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Ariane Zurcher

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The Rules of Language for an Autistic Child

Posted: 12/08/10 04:46 PM ET

The other morning Emma said tearfully, " Rope?"

I knew she was asking me to help her find our cat, Merlin's toy, which has captivated her attention in recent weeks. It resembles a fishing rod, only it's plastic and at the end of a thinner plastic line is a cat's version of a fishing fly. The fly has feathers in royal blue and black though ours, or I should say, Emma's no longer has any feathers. A few defeated bristles are all that remain. I tried to get Emma to call the toy "Merlin's cat catcher." Emma repeated the words and then said, "rope," in a matter-of-fact tone. Fair enough, saying rope is certainly easier than the tongue twister I was suggesting.

Emma's interest in Merlin's toy is not to engage Merlin in any sort of play. She likes to hold it and chew on the thinner plastic line. Merlin, under the misguided impression it is still his toy, leaps at the bristled end and tries to grab it in his mouth. Emma ignores him unless prompted by one of us to use it to play with him. At which point she will whip the thing around her head so violently Merlin runs away. Mission accomplished. No one can accuse Emma of not being able to creatively problem solve.

"Leash?" Emma said the other day. "Leash" is short hand for any number of things: tape measure, jump rope, belt or dog's leash. It began out in Colorado where she loves to hold the leash attached to one of my mothers' two German Shepherds. She is actually terrified of most dogs, including my mother's. Giving her the leash to hold is one way to calm her when we are taking the dogs for a walk. But since we do not own a dog in New York City I know when she asks, she is looking for my tape measure or less frequently her jump rope.

The other night Emma was recounting our trip to Costa Rica, something she often does. She tapped her stomach and said, "Now go bang-bang!" Which means she was remembering how her stomach hurt. "Now see thunder," she added. Meaning she remembered her headache. "Make you cry," she said and proceeded to pretend cry while looking at her reflection in the mirror.

We have an African Senufo Bird in our loft which is a primitive statue carved from wood. It stands about five and half feet tall and Emma refers to it as "giraffe." I have corrected her on numerous occasions, but she remains unconvinced.

A rope, a leash, a toy, a giraffe ... All things we learn to identify at a very young age and never think about again. But for Emma this was not the case. Why is the letter "H" called "Aich?" Its phonetic sound doesn't offer any clues. As anyone knows who has attempted to learn English as a second language, for every rule there is an exception.

Emma, like many autistic children is a stickler for rules, she is comforted by them. All the more so when she is the one imposing them.

 

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