“I will try to express myself in some mode of life as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” -James Joyce
Lately Nigel has taken to expressing himself in a new way. If I ask him a question and he doesn’t feel like talking, he silently mouths the words of his answer. This only works, of course, if I’m near him and looking closely at his face, and even then, sometimes I can’t figure it out, not being a lip-reader. I suggest that he might like to write the answer down. “No,” he mouths, not using any vocal chords, not even whispering. He shuns writing with a writing utensil, preferring to type if possible, if the computer is on and accessible. He’ll offer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down if my question requires a yes or no answer. He’ll point if the question involves indicating a direction or the location of a missing item. Then, after exhausting all options for answering the question non-verbally, he’ll sneer the answer in a low voice between clenched teeth.
It’s not that he’s losing his hard-earned, long-awaited speech. It’s that he’s being selective about when he uses it. It’s as if his voice is a precious commodity and he doesn’t want to expend it uselessly, unnecessarily. There is effort involved in speaking, both in choosing words carefully and in vocalizing and making oneself heard. But many times, when he is in his social mode, like at a party, he does not use this discretion, he is not concerned with conserving his voice, and he blurts out unfiltered comments. Of course, inconsistency is one of the more dependable traits of autism.
“Silence, exile, and cunning” could also be considered traits of autism. I find myself faced with the choice of enabling Nigel by asking him questions that do not require a voiced answer or forcing him to answer verbally. Is it a need of his to be selective about when he chooses to talk? Don’t I owe it to him to respect his choices, to meet his needs? Or is it more of a want and less of a need? At this point, I’m looking at the big picture. Nigel turns fourteen in a few days. I think this may be his way of asserting his developing autonomy, and as such, it is a need. It’s a need for any teen, but especially an autistic one. He knows when he can silently mouth words, and he knows when that won’t work. He’ll do it selectively. He’s still talking, still communicating. Just doing it on his own terms.