Lately, I have been trying to assess Pamela's level of curiosity by stating a bare sentence and giving her the opportunity to think and ask questions (or not). Yesterday, I was standing outside our bedroom watching Pamela sift through old pictures, and I said, "I am going outside." Before she could blink, Steve, who was sitting on our bed using the laptop, called out, "Why?" Well, at least Steve showed curiosity! So, I walked over to him and explained what I was doing. Then, I repeated my statement and Pamela asked, "What are you doing?" YES! I told her I was hanging clothes.
Today, Steve and I were sitting in the kitchen when the door bell rang. He went to the front door by going outside because the glass door is sticking badly right now. I walked through the house to the door and said, "Someone is at the door." Pamela, who was surfing the net, did not say anything (which is fine because experience sharing is not pestering someone until they feel coerced into responding). I walked to the window where the computer is, simply looked out, and watched Steve carry a box. She said, "Package for dad. Is it toilet?" Even though I knew it was Michael, a gnome with a berry basket, I used vocal intonation to indicate a mystery and headed to the kitchen.
Pamela was not interested enough to follow, which was okay. Experience sharing is invitational, not mandatory. Steve opened the box and placed Michael and, about ten minutes later, Pamela sauntered into the kitchen. She pointed to the box and said, "What is it?" I replied, "A gnome," purposely leaving out details. Pamela then asked, "Where is it?" I turned my head in the direction of the birdbath and looked at the statue. She headed out the door, and Steve and I followed. I told Pamela, "His name is Michael."
Pamela observed, "Basket." I was about to comment on the basket when Steve asked, "Do you know what the gnome is doing?" (He is still a novice in guiding experience sharing through declarative language and broadband communication.) Pamela said, "Smoking!" which was an interesting comment that I would have liked to pursue down a rabbit trail, but Steve said, "No, he is bringing good luck. Gnomes are supposed to bring good luck." Then, he asked, "Do you know what the basket is for? Berries."
Steve is still learning the fine art of using declarative language to guide experience sharing. Because he spends so much time in the business world tell people what to do, he has a hard time shutting that down when he comes home and flipping the switch to declarative talk.
When Pamela mentioned basket, we could have said things like:
The basket is empty.
I wonder what the basket is for.
That basket is small.
That basket reminds me of one that Oma gave me.
When Pamela mentioned smoking, we could have said things like:
I wonder if we need a no puffin sign (inside joke).
Just like the boy in Flipper.
I don't see a pipe!
I know how hard it is to have a nonverbal child with autism or a low verbal child, living in fear of not ever hearing a single word. It is so tempting to try to jumpstart spoken language without laying a foundation of nonverbal communication and emphasize purely instrumental communication because it is easier to teach with the clear structure: a direct, black-and-white question have only a few possible answers, and sometimes only one response. Instrumental interactions go very well the the typical learning style of an autistic child, too! Once a child has the mechanics of language down, answering questions truly requires very little thought and only exercises the static parts of the brain, which are usually highly developed in a person with autism. An analogy would be what happens when a weightlifter only targets certain muscles: others atrophy and the person loses flexibility or the body appears uneven in muscle development.
One of the exercises suggested in Chapter 3 of The RDI Book, which covers dynamic communication, is to watch an clip from a foreign film that is not action-packed, without subtitles, and analyze the nonverbal communication. I watched about three minutes of a movie that Steve loved back in the early 1990s: Caro Diario, available as instant play at Netflix. I watched from 1 hour 6 minutes to 1 hour 8 minutes 30 seconds on the Netflix viewer, covering up the subtitles with a piece of paper.
The gestalt of my interpretation of the nonverbal communication is a very serious man is sharing an important piece of writing with two other men, one of whom says something so provocative that the serious man fled in terror and escaped by ferry boat. The details that gave me this big picture view are as follows: two men are writing, very peacefully and calmly, while one man watches them and asks a question. The older man looks at the questioner and explains what he is writing. He finds it so important he shifts attention to the other writer to make sure he is also listening and reads what he wrote. He emphasizes his words, gesturing with his writing hand, and looks up to make sure the questioner is listening. His very pointed and direct facial expression tells me he is passionate about his topic. He recites from memory and stares down the questioner, who gazes intensely with very little change in his expression and acknowledges the speaker with gentle head nods. His eyes shift to the left momentarily and refocus on the speaker. The other writer is also listening with his head tilted as if he were considering the speaker's words carefully, leaning his body toward the speaker and shifting his body slightly. When the speaker is finished, the questioner slightly arches his eyebrows with a slight smirk on his face as he shares something I believe to be provocative. He turns his head back and forth as if to shake his head no slightly. The scene suddenly shifts to the speaker fleeing down the hill with his luggage, ranting and raving, as if running away from the plague. He is grunting and growling in anger as he runs toward a ferry that is about to leave what I assume is an island with no bridges because he is yelling desperately for them to wait for him. He barely leaps on the boat just in time.
Then, I uncovered the subtitles and watched the scene again. I typed up the transcript, and it hit me that the literal words are silly and pointless and do not match the nonverbal communication at all. The letter writer is really reading his letter to the Pope, justifying why watching soap operas promotes family unity. He recites from memory the television schedule, but then reflects he can go without television for a few days. The questioner tells him that the island has no electricity and therefore no television, and the dramatic cut shows the writer sprinting to the only means possible of leaving the island.
Questioner: Are you working?
Diary Writer: I'm writing my diary for now, but . . .
Letter Writer: I'm writing a letter to the Pope because he excommunicated soap operas. He says they harm family togetherness. 'Dear Holy Father, Forgive me, but you are wrong, our families are more and more withdrawn. Thanks to soap operas, we express interest in other, faraway families with whom we share problems, dramas and joys.' Ines, a Secretary, 10:30 A.M. Flamingo Road, 12:50 P.M. Falconcrest, 2:00 P.M. Maria, 2:25 P.M. Santa Barbara, same time, different channel. Celeste, 4:25 P.M. The Bold and Beautiful, 7:15 P.M. I can go a few days without TV, but I don't miss it.
Questioner: On this island, there's no electricity. There's no TV here.
Letter Writer: Television! Elevator! Telephone! Hot water! Wait for me! Television! How can you live without TV? Stop! H. Magnus Enzensberger stirs my pity when he says TV transmits nothingness! Stop! Karl Popper, you're mistaken. TV is not a monster corrupting children. Children don't become moronic watching TV. They daydream. As in old times they daydreamed listening to fables and legends.
What did I learn from this experience? I learned that nonverbal communication can sometimes paint a very different picture from the actual words. The two put together give an entirely new meaning. In this case, the foreboding, serious nonverbals combined with the silly, pointless verbal is what makes the scene absolutely hilarious to me! The mismatch heightens the humor of the scene.
It is no wonder people with autism are confused when they take our words at face value! Often, what we say is not really what we mean . . .