Ben and I just returned from Minnesota where we spent his spring break visiting my parents. I was pretty nervous about traveling with him by myself for the first time, something I feel embarrassed to admit when I see mothers traveling alone with tiny newborns or with multiple children under 5.
But the last time we took Ben on a trip was back in August and it was during a period that was extremely difficult for everyone. I don’t know if it was being away from his preschool that provided the predictability and structure he needed, or natural growing pains, or some combination of factors.
In any case, this was a time when he was having multiple tantrums each day. He hit us, he scratched us, he knocked our glasses off our faces and across the room, he threw things and attacked other children – sometimes without provocation - at preschool. These were dark days.
So in preparing for the trip I couldn’t help remembering how he had freaked out at the airport when we checked our suitcases, panicked as we stood waiting in the crowded jet way, bolted away from us in the security line, and even run up to an unsuspecting business traveler in a suit and shoved him.
And though I’m aware of the tremendous progress he’s made in the last six months, I prepared for our impending trip with trepidation.
But Ben was amazing.
Except for some nervousness about where our suitcases were going and some impatience while waiting at the gate during a short delay, he rose to the occasion, full of good spirits and enthusiasm.
A lot has changed since we traveled eight months ago, but I realized on this trip that one of the reasons why the trip went so well is that now Ben is able to ask questions.
He started to ask questions using who, what, where, when and how just a few months ago (why, I’m told, comes last for all children). The absence or late appearance of these types of WH questions is one of the indicators of an autism-related speech delay and extremely common in children with Hyperlexia.
I remember a co-worker saying to me, when she learned that Ben was 3 years old,
“I bet he’s constantly asking you ‘why?’ isn’t he? My son would not stop at that age: ‘Why this? Why that? Why? Why? Why?’ It drove me crazy!”
“We’re not quite to that stage yet.” I demurred.
Ben’s ability to ask questions started at first like a trickle, and then recently, turned into an avalanche.
This was in evidence during the trip.
“Where is the airplane?”
“How do we get to the airplane?”
“Which way should we go?”
“What is a gate?”
“How do we get our suitcase?”
I hadn’t pinpointed the addition of questions to his vocabulary as having such a dramatic effect on his behavior until part way through the trip when I was comparing how he responded in the same situations eight months ago.
Back then, his most-used phrase was “I want.” “I want to go on the airplane.” “I want the people to move.” “I want to let Mommy carry me.” “I want to go home.”
Last summer, he also used “I want” to express frustration and anger in a kind of cathartic-imaginative way. When the demand, “I want the people to get out of the way.” went unmet, it became:
“I want to hit the people. I want to scratch ALL the people and the people will all get big, BIG owies and the people will all be really sad.”
Pitty the poor bystanders standing elbow to elbow in the jet way who overhear this. If it were a 25 year-old instead of a 3-year old, it’s likely TSA would have been involved.
When he could only say, “I want the suitcase,” to express curiosity or uncertainty about our luggage, we responded – even subtly and subconsciously – with a sort of defensiveness that I’m sure was apparent to him.
“Oh no – he wants the suitcase. We can’t get him the suitcase. We’ve got a situation here. Stall. Distract. Don’t panic.”
When you only have “I want” to express yourself, you don’t have any way to enter into dialogue. “I want” is the blunt instrument of conversation – it's useful, but extremely limited.
Seeing the stark contrast in his demeanor now that his speech is peppered with questions makes me wonder about the ways in which language and thought are intertwined, and even the ways in which language and emotion are intertwined.
Now that Ben can ask, “Where is our suitcase?” we can respond with an explanation:
“It’s in the downstairs part of the airplane and we’ll get it back when we get to Minnesota.”
“Where is Minnesota?”
“It’s way down there on the ground.”
“How do we get to Minnesota?”
“The airplane is taking us there right now.”
Not exactly My Dinner With Andre, but a conversation.
Questions allow Ben to enter into a conversation with us that involves information and explanation instead of just emotion. These types of questions, it seems, are the gateway to reason and logic: destinations that seemed like foreign lands to us a year ago.
So, ask away, Ben. Bombard me with questions. You will NOT drive me crazy.
Not yet, anyway.
Ben encounters snow for the first time.