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Speaking Properly


speaking properly

From: Sandrine at Paris Ankara Express
I am a French academic philosopher teaching in Turkey, married to English man. We have two trilingual children who act as our interpreters and put us to shame: an 11 year old girl and an 8 year old boy who’s autistic.

Why is that kid not speaking properly?

That kid in the playground who’s hanging out with his sister and following us around. Why isn’t he speaking properly? He’s making some noises, but I can’t understand. Is it French? Turkish? English? Why can’t he speak like us?

This is something I used to hear a lot about Max. And to be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure whether he just couldn’t manage to pick the right language. Sometimes he would get confused: he would speak Turkish to a French kid, or French to an English one. But soon, it became apparent that linguistic confusion wasn’t all there was to it. Max was autistic.

So now when other children ask me why he can’t speak, why he won’t engage fully in their games, why he is not in the same grade at school as kids his age, I just tell them: he is autistic.

I try to explain – he’s learning in a way that’s different from you. He finds some things very difficult and needs extra help dealing with them. He would love to play with you, but if there’s too many of you and the rules are too complicated, and the game is moving too fast, then he probably won’t be able to.

Yes, he likes to play in the sand with the little kids. That’s because he finds them easier to talk to. No, he’s not like them. No he’s not stupid either. His mind works in a way that’s different from yours.

Usually, before I’m able to say that much, a parent will intervene. Max is being slower than you because he has to learn in French, they’ll say. Or because he’s trilingual. Or he can speak and do all the things you do but doesn’t want to right now.

I do understand what these parents are doing. They don’t want their kids saying or thinking that mine is thick. So they try and keep up the pretense that he’s just like them but a bit shy. But that doesn’t work. The kids see through the lies and conclude the worst: Max must be stupid and we’re not supposed to know it or say it because that would be rude.

But mostly, they’ll think they’re being fobbed off. They’ll think that the grown ups are not really interested in explaining to them what’s going on with the kid in the playground, the kid they’re expected to be nice to and to include in their games.

So I insist. I want to explain to my son’s peers what it is exactly that’s stopping him from playing like them. I want them to know about autism. I want them to know that sometimes being different means you can experience difficulties functioning in their world, that it’s worth making an effort to try and include someone who’s struggling because despite their awkwardness, they really want to belong.

And you know, I think it will work. If you take the trouble to explain, they’ll take the trouble to try and include the autistic kid. I saw this first hand when we spent a week with my sister, and her children and mine had such a great time together. Her children knew what to expect. They knew Max wouldn’t always answer when they talked to him, that he’d find certain things, like noises, difficult to cope with. And that was fine.

I don’t actually know what most of our friends have told their kids about Max. We’ve never really discussed it despite the fact that we see each other all the time. I don’t even know what the teacher tells the kids at school. But what I do know is that from now on, whenever any child asks me about Max, or about autism, I’m going to be as honest and thorough as I possibly can.

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