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The Power of Silly Talk

Posted Mar 23 2011 8:10pm

It must have been sometime during when Nat was five that the “silly talk” emerged.  Nat was suddenly talking to himself in what seemed to be goofy baby talk.  Gibberish.  He had only just learned how to talk at all at that point; his functional language was very minimal and echolalic.  His less functional language was, until the advent of silly talk, long sentences, whole paragraphs taken from his favorite books (The Velveteen Rabbit, Corduroy, Richard Scarry).  They didn’t usually fit with anything that was going on at the moment, but they sure did make him look clever.  So when the long, interesting segments ceased or morphed into nonsense language, I noticed.  It would be the first time of many that we would observe a shift in Nat, a downturn in the progress, the feeling that we thought we were over the rainbow but all we really were was not in Kansas anymore.

I remember feeling such dismay and actual fear.  I was afraid most of the time in those days, all of Nat’s early days, marked by  the question that would emanate from me outward, eternally, into space:  What does this mean?

The school told us that this was a self-stimulatory behavior, which equaled bad, undesirable, and therefore merited extinction.  Nat was distancing himself from the world, retreating into His Own World, the three words autism parents hate the most, the words the world likes to attach to autism ad nauseum.

What should we do, we asked them.  This was a private program, his first of many.  “You have to interrupt him,” they said.  “You have to give him something else to say.  Real words.”  Cut ‘em off at the pass.  Nip this thing in the bud, before it sprouts poisonous stems and strong roots.  I’ve written about this in the first book.  This advice felt to me like seeing a long, blank, something stretched before me:  my life as Nat’s mother.  Give him something else to say?  I thought.  So now I was to be talking for two people, for Nat and for me.  A conversation with myself; how’s that for being in one’s own world?

Sometimes I feel like my entire life with Nat (post 5 years old) can be marked in terms of silly talk, and how it evolved over time, and how I evolved with it.  Needless to say, I failed miserably at implementing the school’s behavior plan.  I honestly did try doing that, modeling conversation for him, for so long.  I remember the tight pressure of tears in my throat, combined with the dogged over-brightness of my eyes, the layer of determination on the top mixed with the miserable underlying certainty that it wouldn’t work.  That, too, was the first of many strategies we would try with all of our effort but only half of our heart.  I think the way an autism treatment succeeds is if your smooth feeling of hope is stronger than your brittle feeling of wariness. It has less to do with your actual effort and more to do with what you kind of know in your heart and gut about your kid.

My feeling of failure then turned into something worse:  shame.  Because Nat took his silly talk everywhere we went and other people noticed.  I developed a cute little trick of dealing with it in public:  I would talk to Nat in a patronizing and simplistic manner to clue people in that this kid was different.  And, God forgive me, I did it just the other day in Starbucks so that the people crowded around us wouldn’t get all freaked out.  Jeez, until I became Nat’s Mom, I never realized how fragile the general public is about what is acceptable and what is not!  But I feel it so strongly, that I believe I am doing this to protect Nat.  But I guess I’m really protecting me…

Ick.  Anyway, we got to a point where we could make Nat aware of his silly talk, and thus we could get him to temper it.  “No silly talk in the movie, Nat.”  And “quiet silly talk in the store.”  And “No silly talk during dinner, and then you get ice cream.”  It was still an undesirable behavior, in our eyes, but at that time we began to feel a little better about it because we had a handle on it, we could control it in some way.

At some point in Nat’s early teens we started to really believe that silly talk was a positive thing for Nat, because it seemed to calm him down in difficult situations.  It made him happy.  And at age 12 and 13 our family philosophy had begun to shift away from therapeutic mentality to let’s-try-to-have-fun mentality.  Special Olympics helped this along.  Not only did it give Nat a place and a group to play with, it gave us a group of similar parents to hang out with.

I don’t know when it happened but there was a moment a couple of years ago when I was listening carefully to the silly talk, and I thought I could recognize a real word.  And the word was about something happening at that moment.  It was accompanied by a lot of other sounds, like “Feeeeeem,” and “Whoooooom,” but the true word was there, twinkling like gold in a rocky stream.  I can’t remember what it was.  I seem to think it was “window,” because back then Nat used to like to stand by the back window in the playroom and look out at the yard.  It was also the window he broke with his head one very long February.  (and he was fine!!!)

I began to develop a theory, that silly talk was actually not silly at all.  Silly talk was Nat’s way of expressing out loud the things he was thinking about.  The things he was troubled about, too.  I have now begun to think that Nat purposefully couches his thoughts in lots and lots of noise not because he doesn’t know what else to say, but because he is trying to say it without calling too much attention to himself.  I wonder if he knows, as he grows more self aware, that he is very different from those around him, who can talk and talk and talk to each other.  I wonder if he is trying to throw out a barrier of protection around himself so that he can say something, express it, get it out there, but not have to say more, like the rest of us. He is advancing and retreating, all at once.  Satisfying his need to speak but protecting himself at the same time.

I put my theory to the test a lot.  Now I always listen, hungrily, for the silly talk — not so silly now, is it? — and I offer a word or two to him, to guess at what he’s thinking.  I am showing him, one word at a time, that he is just fine, that he can talk any way he needs to.  That he can do it, and it will be okay!  I try to let him see — because I know he trusts me — that there is power for him in uttering even just one (non-silly) word.

I wrote a few months back about how Nat got really really upset at the supermarket when I used cloth instead of plastic bags.  He did not have a fit; but he clenched his hands, rocked and repeated, “eeeeeayayaya bayag.”  Bayag = bag.

“Nat!”  I shouted triumphantly.  “Are you upset about the bags??!!!”  Heart in my throat, I waited for the answer and prayed for it.

“Yes,” he said.  And now I could tell him all about why I used those cloth bags and that it was okay, the important thing would still happen (which is putting the food away immediately when we got home). I could tell him because he could tell me.  21 years is a long time to wait to be able to help your son, but let me tell you, it’s worth waiting a lifetime for.

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