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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disciplinary Issues versus Self-Expression

This week Lawrence will be away on Wednesday, so he came on Monday instead. That was yesterday. Lawrence kept the computer on and available to Bow through the grid throughout the day, but the transcript is mostly blanks, with one possible contribution by Bow for the whole day: the single letter "E".

I can't force Bow to type. Neither can Lawrence. We have to wait for him to want to.

Some people are not convinced. They notice that Bow is potty trained, and there are rules for his behavior with people,  and there are rules about not wasting food, so they don't understand why I can't make him write in a way that demonstrates consistently that he is literate, if indeed he is literate.

"Obviously, the potty training was important to you," one person said to me once, "so you worked hard at it. If getting him to cooperate on testing were equally important to you, you might have gotten him trained to do that."

There is a certain amount of truth to this. If my goal were to have him type preset responses to preset questions perhaps I would have achieved that goal, as many others have working with non-humans and developmentally delayed humans. That was never my goal. My goal was for him to have language, and I believe the goal has been achieved.

My policy in raising Bow was similar to the way I was raised in early childhood. Nobody forced me to talk.  That came naturally. Nobody made me answer questions they already knew the answers to. I wasn't punished or rewarded for my linguistic achievements. Language is its own reward.

On the other hand, I was disciplined, but discipline was about what not to do: don't pee on the floor, don't walk and eat, don't make a mess and expect someone else to clean it up. I mean, I did make messes and other people did clean them up, but as soon as it was practically possible for me to minimize the amount of work others had to do to clean up after me, I was expected to cooperate in this regard, and there were consequences if I didn't.

Non-negotiable demands that I make on Bow are disciplinary. Don't bite people. Don't pee on the floor. Don't waste food. I enforce these rules because they make our living together possible. Bow isn't independent yet, and it makes sense that to the extent that he can, he help to make it easier for those who take care of his needs to do so with the greatest of ease.

Every once in a while, Bow tries to get around one of the rules. This morning, he left about three half eaten grapes on his plate and asked for cereal. I said: "Bow, finish the grapes."

He wouldn't, and, of course. I couldn't make him, so I just refused to serve him the cereal until he did eat them. I also explained the reason for the rule: "You've ruined those grapes for anyone else. No one is going to want to eat them. That's wasteful."

Did he understand? It doesn't really matter. He saw that I was not going to serve the cereal until he finished the grapes, so eventually he did finish them. And he got the cereal. And then he asked for a peach, and he got the peach. So everything turned out okay, and Bow did not starve, and yet the rule about not wasting food stood.

But how could I insist that he type something, if I didn't actually tell him what to type? And if I told I told him what to type, in what way would that be language? Wouldn't it be more like a dictation class?

Of course, he was spelling out words the whole time he was asking for food, but not on the computer. Why don't I just take down the letters from the glass and make the computer the only way to communicate? In my case, I have a good excuse: we would lose Hebrew. But what about Lawrence? Why don't we take the English letters off the glass and just leave Bow with the computer for talking? I asked Lawrence about that once, and he thought it was a bad idea.

Why? Because Lawrence comes once a week and has to wait for Bow to let him into his good graces. Because the current communication system works so well, and there is going to be a lot of frustration and anger on Bow's part if we deny him the security of holding our hands. But most of all, because we hope that Bow will want to use the computer in the same way that he wants to spell with us, so that he will use it as a mode of self-expression and not as a system of tasks and rewards.

This afternoon, Bow asked to go outside. I agreed, and I opened the door for him, but he changed his mind and would not go out. When I asked him why, he replied:

סתם חם שם

That means "It's just hot there." But it was an odd sounding phrase because all three words rhymed. A moment after spelling this, Bow added:


"Rhyme." He was making a comment on the linguistic form of his earlier utterance.

This is the kind of thing that distinguishes rote training from spontaneous language use. I want Bow to do it on the computer, too. I just don't think I can force him.


  1. I think it is best to let Bow type what he wants when he is ready. You know I did not even talk until I was four, but I have memories from before the age of one of things people said to me. I said a few words here and there, but I was just not interested in have conversations with people until I was older. My mom said I always made up for it later because I enjoy conversation more than most people in my family do, and I like to talk about a wide range of issues. They used to get mad at me because I was more interested in having a conversation than watching a movie, and sometimes I just had to go for a walk or read a book because no one was interested with talking at length.

  2. Thanks, Julia. There is wide variation in when people start talking, and as you mention in your case, when children are not yet talking themselves it does not necessarily mean that they do not understand what people are saying to them or about them in their presence. Comprehension usually predates production.
    I hope that Bow will surprise us one day by choosing to type on his own.