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.


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


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


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.

In tight for a closeup...

Back out to check the video...

...and pan right.