Nuance

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Nigel:  Mom, isn’t it strange? I love pumpkin pie but I don’t like pumpkin.

So often I take for granted my understanding of all the nuances of our culture, including aspects of our spoken communication. I know when someone is making a joke or being sarcastic, I know that sometimes when I make a brief comment or ask a rhetorical question that I usually won’t get a response, and I know that most people with typical hearing only use subtitles when watching foreign films.

My son’s autistic mind usually takes nothing for granted and makes no assumptions. If he makes a statement such as “This mixes my face” while looking into a disco ball, he will repeat the statement until someone acknowledges him. He does not take for granted that I’ve heard him, that I don’t know that he is expecting a response, or that I don’t have one for him. He doesn’t understand why no one is responding to him, so he repeats himself. He doesn’t mind repeating himself five times while I am formulating a response, especially when his statement is something as, um, unusual as “My brain is the size of twenty yellow lemons,” which he said at age eight. I had no idea where that came from.

That was also the year that he discovered that DVDs were better than VHS tapes because he could choose to watch them with subtitles so that he could keep the volume low and memorize the lines while reading them onscreen. One night, when I started watching a movie (without using subtitles), he asked, “Why you didn’t want it without words?” because he couldn’t imagine how I could deprive myself of this convenience. Growing out of clothing was also a difficult concept that year. When his briefs were getting too tighty-whitey and I had to purchase new ones, I forgot that I should have prepared him. He went to get dressed the next morning and stood there in front of his chest of drawers saying, “What about the 6 underwear?” since I had bought him size 8, and his old ones had been size 6. No assumptions.

Fast forward six years, and he is starting to make little assumptions. He realizes that just because he likes pumpkin pie, it doesn’t mean that he’s going to like pumpkin. (I assure him that many people fall into that category.) And he is learning to recognize sarcasm. A few weeks ago, a friend of the family was visiting on a day that Nigel was supposed to have cleaned his room. Since he hadn’t cleaned it, it looked like a bomb had gone off in there. Nigel was sitting on his bed reading when my friend poked his head in the doorway, surveyed the damage, and said, “It looks good in here.”

Nigel paused for a moment as if considering, and then he said, “I know you’re being sarcastic.”

In spite of the messy room, I was rather proud. And definitely amused.

9 thoughts on “Nuance

  1. Kate

    “My son’s autistic mind usually takes nothing for granted and makes no assumptions. If he makes a statement such as “This mixes my face” while looking into a disco ball, he will repeat the statement until someone acknowledges him. He does not take for granted that I’ve heard him, that I don’t know that he is expecting a response, or that I don’t have one for him. He doesn’t understand why no one is responding to him, so he repeats himself. He doesn’t mind repeating himself five times while I am formulating a response, especially when his statement is something as, um, unusual as “My brain is the size of twenty yellow lemons,” which he said at age eight. I had no idea where that came from.”

    Wow, that describes me to a tee. It really, really bothers me when no one replies to something I’ve said. Sometimes it will even make me quite angry. I wonder where I buy the “Learn how to understand conversational nuances 101” toolkit? :)

    I also never assume someone has heard me or understands me. This is actually probably my biggest and most frustrating communication deficit with autism. Why can’t people acknowledge what I say? Especially when they are family and I have asked them a million times to? Interesting.

  2. Kate

    But seriously. I have a response, a thought, a comment for every single thing a person says to me, no mater how small, unimportant, off the wall, whatever. It just seems like good conversation to respond.

    So I can’t understand why other people don’t. What are you, the NT, THINKING when we talk? Aren’t you always thinking about something? Why is it so hard for NTs to then translate those thoughts into words?

    If I make for example a comment about something I did that day – a normal thing to say nothing off the wall – in a phone conversation, it is quite likely the person will say nothing. NOTHING. I just said something and they say nothing. Why? What is the reasoning and rationale behind this? Do they truly have no thoughts about what I just said? No emotional reaction, it doesn’t spur any thoughts in them?

    I’m just trying to understand how the other side thinks.

    Maybe people with ASD have more associational thinking?

    I could go on but I’ll stop there…
    Kate

  3. Fearless Females

    Nigel is definitely going places!! It’s so nice to see how our kids are progressing each year and learning to understand concepts and why people do what they do… Nick is so similar that way; finds people interesting and will always ask me why a person did what they did or said what they said even though he knows that answer—he is quite amused!!

  4. Em

    I love when our son points out such things…cause I do look right past them. But for his mind, each detail is something to be observed and appreciated. Or at least observed. LOL

  5. jess

    it’s such a marvel to see them start to put it all together .. to decode what was once indecipherable. your pride is well deserved!

  6. M

    I love the way he just calmly made note of the sarcasm, it’s funny. “Hmm…I detect humor”. Indicative of his analytical mind. Very Nigel of him.

    “My brain is the size of twenty yellow lemons,”

    and phrases like this are great because they’re so unique. Nigelisms are basically like snowflakes…unique, unlike any other, his own trademark expressions. “Nigel-esque” will be my new word for a novel turn of phrase.

  7. mama mara

    When it comes to autism and humor, I always remember my favorite character, Data, from Star Trek: Next Generation, in his quest to understand the concept of “funny”
    (Episode – “Suddenly Human”)

    DATA: I fail to understand why this is amusing.
    CMDR. RIKER: Access your databanks under humor, subheading slapstick.
    DATA: Comedy stressing farce and horseplay. Aw. This no doubt is a variation on pie in the face.
    RIKER: Now do you see what’s funny ?
    DATA: No, sir, but I will take your word for it. This is very amusing.

  8. Tanya Savko Post author

    Kate – thanks so much for your input re people acknowledging what you/Nigel/anyone says. I try to at least say an “oh, really?” or “okay” or “mm-hmm” to Nigel to let him know that I heard what he said if it doesn’t require an answer. Often times, my mind is so full with trying to juggle my jobs, a second child, household duties, errands, appointments, etc. that I’m always thinking ahead reminding myself of what I have to do and when. It’s hard to always be fully in the moment. Sometimes I’m so focused on what I’m thinking about that one of my sons will come in the room and say something and I literally do not hear them. But that’s just me – I can’t speak for other NTs who probably have their own reasons for why they do things. I’m definitely with you on ASD people having more associational thinking, though. Nigel has demonstrated this since early childhood, when his speech was largely echolalic. His therapists used to call him “Mr. Association” for that reason. Thanks again for the discussion, Kate! I always like what you have to say.

    Mama Mara – I should see if Nigel would get into Star Trek. I wonder if he’d identify with Data!

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