Friday, November 9, 2007


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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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