Tag Archives: conversations

The Seven Year Itch

I’ve never seen The Seven Year Itch (although at some point, I’d like to). The phrase, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a disinterest in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage, has entered the popular culture, and has even been used by psychologists.” And now it will be used by the mother of an autistic teen, with an entirely different meaning.

As my son entered his second year of teenhood, which was just a couple of months ago, I began noticing something. Over the course of a few weeks’ worth of seemingly isolated incidents, I realized that Nigel, who had always been notorious for the eternally flat tone in his voice (except when angry), was suddenly speaking with inflection. And not just random variations – he actually put appropriate emphasis on the right words. His tone was starting to sound conversational! It took another week or two of me pointedly observing him talk and noting the increase of his inflection before I allowed myself to believe it. This is truly a developmental coup. It’s a milestone for the five-year-old boy who, when a child psychiatrist asked, could not say his own name. It’s a milestone for the boy who, for so many years, could only parrot lines from Disney movies or Scooby-Doo cartoons when he wanted to interact with people. He has worked so hard to achieve this.

I know that much of the increase in voice inflection has to do with the weekly social skills class that he is enrolled in at the local middle school this year. It’s a very small class, with only two other students, but I know that the two instructors have been specifically working with Nigel on his conversational skills. Whatever they’re doing – it’s effective. And he’s responding to it, which tells me that he’s ready. It’s time.

What do I mean by that? That’s where my seven-year-itch theory comes into play. Over the years, I have noticed that every seven years Nigel seems to make a huge leap in various areas of his development. It’s like he has this really significant itch every seven years, and when he scratches it, he hits a milestone. For example, when he was two, his sensory issues were so severe that he had to wear a fitted hooded jacket whenever we left the house to muffle sounds and help him feel secure. When he was nine, he had a wonderful regular ed teacher (he was mainstreamed that year with an aide) who not only taught him a lot academically, he patiently encouraged Nigel to remove his hood for the first time. That was also the year that I could take Nigel into grocery stores and the occasional restaurant. Another example of his seven-year-itch is in the cognitive area. When he was three, he taught himself to read, but I was told that it was common for young children with hyperlexia to not comprehend most of what they read. Seven years later, when Nigel was ten and reading at a high school level, his comprehension was tested. It was estimated that he understood about 95% of what he was reading.

When Nigel was seven, seven years ago, he really started talking. He had some speech prior to that year, but it was mostly echolalia and scripting (a term which wasn’t used much then). He would occasionally string up to four words together to communicate, but he had trouble with syntax and pronouns, verb tenses, etc. When he was seven, something clicked. He got an itch. He started stringing together more than four words spontaneously, his syntax and verb tenses began improving, and his echolalia decreased. It was remarkable. Of course, his tone was characteristically flat and downright stoic, but that was okay. It was definitely okay with me.  I figured he would always talk that way, and that was fine.

And now, seven years later, the inflection surfaces. On appropriate words, even. I am so loving this – this unexpected gift. Some seven-year-itches can be good.

Dinner at Our House

The following uncensored conversation took place in our dining room tonight:

Nigel (seated at table): I don’t want hot dogs tonight. I want to choose what I want for dinner.

Aidan (seated at table): What’s with the whole wheat buns? You know I hate these.

Me (a few feet away in the kitchen): I have work to do tonight, so I made something quick for dinner. [I start grating cheese on the nachos I am throwing together making for myself. The boys are silent for a few minutes as they eat.]

Aidan: Stop staring at me!

Nigel (matter-of-factly): I’m going to say something to you. I’m making eye contact.

Aidan: Well you don’t have to look at me!

Nigel: I’m going to build a time machine and go back in time to stop JFK from being assassinated.

Aidan: Time machines don’t exist.

Nigel: I’m going to invent one.

Aidan: It won’t work.

Nigel: I’ll go back to November 22, 1963 . . .

Aidan: I don’t even care, Nigel.

Nigel:  . . . and I will save him.

Aidan: Stop staring at me!

Nigel: I’m making eye contact because I’m talking to you. It’s a social skill.

Me: Aidan, if he’s talking to you, it’s okay for him to look at you.

Aidan: Well, it’s rude! [He stands up and walks over to the kitchen counter where he deposits his dinner plate with the untouched wheat buns still on it and goes to his room. Nigel, meanwhile, continues laying out his plans for thwarting the JFK assassination.]

I take my nachos out of the oven and sit down next to Nigel, who has eaten his whole wheat buns. He tells me his ideas, like suggesting to JFK that he use a “decoy” in the car. I suggest having him re-route the motorcade. “That would make the assassins suspicious, Mom.” I suggest that an inflatable President in the car would as well. “It could be mechanized so it would wave.” All this time he is making perfectly appropriate eye contact with me. He is conversing. And I’m trying not to dwell on the fact that my other son stormed out of the room (thanks, puberty) yelling about the very thing that Nigel has so diligently been trying to accomplish.

Someday, we will all sit around this table at the same time, all with the same food, and we will converse, and we will not have accusations of staring and rudeness flying around. It will probably happen right around the time that Nigel invents his time machine.

Conversations With Nigel

Usually, my sons go to LA to visit their dad for two weeks in March for Spring Break, but this year their dad came up to Oregon to visit them. So I have not had an actual phone conversation with Nigel, other than “the-scout-meeting’s-over-come-pick-me-up,” since last July. In the past two weeks I have been reminded of what that’s like.

As with most of his conversations, phone or not, if Nigel’s not speaking about an Obsession of the Week, I have to drag any information out of him. He will rarely volunteer information unless it’s regarding something of interest to him, some piece of trivia about Back to the Future, natural disasters, ancient civilizations, or an explanation of his latest Lego creation, for example. He could never be accused of “B.S-ing” about something he did not know, and I doubt that will ever change.

But when I haven’t seen him for weeks, I want to hear more about how he’s been, what he’s been doing. And those are often difficult topics for him to discuss, especially if a TV is distracting him. I know this, it has always been this way, and so I am patient.

Me: So what did you do over the weekend?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: Did you go to the beach?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: Nigel? Did you go to the beach over the weekend?

Nigel: Yes.

Me: Which beach did you go to?

Nigel: I don’t know.

Me: Did you visit anyone?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: Nigel?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: Nigel, is the TV on?

Nigel: Yes.

Me: What are you watching?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: What are you watching on TV?

Nigel: The Lost Pyramid.

Me: Is it on the History Channel or Discovery?

Nigel: [silence]

Me: Is it on the History Channel or Discovery?

Nigel: History.

Me: Okay, well, I love you.

Nigel: I love you, too, bye.

Relieved, I’m sure, he hangs up. He knows I love you is the last thing we say on the phone. And I am always so glad I can hear him say it.