Words That Must Be Said

Yesterday I wrote about non-verbal communication and Nigel’s development in that area. I ended that post with an anecdote about his emerging ability to read others’ non-verbal communication so that he would not say inappropriate things. On the flip-side of that, I also want to discuss the appropriate things that need to be said, because he often has just as much trouble with those.

“I’m sorry.” Nigel has just recently begun to comprehend the importance of this phrase. I’m sure there were many times that I tried to get him to say it, to parrot it, when he was younger, but the time that I remember the most was when he was 6 and we had some friends’ children visiting at our home for a barbeque, and he was running around chasing them. In retrospect, I should have known that he was too ‘escalated,’ too wound-up to register anything that I said to him. But I was still learning about autism and how it affected him. So he was being chased by a 3-year-old, laughing, probably enjoying the interaction because he always craved it, and Nigel ran into his bedroom and shut the door quickly, not realizing that the 3-year-old’s fingers were already in the door frame. I immediately took the little boy into the kitchen to have someone soak his hand in cold water, and then I went to tell Nigel that he needed to say he was sorry. Again, I was still learning about how autism affected him and I didn’t realize that he couldn’t say sorry because he could not comprehend the word. So when I told him to say it, he just said, “No sorry, no sorry.” I demanded that he say it or he would have to stay in his room the rest of the day. He repeated his “No sorry” mantra and then began screaming.

Two years later, a neighborhood girl verbally provoked him beyong his level of coping, and he allegedly “punched” her. The girl ran to tell me what Nigel had supposedly done, so I took him inside and told him that if someone is bothering him or making him mad, he should come and tell me instead of doing something to them that would get him in trouble. Later, he said he wanted to say he was sorry to her, so I walked him to the driveway and he went up to her and did it on his own. Then, while walking back home, he asked me, “Why do we say ‘sorry’?” He knew what he was supposed to do socially, but he still didn’t understand why. I think that now, at 13, he understands why, because he says it readily and remembers to do it on his own.

“Thank you,” however, he often forgets to say. Often, as in on a daily basis. I know that he understands the reason for saying it, but he just doesn’t do it unless prompted, much to my dismay. I could understand having to prompt him when he was younger, but he’s now a highly verbal 13-year-old! I guess I have to just keep doing what I’m doing, keep up with the repetition, and hope that one of these years he’ll get it.

Greetings are another gray area for him, and always have been. He often greets a household guest by walking up to them and showing them his latest Lego creation. I have to remind him, “Say ‘Hi, Grandma’ and give her a hug!” and then he does. He has to be coached on the phone as well.

I think the reason why these words and phrases are hard for him is because they are vague. They’re not nouns or adjectives or verbs (with the exception of thanking). There’s nothing to visualize. And for someone who is a visual learner, that makes it difficult. For someone who’s also trying to learn, at the same time, how to be socially appropriate, it’s a lot to absorb and apply. He’s mastered sorry, finally. I still have hope for thank you and hello.

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  1. Pingback: Teen Autism » Blog Archive » The First Sorry

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