Friday, August 28, 2009

A Bit More on Speech and Conversations

There are certain behaviors that people immediately associate with a spectrum disorder. The most widely recognized is probably failure to make and keep eye contact. Repetitive behaviors are also common, perhaps as a mechanism to keep focused on what's going on, since the eye contact most of us depend on for this connection is so difficult for someone with a social communication disorder.

I remember an incident when my son was still in preschool. As he entered the classroom one morning, a friend welcomed him with an enthusiastic "Hi!" Before my son could respond with a greeting of his own, the other toddler had long since moved on. It was the first clear signal of the combined effect of the learning disability and the dysfluency.

At that time, he was already working with a speech and language pathologist, therapy that would continue right through high school, with practical results. Eye contact is much less of an issue today. He can respond to questions with more than short answers and can usually add his own experiences to conversations. What he frequently still struggles with is adding an appropriate question or comment that would extend the conversation: Someone might ask, "What did you think of the movie?" And he would reply, "I really liked it. I especially liked the part where..." He is much less apt to add what most of us neuro-typicals would add intuitively: " What did you think?"

My son insists that when he's talking to peers and not in the company of adults who might have some influence over the direction of the conversation, he does fine. However, on the day of his high school graduation when some friends stopped by our house for a quick bite of "commencement cake," my son was clearly on the periphery and he was content to let the adults (Dad and I, aunts, grandparents) take the conversational lead. ("So what schools are you all going to?" "Any thoughts about majors?" etc.)

While many parents were having conversations about curfews, behavior, homework and myriad other minor and major subjects, my son and I had conversations about conversations -- the mechanics of having a dialogue. I would tell him: It's like playing a game of catch. Someone throws the ball to you; not only do you have to catch it, but you have to throw it back, otherwise the game ends. And that's just the plain vanilla conversation -- let's not forget facial expressions, tone, kidding, sarcasm and all the other nuances that round out the meaning of the words themselves. After eighteen years, I still feel the need (most of the time) to add "just kidding" when I tease him.

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