Posted by: autismland | January 11, 2007

20 Years Ago, 20 Years From Today (#569)

Charlie’s speech therapist has been working on him saying “can I have” and “can I see” rather than the one catch-all phrase he has been using ever since he learned to communicate through some simple language seven years ago, that phrase being
“I want!”

(Or, as Charlie used to say when he was four and could not pronounce a lot of sounds, “I yeh.”)

Charlie usually speaks in a soft tone, so the harshness of “I want!”—try saying it out loud right now—is muted plus, of course, we’re always glad to hear him ask for anything independently. So glad, I have been thinking, that Jim and I tend to provide the wanted item whenever Charlie asks for it on his own, even if only with a word or two (“bread!” “socks!”), and not to think of more complex sentences for Charlie to try.

After afterschool ABA, a walk with Dad and piano with Mom, Charlie ran into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “I want!” “Caaa—” I prompted. “Caneye havfff…” said Charlie, and looked at me. “Canneye havvvvv….”

Earlier on their walk to the train Jim had prompted Charlie to ask “can I go”: “Sometimes when he talks, he’s so clear it sounds like you talking!” Jim said to me after Charlie was asleep (dose #4 of melatonin; woke up before 8am this morning and, after groggily pulling on his clothes, raced out the door without his coat to meet the bus, me hurrying after, clutching the coat).

When you hear about an autistic child who has become an autistic college student, or about an autistic child who is “fully mainstreamed,” you often hear people say “she’s come so far.” I’m cheering from my corner of Autismland here but don’t count “college” or “full mainstreaming” as the sole signs of Autismland Achievement. If you had see little two-year four-month old Charlie a-screaming and a-wailing when asked to sit at a table—-Charlie with no words, with one sound (“dah”); Charlie who would slap his head when frustrated—“he’s come such a long way” is all that needs be said.

If you had seen me—a short, shy, glasses-wearing, pastel-clothed Chinese American girl whose heart went into cortortions if asked to speak in class—through my schoolyears and when I first came back here to go to college two decades ago, you might wonder how I could have become autism mother get[ting] on her soapbox.

I spent the day in the library of the college I went to: I start teaching next Tuesday and needed several books for a new class. There’s an atrium-like area on the bottom floor with skylights and wooden tables that seat four, and I sat here amid college students studying for exams and writing papers. A young woman had been seated diagonally across from me when I sat down; she left in mid-morning, to be replaced by a young man with a pile of books, earbuds, and a backwards baseball cap at an angle and then, across from me, another young woman. She opened her laptop, turned on a bright red iPod, peered expressively into her screen, smoothed her hair into a knot.

Around noon I looked up from my computer to see a young Asian American woman, long straight hair, wire-rimmed glasses, powder blue ski jacket, walking in the atrium. She sat down beside me (though other tables had only two students seated at them) and pulled out a stack of printed-out PowerPoint slides with all kinds of colored graphs and figures on them. She studied assiduously, a wire-ringed notebook open and a mechanical pencil in her hand, and seemed never to look up.

She was still hunched over that stack of notes when I packed up my computer, the library books, and my coffee. As I walked away, I noted that she had never taken off her powder-blue ski jacket.

I wonder who she’ll be in twenty years, in ten years—-just as who knows what Charlie is growing up to be?



  1. I was curious, what is the significance of the student not taking off her jacket?

  2. She seemed (to me) to be socially out of her element among the other students, who were very comfortable being at a high-powered college and socializing with each other, and aware of how they looked (sorry to be superficial…..). This student was in the library to study for her exams, nothing else (or that was my impression—-once I really was just like her).

  3. I asked because my professors and I talked about social norms yesterday (as I’ll be going to grad school interviews soon). One of the “rules” we discussed was taking off your jacket if you’re going to be in a place for more than a few minutes. Apparently I missed the subtle social cue they’re referring to … It was just a coincidence for you mention it on the same day.

  4. That is really interesting—-BTW, I don’t think this student was on the spectrum; I think it was a cultural thing, so to speak. (I was wondering if she was from a family who had immigrated from an Asian country, for instance.) I really wanted to talk to her; seeing her made me think of how awkward and, frankly, scared I was when I went to college back East after living all my life among a lot of extended family in California. The other students were very comfortable slouching in chairs, chatting, and so forth—in other words, doing everything but studying (and we were in the library).

    I’d love to know how the grad school interviews go, if you don’t mind my asking!

  5. Sure, I’m happy to let you know how the interviews go. They don’t start until February.

    I currently have a dilemma. I can choose not to disclose my diagnosis to the schools and attempt to pass as “normal”. The problem is several interviews will be with well known autism professionals and I doubt I can fool them especially because I’ll be extra anxious … or they might just think I’m too odd and won’t want me in their program. Or I can disclose my diagnosis. This could be good in that they’ll likely think any idiosyncracies are related to ASD and not something worse, but I risk of not getting accepted because people have misconceptions about ASD (autism professionals and general clinical psychologists). Hmmm … any suggestions?

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