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Monday, February 4, 2013

Using Words When Gestures would do.

Today started with a stormy, overcast morning. I watched from the front door as the bus picked my daughter up for school.


Bow napped a little after breakfast, and then he got up and called to me to come and talk to him. When I asked him what he wanted, he started to take my hand to spell it out, then changed his mind and pointed at the lock of the door that leads to the corridor that leads to the outer pens. Only after he had signaled what he wanted in this non-verbal way did he spell out what he wanted: לצאת -- To go out.

I opened and shut all the intervening doors, but when he got out there, he hesitated, because it was cold and wet. Then he gingerly stepped over the wet concrete to assume his typical posture, perched on top of the bench and with his index finger balancing against the grid.


This type of incident involves communication that does not require language. Bow didn't have to spell out what he wanted, because I already knew the moment he had pointed at the lock. But Bow is not the only person who is prompted by caretakers to use language when he has already made himself perfectly clear.I know of autistic children who have the same experiences. They can tell you what they want without using language, and yet people keep pressuring them to use language, in the hopes that the practice will one day make them say something unexpected -- something that conveys information that only they know and expresses opinions and desires that are complex enough so that a mere gesture would not be enough to convey them.

When people see a video such as the one above, they are quite within their rights to assume that it is Clever Hans syndrome: I know what  Bow wants to say, and Bow can read my body language about what letters to use in order to say it.

But we have had other conversations in which the communication was unexpected and only Bow knew the information. Conversations about mice, for instance, that Bow knew about, and I did not. Or the time he told one of our volunteers the Chinese name of a girl she had never met and did not know.

It is in these unexpected moments that Bow proves that he can use language. But most of the time, language is superfluous for Bow. as it is for many parents with their kids: you don't need him to say it before you know what he wants.

Language isn't such a great thing in everyday life. But on that rare occasion when you cannot read another person's mind through posture and gesture, it can be a powerful tool.

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