Saturday, October 25, 2008

Improvisation

Ben's brain sucks up language effortlessly.

But how he processes that language and how it comes back out is a curious thing.

As you know if you're a frequent reader, Ben can memorize and recite a story he hears just a few times. But he hears in ways that are more musical than verbal.

And sometimes, when he recites it back, it sounds a bit like a bebop jazz improvisation on the English language.

Today's examples:

"The door volk-cument came slithering down the company."

"[Something was] smiggling down the spackle of dust."

Neurons fire in random ways. Language comes back out as music.

This is actually happening a lot more than it used to when absolute fidelity was so important to Ben.

So does this represent creativity and a loosening of rigidity? Or a memory bank reaching capacity and misfiring?

And what's a volk-cument?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My imaginary friends

I've been posting about what its like to raise a son on the autism spectrum for about a year now and in that time, I've made so many new online friends to whom I feel astonishingly close and connected.

Many of them write their own blogs and I follow their stories and the progress of their kids with rapt attention; cheering triumphs and eagerly awaiting news of how they are moving through their inevitable difficulties.

Many do the same for me and Ben, and I'm thoroughly grateful.

I've had the privilege of meeting some in the flesh, but so many more only exist for me in words and pictures, Facebook status messages, and Twitter feeds.

Yet, I feel more connected to many of them than I do to many people in my "real-life" social circles.

Especially those of you that I follow on Twitter; we keep tabs on each other, make wise cracks, know when we're having a bad day at work or car trouble, know what each other is cooking for dinner and what funny remarks our kids blurt out before bedtime.

But I've now gone a step further with my social networking friendships.

I've become dear, close friends with people who don't even know who I am.

Take John Dickerson, for example.

He is Slate Magazine's chief political correspondent. I read his online articles each week, listen to him (and David Plotz and Emily Bazelon) on the Slate Political Gabfest podcast every Friday, I occasionally read his blog and I follow him on Twitter.

So I know when John is traveling and following the Obama campaign. I know when he's back home with his wife and kids. I know when it's his daughter's birthday. I know that he enjoys playing guitar. I know what he thinks of his hotel room in Indianapolis and when he's put on standby at SFO.

And while I promise you that I am NOT stalking Mr. Dickerson, I think I spend more time with him than I do with people I consider my "real" best friends.

Probably because my "real" best friends are smart and funny like he is. But they are terribly busy - just like me - with their jobs, their kids and just getting through each day.

When I listen to the Gabfest each Friday, I honestly feel like I'm enjoying a regular weekly lunch date with good friends. We laugh, discuss the issues of the day and enjoy each other's company.

When David Plotz's wife and Atlantic contributor, Hanna Rosin, made a guest appearance week I found myself almost giddy, thinking, "Oh - I'm SO glad Hanna is here again this week!"

Except, I can't talk to them.

And they have no idea I even exist.

Then there are my other friends Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens at the Slate Magazine Cultural Gabfest podcast. I have the same fantasy about being their friend, too. Except with them, we talk about movies and books and TV.

And there's Adam Davidson and Laura Conaway and David Kestenbaum and Alex Blumberg. Their new Planet Money podcast/blog/twitter feed gives me my daily jargon-free explanation of what's going on with the economy.

They're all smart. They say the kinds of insightful and witty things my "real" friends would say.

That is, if I was actually spending time with my real friends. But I'm sad to say that this rarely happens anymore.

When I do get together with friends, kids are normally around, and I'm either being vigilant for trouble or just unable to finish a sentence. No one talks on the phone any more - it's never a good time to call someone.

And when did email - beyond asking a quick question - become too much work?

Certainly there's no time for the kind of thoughtful and substantive conversation that I vicariously participate in when I listen to these podcasts.

So this is a way for me to experience meaningful adult conversation and connection in the throes of a very busy, special-needs-child-rearing life.

Feeling a connection to media personalities isn't new. But it might be amplified by the fact that unlike typical mass media figures, my imaginary friends mix their personal lives and personalities into their public work in a way that is natural and casual and unaffected and makes the public artifact BETTER.

Sure, everyone felt close to Walter Cronkite, but no one knew that he had rib eye for dinner or felt a little bit guilty about drinking Starbucks or who he was rooting for on Project Runway.

So, here's a toast to my wonderful imaginary friends: I've grown so terribly attached to you all. Thank you for filling the void until I have time to start that weekly salon with my real friends.

That is, if by that point, they even remember who I am.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Speaking of Autism

Thanks to my mom for calling my attention to the most recent episode of the public radio program, Speaking of Faith, entitled Being Autistic, Being Human.


Here's the lead in:

One child in every 150 in the U.S. is now diagnosed to be somewhere on the spectrum of autism. We step back from public controversies over causes and cures and explore the mystery and meaning of autism in one family's life, and in history and society. Our guests say that life with their child with autism has deepened their understanding of human nature — of disability, and of creativity, intelligence, and accomplishment.


The show's host, Krista Tippet, interviews a couple, Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder, who have an eight-year-old son with autism. Paul and Jennifer are both writers and each have authored books inspired by their journey as parents of a child on the autism spectrum.

Paul and Jennifer are incredibly insightful, compassionate, and delightful people. Besides being intelligent and articulate on the subject of the autism spectrum, they just seem like really cool people. I kept thinking, "I wish I lived in Portland. I would invite them over for dinner."

Tippet acknowledges at the end of the program that this was the most difficult show she had ever had to edit because the interview was so substantive and interesting. She has decided to make their entire, uncut conversation available as an additional podcast on the show's website.

I was especially moved by Jennifer's observation in which she acknowledges that she has "a happy, healthy son with autism" and how no one would have put those words together in a sentence just a few decades ago.

Listen to the show. I guarantee it will lift your spirits.

__________

While you're at it, check out this Newsweek article that features autism mom and blogger Kristina Chew on the significance and subtext of the mention of autism in the final presidential debate.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Wordless Stories of Barbara Lehman

When Ben was first reading, I remember working really hard to get him to engage with the meaning of words he was devouring.

I was never very successful in my endeavor. It was - and often still is - difficult to get his attention when his nose is buried in a book. Especially when he was younger, the words on the page seemed to have a truly hypnotic effect on him.

When I tried to interject simple questions like, "What is that boy doing?" or "What color is the train?" I may as well have been talking to the wall.

Then, by accident, we discovered the power of a book with no words.

We happened upon a book in a children's book store intriguingly called, The Red Book by Barbara Lehman. Like The Beatles' White Album, the book (once you get the dust jacket off) is literally a red book with no other illustrations or text on the cover.

theredbook.jpg

The story inside is a beautifully, simply illustrated tale about a mysterious red book and the magic that happens to the children who find it. The drawings remind me a lot of Chris Ware, another illustrator whose work I love.

The details of the story are wide open to interpretation, and the fact that the story is told without a single written word only adds to the sense of mystery.

When I first showed it to Ben I told him, "This book has NO words. So that means we have to make up the story in our heads." This became my standard talking point and Ben was soon repeating this on his own each time we read the book.

For awhile, Ben wanted me to tell the story the same way each time we looked at the book. Predictably, he was not comfortable with taking liberties with the text - even text that wasn't there.

Soon, he tolerated variations in the story. He even would ask me to read the book back to front, so that it created a completely different storyline.

Most importantly, the lack of words meant that his mind was free, finally, to focus on meaning.

Eventually, he could tell the story himself and would act it out with me using his own words. What better sign that he had moved from recitation to comprehension?

Since then, we have eagerly consumed all of Barbara Lehman's books and always have an eye out for other children's books without words. David Weisner also has several whimsical wordless books; check out Flotsam and Tuesday.

Lehman's Museum Trip is probably my favorite. Besides being a great wordless story, it's responsible for helping Ben discover he has something of a talent for figuring out mazes.

Wordless books are a wonderful way to encourage any child's imagination, but especially if you have or know a young child with Hyperlexia (who probably struggles with comprehension) I suggest you put a few wordless books on your holiday gift list.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Knock, Knock

Ben has hit a very important developmental milestone: learning to tell knock-knock jokes.

Well, kind of.

The knock-knock joke seems like the perfect form of humor for Ben. The form is the very epitome of theme and variations, a construct that seems to be wired into Ben's brain from birth.

He's always been extremely good at verbal patterns: learning them, deconstructing them and rearranging them. He can substitute a new set of characters in a story, new words into a song, new sounds into a word without missing a beat.

I've been anticipating the day when he would master the knock-knock joke, hoping it would give him another social tool to use with his peers. The knock-knock joke being a key item in the arsenal of any kid bon vivant.

Here's the problem. The first knock-knock joke he learned is, itself, a variation on the knock-knock joke form.

Knock, knock

Who's there

Banana

Banana who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Banana

Banana who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Banana

Banana who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Orange

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn't say banana?


Funny, right? What's the problem, you ask.

The problem is that in learning the variation first, Ben believes that this is the form of the knock-knock joke. His comprehension and context for what a knock-knock joke actually is referring to is limited. His mind is structural, literal, and so his knock-knock jokes go like this:

Knock, knock

Who's there

Strawberry

Strawberry who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Strawberry

Strawberry who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Strawberry

Strawberry who?

Knock, knock

Who's there

Kiwi

Kiwi who?

Kiwi you glad I didn't say strawberry?

We just laugh, rather than attempting to explain, and try again with something simpler:

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Ach

Ach who?

Geshundteit!


He follows up with this:

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Ach

Ach who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Ach

Ach who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Ach

Ach who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Ouch

Ouch who?

Ouch you glad I didn't say Ach?


So okay, I have a 4-and-a-half-year-old Dadaist. But what is truly amazing about this to me is the ferocity of his brain - you just point him at words and he learns, sucking up patterns in language like an Electrolux. Yet somehow, the social context and the meaning ("orange you" sounds like "aren't you") don't register.

We'll keep working on it. I know he'll get it eventually. But even when he does, I think we'll both agree that we actually prefer surreal variations like these:

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Nacho

Nacho who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Nacho

Nacho who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Nacho

Nacho who?

Knock, knock

Who's there?

Blueberry

Blueberry who?

Blueberry you glad I didn't say Nacho?