mischievous expression and recite some line with a big knowing smile on his face. Then he waits for a reaction in a Buddy Hackett sort of way. It reminds me of how Chris’ high school friends would quote movie lines without explanation or context, knowing that none was needed; that just saying the line would elicit a laugh.

Last night, when I brought him some bread and butter at dinner he said in a British accent, “I do like little bit of buttah for my bread,” a line from the poem, The King’s Breakfast by A. A. Milne.

He was grinning like mad, waiting for me to laugh. I do so hope he never outgrows this.

Run-on sentence

Uttered this morning as I instructed Ben to hand over his chomper (pacifier) which is only for sleeping, before he played with his trains:

I want to play with trains and have my chomper in my mouth at the same time like in the Pinocchio book when Pinocchio has a candy cane and a lollipop in his mouth at the same time.

Given that Ben often struggles to put just a few words together into a coherent sentence, I was pretty impressed, and let him have his chomper for one extra minute.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Fever

The thermometer read 104.4 degrees earlier today. Ben lay in bed: lethargic, in and out of restless sleep.

At one point, there was a sudden loud noise in the house. After a few beats, Ben said, barely in a whisper, “Did you hear that?”

Whenever Ben has a fever, he almost always says or does something that startles me – something that comes out of nowhere and seems like a developmental leap for him. Chris and I have remarked on these incidents since he was an infant, only half joking, that fevers make him smarter.

Coincidently, a study came out yesterday that confirmed anecdotal evidence that fever may temporarily improve behavior of children with autism disorders.

It wasn’t the first time that someone else had confirmed my sense that fever has a strange and noticeable effect on Ben. A few months ago, I was fascinated to read a discussion on the Hyperlexia Parents Network newsgroup where many parents wrote about their mostly non-verbal children suddenly becoming loquacious in the throes of a fever.

The change that I see is subtle; not the same “awakening” reported by parents of children who are on the severe end of the spectrum. During these last few days of on-and-off fever, for example, Ben was up in the middle of the night, wide-awake and reciting stories, which is not so unusual. But he was adding improvised, spontaneous commentary to his lines that I hadn't heard before. When he was playing with trains and reciting Thomas stories, several times he looked over at me and added, "Hey, Mommy" or "Look, Mommy" before the lines, almost as if he was telling me about the story rather than reciting it in his own world.

In general, it also seemed like he was making more eye contact and that he was more often talking to me rather than talking near me.

Then there was the “Did you hear that?” question.

But it’s not like he becomes a sparkling conversationalist once the thermometer goes above 100. When the fever broke, the first thing he did was leap up and start quoting lines from a Dora episode.

While fever may temporarily lessen the characteristics of autism, luckily for me there is nothing that will ever lessen the characteristics of Ben.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Time of Wonder (or, I Am A Camera)

One of my favorite books that Ben and I enjoy reading together is Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, a Caldecott winner from 1957.

Like many of McCloskey’s books, it’s set in Maine. The text is a lyrical description of spending summers on one of the many small islands off the coast. The illustrations are beautiful watercolors.

I vaguely remember it from the library shelves of my own school library, but frankly, it was the kind of “pretty” book I ignored or avoided, gravitating towards things that were funny, weird, scary, or preferably, all three.

Ben became interested in it after reading Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal, and especially after seeing the Scholastic video collection with film adaptations of all three. I thought he would be bored with the slow, dreamy pace, but he loved it.

The other night, he was watching the video, holding the book in his lap, and as always, astutely checking the fidelity of the video adaptation with the text and pictures in the book.

The story closes with a description of leaving the island for the summer and I always feel a little lump in my throat as the narrator reads, “Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea…” as if I summered in Maine and I’m experiencing real nostalgia for Spectacle Island, Blastow’s Cove and Eggemoggin Reach.

During this last passage, Ben, who was sitting on my lap, leaned back into my chest and nuzzled the back of his head against me. I felt like we were having this tender, emotional experience of the story together.

Then I realized, he was just being a camera: pulling back from the page in the book, exactly like the camera does in the film adaptation.

He now does this with almost any book that has an accompanying video adaptation – his own physical re-enactment of the “Ken Burns Effect.” (Though most of these films were made when Ken Burns was barely a kid shooting his army men with a super 8 camera in his backyard, it is an apt description for the style.)

As Ben reads the book he brings it close to his face to mimic the zooms, the close-ups. He runs his head along the page to mimic the pans. He sits back to return to a wide shot. He knows these movements the way he knows the text, and he asks to hear parts of the story over and over so he can perfect the timing of his tracking shots and cutaways.

I’ve also seen him doing this more frequently with his train set – holding his head in the right place to recreate the camera angles from the videos. This explains why he has always played with his trains lying prone on his stomach with his eyes a few inches from the engine faces. It explains why he drags his head along floor next to the track. He’s doing a dolly shot with head.

This odd and amazing skill, combined with having a dad who is a video maker creates one inevitable trajectory: eventually Ben and Chris will make videos together. The first ones will probably be faithful remakes of Thomas videos (already a You Tube genre, by the way) or maybe remakes of book adaptations from the Scholastic DVDs, like Time of Wonder. In any case, I can’t wait for the premiere.

IMG_5147.jpg
In tight for a closeup...

IMG_5150.jpg
Back out to check the video...

IMG_5151.jpg
...and pan right.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

How to Play Candyland (Ben's Rules)

1. Run your gingerbread man game piece along the colored path like it’s a train on train tracks.


2. Recite lines from the story, The Gingerbread Man: "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me – I’m the gingerbread man!"


3. Repeat this line at least a dozen times.


4. Now recite a portion of the story, The Stinky Cheese Man (a satire of The Gingerbread Man.) Enlist Mommy to be the old woman in the story. Insist she pretend she is making your face out of olives and a slice of bacon, per the text.


5. Ignore Mommy’s questions about the color of the squares on the card she’s holding.


6. Read the names of all the picture locations on the game board.


7. When you get to the Molasses Swamp, get your stuffed animals and have each of them cross the swamp and act out the scene from the Backyardigans show “Pirate Treasure” where the characters cross a bubbling mud pit.


8. Walk out of the room to another activity. Leaving the game board, the cards, the game pieces and Mommy behind.


9. You win!

Elapsed time: 5 minutes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Picky Eater

It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m thinking about how nice it would be if Ben were to sit at the dinner table later and eat turkey, potatoes and gravy with everyone else. But I know this won’t happen.

I used to feel anxious about Ben’s picky eating habits and that I was responsible. After all, parental advice – the kind you find in magazines and on morning television news segments – tells us children simply need the right introduction to healthy foods. Put a happy face on the lentil patties, provide a dip with the carrot sticks, make little sailboats out of the sweet potato wedges, start calling the broccoli “pixie trees” and kids will happily eat up.

In other words, it’s your fault if your kid won’t eat vegetables because you just aren’t being creative enough.

The director of Ben’s Montessori pre-school, in her letter to parents describing the school's policy on healthy lunches1, indicates that she believes this, too.

If you find your child will not eat fresh fruits and vegetables, try taking them on a trip to the Berkeley Bowl. Allow them to see, touch and smell the many varieties of fresh produce that are available. It is a fun experience as well as educational and it will help you tune into your child’s likes and dislikes as well as supporting their own adventure into personal tastes.


Now, for those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area, you may not know that one of our major religions is Food. And one of the places of worship for this religion is The Berkeley Bowl, which is basically just a huge supermarket that sells an astonishing variety of organic and locally grown produce. Many people around here – including this preschool director2 - have a sort of mystical attitude toward this place – that shopping there can cure cancer and create world peace and make preschoolers eat vegetables.

Please. No toddler I know is capable of feeling reverence for The Berkeley Bowl like your typical grownup Northern California foodie. And I seriously doubt that if I took Ben to the Berkeley Bowl – rather than, say, Safeway – to help pick out our produce, he would not suddenly be interested in kale, butternut squash and mission figs. Even if they were grown by an independent farm collective outside of Petaluma and picked just this morning.3

In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, children at this age are actually equipped with a tendency of neophobia, or the fear of eating anything unfamiliar. It makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary point of view. A three-year-old cave kid is running around the forest out of view of the cave mom. He encounters a mushroom or berry bush. Luckily, he has an inborn instinct to prevent him from putting these things in his mouth.4

This provides a satisfying explanation for Ben’s behavior of not showing interest or curiosity in any food that he hasn’t eaten before.

And there’s another reason I’m no longer worried about his eating habits. The teachers at his special education program he attends every morning are actually impressed by Ben’s eating – both the amount and the variety. “That kid can EAT!” noted the speech therapist.

So when I thought Ben was picky, it was just because I wasn’t comparing Ben to the right peer group. Compared to his ASD friends – kids who only eat things shaped liked circles, only eat foods that are white, only eat food that can be picked up with their fingers – Ben is a regular gourmand. “He eats fruit!” his teacher told us recently, clearly amazed.

Now I’m finishing this post on Thanksgiving night, and I can report with a great deal of satisfaction and surprise that earlier today our neophobe ate an entire slice of heretofore unknown pumpkin pie.5

______________________________________

1. The policy is entirely sensible, by the way.

2. Granted, this is the same woman who suggested that maybe we could have Ben imagine the sound of a flute to get him to calm down when he felt frustrated.

3. We do, for the record, go to Farmer's Markets to get much of our produce and Ben gets that fruit does not come in cans or wrapped in styrofoam.

4. The article says that neophobia wears off starting around age 5 or 6, or as I have observed in close friends and family members, around age 30. Besides, you really have to be a mature adult to have the courage to even try swiss chard. I mean c’mon – who likes that stuff?

5. Which, according to various internet sources I found, has anywhere between 79% and 157% of the daily recommended requirement of vitamin A.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pretending to be normal

I’ve noted a few times on this blog, I think, that while Ben has always had an intense interest in books, he has never interacted with them in a typical way. By typical, I mean the way that small children point to things in books and ask about them or make observations about them. “The monkey fell in the water!” or “What’s that?” or “Who’s that man?”

So I was surprised when Ben did exactly that the other night, but in an extremely unusual context.

It was bedtime and Ben asked if we could read Hush Little Baby, a very sweet board book by Sylvia Long that we’ve had since he was born. The illustrations show a mother rabbit putting her little rabbit to bed, set to a riff on the Mockingbird song. For example, “If that teddy bear won’t hug, momma’s going to catch you a lightning bug.” and so on.

Ben wanted to act out each illustration, having me pose with him to reproduce the scenes in the book. We shushed each other, we looked up at the evening star, and then when the text read, “When that star has dropped from view, momma’s going to read a book with you,” Ben hopped off my lap and grabbed an entirely different book – Five Little Pumpkins by Dan Yaccarino – and brought it to me.

He opened it and looked right into my eyes, smiled brilliantly, pointed to the page and asked,

“What’s that, Mommy?”

“It’s a happy pumpkin.”

He pointed again, even more enthusiastically, “What’s that?”

“It’s a sad pumpkin.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a laughing pumpkin,” I said, somewhat mystified. He had been able to read this book on his own for six months and we had just celebrated Halloween and he knew darn well what these things were. I played along anyway.

After a few moments, he put the pumpkin book away and resumed our staging of Hush Little Baby.

It took a few minutes for it to dawn on me. He was pretending to read – to read like other young children read, presumably the way the little rabbit in the picture would have read. By actually interacting with an adult, talking about the content and making eye contact. As opposed to the way Ben actually reads, which is to say that he… actually reads.

He was pretending to be normal.

Every time I think about it, it blows my mind.

Somehow, he knows that other children do not tend to study a book – every line – intently and commit it to memory. He must have observed other children interacting with books and seen how they behave. And he must know – at some level, in some part of his brain – that he is different...or maybe, that everyone else is.

And he can act out what other children do, even when he has never really done these things himself.

Does this open up all sorts of learning opportunities? Can we help him “pretend” to take turns, or pretend to share toys, or pretend to stay calm, or pretend to take an interest in other people?

Probably.

After all, isn’t that what being an adult really is? Don’t many of us get through a day at the office or a social gathering or a job interview by doing just that: by pretending to be normal?


Friday, November 9, 2007

Conversation

What motivates humans to have conversations? Surely our cave-dwelling ancestors were not especially chatty. Early language must have been purely for survival: “Look out for that tiger!” - rather than for the sake of small talk: “Cute animal skin. Where did you get it?” or “That cave drawing is the most pretentious piece of crap I’ve ever seen.”

I don’t know any anthropological linguists or linguistic anthropologists (and I’m not sure that’s even a real thing), but if I did, I’m pretty sure that they’d tell me that at some point human language changed from being something practical to something that also builds relationships and bonds between people and serves as a form of self-expression.

Why am I pondering this? Well, 1) I commute to work in a car with no stereo and 2) as I observe Ben having difficulty developing conversational skills, it makes me wonder: Is this a processing disorder - just the result of faulty wiring in his brain, or does he simply not LIKE conversation?

He is quite good at communicating his needs, his wants, his displeasure or discomfort and is even starting to ask simple questions to get information. He’s great at answering factual questions, and even makes jokes in order to make us laugh.

And of course, he’s freakishly skilled at mimicking the conversations he learns in books or videos. He includes all of the emotion and inflection of the hammiest master thespian, barks stage directions to us, and becomes upset when we miss our line.

But often, when I prompt him with a simple question about his day and try to lure him into a conversation, he will say outright, “No talk about it, Mommy!” or “Stop talking about that!” Sometimes he’ll cover my mouth with his hand.

He’s actively resisting conversation. He’s not just ignoring me, which I’m used to. He’s smart enough to understand what I’m doing, and he’s opting out.

So, I’ve been thinking about how conversation functions for people and wondering: Just what, exactly, is he opting out of?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Conversation allows us to:


• Express things about ourselves and our experiences


• Reciprocate this expression to create the sense of relationship


• Show interest in one another by asking questions


• Provoke an emotional response from the other person – surprise, laughter, shock, delight


• Prolong an interaction by contributing related or unrelated observations, expressions or questions

If Ben feels perfectly related and bonded and expressive without doing these things, perhaps he does not need conversation at this moment. Or maybe he's just baffled by the illogical nature of it, like Mark Haddon’s 15 year-old autistic protagonist in the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?

At one point in the story, a neighbor woman tries to engage the boy in conversation:

(S)he said, “I see you every day, going to school.”

I didn’t reply to this.

And she said, "It’s very nice of you to come and say hello.”

I didn’t reply to this either because Mrs. Alexander was doing what is called chatting, where people say things to each other which aren’t questions and answers and aren’t connected.

Learning conversation, rather than having it develop naturally, is certainly possible. I’ve read accounts of adults with Asberger’s who describe how they learned the rules of conversation like one learns the somewhat arbitrary rules of etiquette.

Ben may need to learn conversation as a set of rules, but my instincts tell me that eventually he’ll come to appreciate the intrinsic rewards of talking with another person simply for the sake of enjoyment.

And I know that he is learning, somehow, bit by bit.

We arrived at a birthday party for one of his (neuro-typical) classmates recently and Ben remembered to do what we had talked about in advance. He ran up to his friend and said, excitedly, “Happy Birthday, Sawyer!” not once, but three times, also adding a little wave for effect.

Sawyer grimaced, turned and walked away.

Oh well. So much for intrinsic rewards.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Tonight, the role of Tyrone will be played by...

Ben is now in the habit of recasting the stories he recites and/or acts out with completely different characters. He substitutes the new character's name for every instance of the original, and changes the pronouns - correctly and consistently - throughout.

A few examples:

The Backyardigans story, The Secret of Snow, is inhabited by the cast of Caillou.

  • The Ice Lady: Calliou (becomes The Ice Boy)
  • The Ice Lady's assistant: Rosie
  • Uniqua: Sarah

The Cars Read-a-long Book, specifically in the scene where Lightning goes on a drive with Sally, becomes a family drama.
  • Lightning McQueen: Ben
  • Sally: Mommy

The Thomas the Tank Engine story, Cranky Bugs, specifically the scene of the ship crashing into the sheds, is retold featuring classmates from preschool.

  • Cranky: Saki
  • Duck: Gabi
  • Gordon: Wesley
  • Sir Topham Hat: Lourdes
  • References to "the engines": "the children"
  • References to "the shed": "the playground"

The Backyardigans story, Secret Agents, is played with a cast of stuffed animals.

  • Agent Pablo: Wedgehead (the Ugly Doll)
  • Agent Uniqua: Monkey
  • Agent Tyrone: Corduroy (the Bear)

The book, The Napping House, again, the ensemble of stuffed animals.

  • The granny: Ben
  • The child: Corduroy
  • The dog: Monkey
  • The cat: Pooh
  • The mouse: Doggie
  • The flea: Max (plush version of Where the Wild Things Are character)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Discovering Hyperlexia

Very early on, I knew something was different about how Ben was developing language. I knew that it wasn’t typical for most of a child’s language to consist of repeating and reciting. I knew that most two year olds make observations, and answer and ask questions, even if not articulately.

He had always been more interested in books than most toys, and when we went to birthday or social events he would always find the bookshelf, sit down with his back to the room and disappear into a book. At a petting zoo we frequented, he ignored the animals, preferring to study an alphabet display that decorated the fence.

Well-intentioned friends – aware of how an entire industry exists to sell products and services by generating parent hysteria – suggested that I not worry. All children develop in their own way. Our pediatrician, whom we rarely see given Ben’s spotless health record, didn’t seem too concerned.

One day I posted a question to a local parent’s network describing Ben and asking for advice or similar situations. I got a lot of responses and most of them suggested that I have him evaluated for autism.

The A Word.

I was dismissive, defensive and hurt. He was affectionate, bonded with people, was happy, silly, playful – not autistic.

I had my first parent-teacher conference at his preschool a few months before he turned three. She was concerned about how he was isolating himself on the playground, how he hurled himself on the floor rather than sit in circle time, and would sometimes throw tantrums to resist instructions. “Maybe he needs some special help,” she suggested.

Beyond that observation, the staff at this Montessori preschool weren’t able to provide many ideas or suggestions for what I should do and sent me home only with a brochure listing resources in our area for children with special needs.

After much research, many phone calls and a long waiting period, we had an assessment with an Early Intervention program within the Oakland Unified School District. At this point, Ben was three and was starting to read, but still could not carry on a conversation.

A speech pathologist and a child psychiatrist came to our house, observed Ben and asked lots of questions. Ben was in no mood. He ignored them, resisted engaging, and to be honest, acted pretty darn autistic.

The speech pathologist furrowed her brow when she watched him and looked puzzled and concerned. As a mom, this is not an expression you want to see on someone’s face when they look at your kid.

She explained to us, very carefully and delicately, that Ben had language, but not social pragmatic language. This meant that he wasn’t using language to engage others or express feelings. She went on describing this as if it had never occurred to us that Ben might have a problem with language, as if she was giving us some very bad news as gently as she could.

I wanted to say, “Duh.”

Instead I told her that we understood; that’s why we’re all here. We're looking for help.

While she and the psychologist worked up a report and a recommendation, they contacted us several more times to ask clarifying questions. Apparently Ben did not really fit in any of the pre-defined categories and they were a bit stymied about the diagnosis and educational placement.

One of these calls was from the psychologist, who asked us, “Have you ever heard of Hyperlexia?” She had been doing her own research and thought this condition might describe Ben. No sooner had we hung up the phone when we Googled the word. We came upon the American Hyperlexia Association web site.

Here’s what it said:

Hyperlexia is defined as:

• A precocious ability to read words, far above what would be expected at their chronological age or an intense fascination with letters or numbers.
• Significant difficulty in understanding verbal language
• Abnormal social skills, difficulty in socializing and interacting appropriately with people

In addition, some children who are Hyperlexic may exhibit the following characteristics:

• Learn expressive language in a peculiar way, echo or memorize the sentence structure without understanding the meaning (echolalia),
• Reverse pronouns
• Rarely initiates conversations
• An intense need to keep routines, difficulty with transitions, ritualistic behavior
• Auditory, olfactory and / or tactile sensitivity
• Self-stimulatory behavior
• Specific, unusual fears
• Normal development until 18-24 months, then regression
• Strong auditory and visual memory
• Difficulty answering "Wh--" questions, such as "what," "where," "who," and "why"
• Think in concrete and literal terms, difficulty with abstract concepts
• Listen selectively, appear to be deaf

With the exception of sensory sensitivity and fears, this described Ben precisely.

There’s a profound feeling of relief when you can put a name on an experience or a phenomenon. It gives you the feeling that someone smarter than you has observed it, described it, thought about it, and might even know what to do.

But most of all, calling Ben hyperlexic helped me strike an emotionally-satisfying semantic bargain: I could talk around The A Word rather than having to use it.

It looks like autism, it’s on the autism spectrum, he has autism-like behaviors. But it’s Hyperlexia, which is different, partly because the term suggests an extraordinary ability rather than a disorder.

So when the assessment report and recommendations came back to us, the checkmark in the autism box didn’t seem quite so scary. Truth be told, I would not have cared if they called Ben a ham sandwich or a potted plant or Alan Greenspan as long as it made him eligible for services (and at no cost to us).

Since then, I’ve started feeling strangely comfortable with the idea that Ben is on the autism spectrum because I’m starting to understand just how vast the spectrum is.

Besides, when I’m in a conversation with a stranger or casual acquaintance, I find that explaining Hyperlexia requires more time than the average person is willing to politely endure before they give you that look that says, “Too much information.”

So I say what I never thought I’d be comfortable saying – that Ben has autism. And semantic bargains aside, I’m finding that it feels just fine.






Saturday, October 20, 2007

Real moms don't say okay...okay?

I was discussing parenting with a friend of ours the other day.

He related a story about getting some coaching – that’s a nice way to put it – from his wife back when their kids were younger about his communication style.

He learned from this bit of coaching that he tended to add “okay?” or “alright?” after instructions and that this subtly transformed what should be a directive into a negotiation. For example:

“I need to you put your shoes on, okay?”

“It’s not okay to hit your sister, alright?”

At the time, I remember thinking, “I guess I do that too.” But in the days that followed I realized, as I was listening to myself, that I do this all the time.

At first I told myself that I’m really doing it to ensure that he’s understood my instructions. Makes sense, right? I have a kid with receptive and expressive language delay and I’m checking for understanding.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

I catch myself saying “okay?” to Ben constantly. So much that now I feel like it’s an involuntary tic. I am driving myself crazy.

“It’s time for dinner. Get to the table and sit in your chair, okay?”

“Ten minutes until bath time, alright?”

Thankfully, I've noticed that I don't do it when there's safety issue at stake or in a serious discipline moment. But I attach "okay" or "alright" to the end of way too many of the dozens of banal and necessary prompts I give my son throughout the day.

Maybe it’s a Midwestern-Nice gene. Maybe it’s too many waitressing jobs such that even 20 years later I perpetually sound like I’m on a round of coffee refills.

But ultimately, I sound like I’m asking my 3 year old for permission, and that is the kind of parenting behavior that will get you a stern talking to on national TV from Dr. Phil or that British nanny: “You’re the Mom. You’re in charge. Act like it.”

So, propelled by overblown neurosis, I’m monitoring myself and trying to remember to sound more authoritative. A gentler spin is the Buddhist one: I’m engaged in the spiritual practice of paying attention.

Ben does not seem to be impressed by my spiritual practice or even notice one way or the other. But I’m driving myself a little less crazy.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Imagination

For kids on the autism spectrum, including those with Hyperlexia, imaginative play does not always come naturally. This is true for Ben.

I often read that this is because children on the spectrum tend be very concrete and literal. The way I like to put it is that Ben seems to have difficulty with imaginative play because of his insistence on verisimilitude.

I did not hit upon this fancy term myself. Rather, a smartypants Ph.D. friend of mine used it to describe his nephew who, at 7, was into genealogical research and had always loved toy cars more than people. My friend described how his nephew (with no formal diagnosis) would get very frustrated when a door on a toy car would not open, when the door was merely suggestive of a door rather than an actual door. “He seems to have a need for verisimilitude,” said my friend, and this struck a chord with me.

Instead of doing regular imaginative play like most kids – inventing storylines that may or may not hang together logically but provide opportunities to interact, run around, occasionally hit each other - Ben recreates stories he has memorized.

It started with him just reciting the stories as part of the phenomenon of delayed echolalia. He would walk around the house or play with toys and recite, word-for word, stories from memory.

He would also precisely re-enact videos of himself. Chris has a video blog that features Ben heavily, and it includes this one that shows an original video side-by-side with Ben’s re-enactment. The comparisons to Sunset Boulevard were inevitable and we wondered if we had a megalomaniac actor on our hands.


In the past year, he’s begun to understand more of the meaning of a story and connect it to real life. So instead of just reciting “Toby and the Flood” from the Thomas the Tank Engine cannon, he uses his trains to act it out. He will tell me, for example, “I want to make a waterfall for Toby,” and I’ll go around the house coming up with objects - in this case a box and a tie dyed scarf - that are stand-ins for a waterfall.

Then he’ll ask me to make a river, and a dam, then get a rope for Harold, then… you get the idea. He is pretending, but he’s really recreating the story. Moreover he will occasionally get frustrated to the point of throwing things and freaking out when the desired effect - or verisimilitude - cannot be produced.

He recently threw himself on the pavement in a parking lot because I would not let him roll under the car like Woody and Buzz do in a scene from Toy Story.

He once picked up his train track and scattered it across the room when a snowplow I had carefully fashioned out of play dough for one of his engines would not stay on when said engine attempted to plow a pile of snow, or rather, a white dishtowel.

He has collapsed into scratching and hitting when I informed him we could not create an actual mud puddle in the middle of his bedroom for him (as Christopher Robin) and Pooh to jump into.

This tendency is odd, but also quite terrifying when I wonder if he will someday throw himself out of a window or bolt across the street in the interest of re-enacting part of a movie.

But, as always, there is hope.

Recently, we were acting out the book Chrysanthemum in his room right before bedtime. There’s a line that says, “She loved the way [her name] sounded when it was written in ink on an envelope.”

“I want an envelope.” Ben told me.

Normally, I would have indulged this request and gotten and envelope and written Chrysanthemum on it so he could satisfy his need for freaking verisimilitude. But I was exhausted, so I did what every other normal parent of a normal kid does: pretended to give him an envelope by pantomiming the action. “Here’s an envelope,” I said, reaching a hand out to him, expecting an insistent whine.

He took it.

He took the pretend envelope and continued with the story, happily holding his imaginary object.

Now I regularly see him imagining as part of his story acting. The script is still exact, but he’s willing to imagine the details and act them out himself rather than require high-fidelity stand-ins.

In fact, the other night he lined his stuffed animals up on his bed and played school. “Hi children. I’m Kelsy!” Ben announced. He conducted circle time, pantomiming his teacher’s use of a wand to point to the picture schedule. He asked his teddy bear to report on the weather and sent another plush toy out of the room to speech therapy or rather “Ann’s class.”

I sat back and watched with amazement as this went on for several minutes and then happened again – in even more vivid detail – the next night. “You be Vivian,” (the assistant teacher) he instructed.

This idea that I can be Vivian without actually BEING Vivian is a huge step for him. One that happens naturally for most kids, and one that passes by for most parents without the added bonus of overwhelming, awestruck joy.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Snowy Day

The first time Ben really experienced a book he was nine weeks old. Until this point, my attempts to capture his interest with a cloth baby book were rejected in favor of objects that jingled or clanked.

But at nine weeks, my mom visited us and she held him in her lap, he leaned against her chest and sat still for a long time, seeming to focus intently on a book as she read it.

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After that, he started interacting more with books; books as artifacts. He was fascinated for a long time with board books and how they felt and worked and tasted. He seemed especially interested in the bindings. He was an expert page-turner by six months. At this stage, books were purely a sensory experience.

At some point during his first year, he started to become aware of the connection between a book and the sound of someone talking – especially anything rhythmic and predictable. He began to understand that when we picked up a book he was going to hear something he liked – a poem, a rhyme, some familiar words. He never pointed to pictures on the page like most kids at this age nor did he show any awareness of a story. The experience of books now seemed to be about sound, and he clearly loved it.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was the first book where he seemed to make a connection to a story – or at least a sequence. It was also the first book that gave us a glimpse into what we know now is an incredible need to master and memorize.

We’d read a few pages and he’d shout “eh!” and pound on the page. His way of asking us to read it again. We’d read a few pages and he’d shout again, sometimes turning back the pages himself, and we’d return, as requested to the beginning and start again. Read, shout, read, shout, read shout.

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He was not doing this with a mischievous grin on his face, like a child enjoying the fun of repetition during a peek-a-boo game. He was insistent, dead serious, like a Russian piano teacher drilling a student on a few measures of an etude.

Soon we realized that he was having us read only as much as he could keep in his head at one time. Although he couldn’t talk, he was memorizing the experience and allowing us to move on only when he had learned the sequence and committed it to memory.

(Chris wrote in vivid detail about the phenomenon at the time.)

Scholastic publishes DVDs of film and video adaptations of children’s literature. One set includes several books by Ezra Jack Keats including The Snowy Day. It’s a sixteen millimeter film made in 1963, the kind that your school librarian would show you on a rainy day with an old projector that takes a few seconds to hit the correct speed. It’s not really animated per se – it uses a Ken Burns effect an pans the pages of the actual book. The soundtrack is gentle classical-style guitar. Stylistically it’s about as far from Dora and Diego as you can imagine. It’s exquisite.

Ben thought so too. The video didn’t replace the book, far from it. It seemed to make the book even more compelling to him and the book and the video became an inseparable experience. He’d watch the video and hold the book, turning pages at the appropriate time, following along.

Still, he never pointed to the pictures in the book and asked, “What’s that?” nor did he make observations - “Snow!” - like most other kids his age.

After awhile, he could tell the entire story from memory – and did, over and over, at home, in the car, at family gatherings, in shopping malls. I don’t think he grasped much of the meaning of the story, given that he had only phonetic approximations of some words. He’d learned the sounds of the words like musical notes. He was singing the sounds: “One winter morning Peter looked out the window…”

After he turned two, he learned his letters and learned that letters make sounds, and everything started to change.

Now he started to study each word as he said it, comparing the look of the letters to those sounds he had committed to memory so long ago. And this created some interesting conceptual roadblocks. For instance, in one book, he reached the word “know” in a sentence he had memorized.

He stopped, looked up at me, pointed to the word and said, “Read, read.”

“Know,” I said.

After a brief look of incredulity, he continued reciting.

“That’s funny,” he may have been thinking. “The letter K doesn’t make that sound.”

This happened more and more until I could tell very distinctly around age three that he was choosing to use phonics as his primary cue rather than use his memory. His reciting sounded much more like early reading. Like when he confidently said “pone" while reading “phone.”

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He was like a singer who had learned a pop song off the radio and then sings it from sheet music. He was learning there are abstract, symbolic representations for concrete expression and sound. And I could see his brain working in this wonderful, odd way.

The other night, he read The Snowy Day to me, like any beginning reader does, sounding sound out each word, following the lines with his finger. But he hasn’t forgotten the inflections he learned through memorizing the sounds, so his reading has a little more lilt and dramatic flair than your average kid.

It was a STICK! A STICK that was JUST right for SMACKING a snow-covered tree.

Dooooooown fell the snow – PLOP – on top of Peter’s head!

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What did you do today?


Every parent, I think, has trouble getting information out of their kids about how they spend their day. “How was school today?” is a question that is probably met most often with silence, shrugs or single word answers.

This phenomenon is more pronounced with a child that has a language disorder like Hyperlexia. Since he started preschool, Ben has rarely been able to answer the question, “What did you do at school today?” I wonder sometimes if he even able to process it.

I tried a different tactic this week. At the dinner table, I asked him to help me write a list of what happened at school today. I got a notepad and pen I seeded the list by writing:

What Ben did today

1. Ben rode on the bus.

“Number two…” he began, and immediately completed the following list, with me taking furious dictation.

2. Ben got to school.
3. Ben rode the bike.
4. Ben ate lunch.
5. Ben rode the bike again.
6. But Adrian was using it.
7. Then mommy can to pick me up and they rode in the elevator and they went in the car and they drove home.

By using his strengths, the ability to process written language, I was able to help him express himself. I’ve never gotten this much information from him through a conversation. Ever.

So, of course, I wanted to try it again the next night. But I decided I wouldn’t push it. I didn’t want to take the risk that it would become just another thing that I prod him to do.

But halfway through dinner, he said, “Mommy, say it again.” I repeated whatever I had just said and he clarified, “Mommy, say the thing…what happened today.”

I realized he was asking to make another list.

I got the notepad again, and here’s what he dictated. (I wrote the first one again. The rest is his, verbatim.)

Ben’s Day

1. Ben rode the bus to school.
2. When I got to school, I saw Kelsy.
3. And I lined up with the students.
4. I walked up the stairs.
5. I went past the playground.
6. I ran into the classroom and sat down on the chair.
7. I had circle time.
8. I had language
9. I had learning centers.
10. I read a book called All About You.
11. And then I went home.

He seemed to realize that number eleven took some factual liberties and quickly told me, “No number eleven.” so I struck it from the record.

I’m definitely going to keep the notepad handy.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Go Fish

Chris and I love to play cards. We spent a good deal of our evenings in the early and mid- 90s playing cards with friends and when we started a family, we both hoped that our offspring would be a card shark, the way other people hope for a quarterback or a concert pianist.

While many Hyperlexic kids are crazy for numbers and might gravitate towards cards, Ben has not yet grokked the awesomeness of Gin Rummy and Hearts.

I think it might have something to do with the fact that he has very little idea how to take turns.

Games, in general, seem to make no sense to him. We have a Candyland game and while he loves driving the gingerbread men along the colorful track, he has no time for the procedural rules of the game. Why, he must be asking himself, must I move to a colored square only as indicated by these cards?

Actually, he doesn’t really say that, he just walks away mostly. Usually after spreading the cards all over the floor.

We’ve also tried traditional cards. The numbers and face cards hold some interest for him, but most games end with the cards scattered and him walking away, bored, saying, “Mommy pick up the cards.”

But we tried Go Fish again the other night. This time, we took the cards out when he still had some dinner on his plate to keep him at the table. I teamed up with him and we played against Chris. I held the cards. He lasted surprisingly long. It was a huge success.

Go Fish is a game that suits him in that the only verbal component has a limited set of phrases that are repeated. He understands, “Ben, do you have any 4s?” and he understands when to respond, “No! Go Fish!”

He also knows how to ask for cards. I’d prompt him by pointing to a card and he’d say his line enthusiastically and confidently, and also revealing how brain is still working out the whole language thing.

“Daddy, have you any got 10s?”


The Cure

Every few weeks I have a conversation with a friend or relative or acquaintance in which they’re telling me about an article or episode of Oprah or a news magazine segment. “Did you see that mom who cured her autistic son by cutting gluten out of his diet? It was really interesting. You should get the book.”

Unlike many parents of autistic children, I have not spent long, late nights scouring the Internet reading about treatments, cures, and interventions. This is not to say I don’t read or do some exploring on my own, but I’m a bit under-researched in comparison to the vast autism internet world that exists.

The fact that I haven’t done this is a bit surprising to me, since when I was trying to get pregnant, I spent countless hours reading about the exactitudes of fertility and after I miscarried three times, I spent even more time reading – more often than not through a blur of tears - about what might have gone wrong.

But I haven’t been seeking a cure for Ben.

And up until now, I’ve been comfortable with that. My instincts have told me that Ben’s condition is genetic. He never had the stunning and sudden regression that many parents describe. He sits on the "high functioning" end of the autism spectrum.

But as a parent, when someone suggests, even in the most veiled and subtle way, that I could change Ben or make him better by giving him a natural detoxification supplement or taking wheat and milk out of his diet, it makes me wonder, “If it’s so easy, why don’t I do it?”

Am I uncaring? Naive? Cynical? Or worse still, lazy?

Now, after what feels like a critical mass of well intentioned people mentioning these mass media reports to me, I’m finding myself spending more time doing exactly what I’ve avoided up until now: scouring the Internet, trying to understand these biomedical “cures.” Wondering if we should give it a try.

But something is holding me back.

Maybe its rhetoric like this. One newsgroup post described a doctor who “helps autistic children recover from their own personal train wreck.”

When I see Ben, I don’t see a train wreck.

I guess just don’t believe that Ben is sick. I believe that he’s different.

Maybe he is who he is, and that if we put him around people who make him feel safe and confident and accepted, he’ll develop just enough communication skills to get him through circle time and staff meetings and dinner parties, while still feeling comfortable expressing his quirks.

And I love his quirks. He expresses them, for the most part, so joyfully that I think they must be a fundamental part of him. My son is not a train wreck.

But what if I’m wrong. What if it's just the cheese sticks standing in the way of him and rewarding friendships? What if a piece of toast is causing him to freak out when his cousin touches his train set?

The thought is ridiculous to me. But at the same time unsettling, and even sometimes terrifying. I imagine Ben confronting me as an adult, “Mom, my god, why didn’t you DO something? They had RESEARCH about gluten back then. It was on OPRAH for god’s sake.”

Will my lack of intervention be our generation’s version of medical cluelessnes, like those TV ads from the 50s where doctors are extolling the health benefits of cigarettes?

My college freshman year Philosophy class is very hazy at this point, but I think it was Pascal said that you should believe in God because if you do and you’re wrong you’re basically not out much, but if you don’t and you’re wrong, you’re screwed. Is biomedical intervention like that? Believe, because it’s better than ultimately being wrong.

Can you direct me to the concierge?

When we went to Italy several years ago, I bought a cassette tape that I listened to in my car for a few months so I could pick up enough Italian to survive as a tourist (which, as it turns out, really isn’t very much.)

There were, however, a few phrases I memorized that did come in very handy. “I’m calling to confirm our reservation for tonight,” was one of these. I’d use this on the phone each day to call ahead to where we were staying. The person on the phone would ask my name and I’d tell them and they’d indicate that we were expected. I knew this by listening for the word, “Si” somewhere in the sentence that came after I said my name.

One day the person on the other end unleashed a string of Italian that I knew meant that there was trouble. I had no idea what he said or what I should say in response. Somehow, we muddled through and did not have to sleep in the Sienna train station. But the point is, I only knew a few phrases and a few responses. When all went well I could participate in a ritualized exchange of information. I had no linguistic agility to adapt to unpredictable situations.

Ben learns language like people learn tourist languages. Rather than picking up the building blocks of a language and rearranging them in countless ways to make sentences, he learns phrases. He understands the context of the phrases and like any tourist, learns to understand and anticipate the most common response. But throw in a phrase that wasn’t in the Hyperlexia version of the Fodor’s Guide and he’s at a loss.

Because Ben’s memory is so remarkable, unlike most tourists, he has a set of phrases that work in a lot of situations and when he learns a new one he tends to remember it forever, so he’s got a fairly good repertoire of language for communicating his needs.

But communication with people is scary when your system is built on predictability. Communication is unpredictable. Most of us call this chatting. Chatting is what people do when language comes easily. Chatting uses filler words that are unnecessary like “y’know” and “like” and “um” and “sort of.” These are not in the phrase book.

For Ben, chatting must make him feel like we did on our trip to Italy when we were sitting at the table at a bed and breakfast with a bunch of Germans. That’s probably why Ben doesn’t seem to like sitting at the table for meals when there is more than one person with him.

What’s remarkable is that this is changing. I was trying to get Ben into his pajamas the other night while he was still in the midst of playing with some toys. Normally, to express his dissatisfaction with this move, he would just move away or say, “No, no.” or “No jammies.”

But he said, “Mommy, don’t take my pants off, okay?”

Now, unless you have a kid like Ben (or are a really geeky PhD student) you have probably never felt shock and delight at a linguistic construction.

Not only was the sentence fully formed, grammatically correct and age appropriate, but he goes and puts in this totally idiosyncratic use of the word okay, just for emphasis. Practically like filler.

Practically like chatting.

Inklings

When you’re the mother of an infant, it’s pretty common for well-intentioned acquaintances and relatives to inquire about the temperament of your baby. Rather than ask, “What is your baby’s temperament?” – that would be far too clinical and far too direct for most casual conversion – they usually say something like, “Is he a good baby?”

Since this is a yes/no question, it naturally limits your universe of responses. Your choices are: “Oh yes. He’s a very good baby. Sleeps well and hardly ever fusses.” The person coos approvingly.

You’re also allowed the “yes, but” variant of this answer: “He’s a very good baby, but sometimes in the evenings he’s a little fussy.” Again, cooing and a “that’s to be expected” kindly acknowledgement.

The other response to a yes/no question is, of course, “no.” But you would never say this about your baby, so normally the mother is allowed to offer an explanation for why she does not say yes: “He’s been colicky. We’re worn out.” Then the attention switches to the mother. Oh you poor thing. He’ll grow out of it.

When people would ask me the temperament question when my son, Ben, was a baby, I often replied, “He’s…very…specific.” Note that this is not one of the approved responses. In fact, referring to one’s infant as “specific” is pretty much a conversation stopper. It makes about as much sense to describe a baby as specific as it does to describe a ballpoint pen as compassionate, but there it was. The word made sense.

It’s not that Ben wasn’t a good baby. He wasn’t particularly fussy or sensitive. Nothing even coming close to colicky. But he wasn’t a mellow baby either. He was terribly alert and focused for a baby. His expression often looked like he was hatching a plan. He seemed to know what he wanted at all times. Rather than happy lilting babbling, his early sounds were more like urgent, insistent prompts: eh! eh! eh! eh!

None of this is especially notable in terms of infant behavior, mind you. Nothing that Ben did raised any red flags of development. But looking back, I always had the sense that there was much, much more happening in his brain than he had the power to express and that this created a certain intensity in him.

We still see this intensity in him when a train engine on a pile-up tableaux he’s constructed refuses to sit at the precise 67 degree angle he would like. At those times, his bubbling enthusiasm quickly boils over into overwhelmed panic.

Sometimes I wonder what’s it’s like to be the parent of a kid who’s not specific at all. What is it like to have the toddler that says “hey man, like, whatever.”

Still, specific has its charms. Recently, when Ben wanted to prevent me from making another well intentioned but dumb-ass parental comment on the video he was watching, he told me “I want to let mommy say nothing.”