I read a post over on Facebook from the lovely Unhinged Mummy regarding another blog post she’d read. This blog centred around a lady whose child is non-verbal, and how she feels about all the little things people take for granted when it comes to their child’s speech and language capabilities, and how, as the parent of a non-verbal or not-very-verbal child with ASD, we just don’t do that.
It got me thinking. We ask so many questions of children, but do they really understand? I positively cringe when someone asks Tink a question, because I know it’s highly unlikely she won’t understand, and won’t be able to answer, even though she looks like she should be able to. I ask the children I work with (aged 2, 3 and 4) questions all the time – and they are able to answer them. I ask them things like “what did you do at the weekend?”, or “did you have presents for your birthday? What were they?” and they’ll be able to tell me all about it. We all do it – it’s what we’re meant to do – open-ended questioning to encourage the child to talk, rather than answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However, what if the child we’re questioning just simply doesn’t understand? Not that they just don’t know the answer, but doesn’t even understand the social convention of ‘me ask, you answer’, let alone understanding what is being asked and, therefore, what kind of answer is required?
There have been countless occasions when I have been out and about with Tink, and a well-meaning shop assistant will look at her, sitting in the trolley, attempting to pinch items of other people’s shopping off the conveyor belt, and she’ll (it’s usually a ‘she’) say, “and what’s your name?”
I’ll pause (and take a silent, inward breath), and look at Tink with an expectant smile, as if she’s actually going to answer… and then, when I think it’s gone on long enough, I’ll say, in a twee voice, “it’s Tink, isn’t it?” And Tink will carry on pinching tins and bread rolls like the conversation never happened. She has absolutely no idea that a) she was even being spoken to and, b) that the question required her to provide an answer. That she doesn’t even know the answer is by the by. She does know her name is Tink, (and here I pause, just to reassure readers that don’t know us in real life, that her name isn’t actually Tink. Just in case you were wondering! It’s just a nickname I’ve always called her. Honestly.) but she doesn’t understand the question, so she can’t give an answer. And then the shop assistant will give a little look as if to say, “she can answer for herself, you know,” and I’ll fix a smile on my face and think “you know nothing, actually. Please can we move on from this and hurry the hell up so I can get out of here before you give her a starter for ten?”
Another common one is “and how old are you?”. She has no concept of ‘age’, so that one’s a no-no too. Even if I told her she was three, this wouldn’t mean anything to her, so I doubt she’d remember and answer if asked again. Before starting nursery in September, people would ask her, “are you looking forward to nursery?” and she would just look at them, then carry on *jumping/spinning/eating dirt/running round with a stick in her mouth (*delete as applicable) as the concept of ‘nursery’ meant nothing at that time. Now, if you ask her a question with ‘nursery’ in, you’re likely to get an answer, although it will probably be, “painting, water, stories, playground, sandpit, bike, Lottie.” This is the list of activities she tells us she’s done at nursery every day, without fail. It grows every so often – a new one is added at the end, but the order remains the same.
The one I dread at this time of year is, “are you looking forward to Christmas?”, or, “and what are you going to ask Father Christmas for?” Father Who?! She knows what he looks like; she knows the jolly-looking hairy fat fella dressed in red is ‘Father Christmas’, but the idea that this chap somehow brings her all the children in the world presents on Christmas Eve is waaaaaay beyond her capabilities. Hell, she doesn’t even really understand how presents work – to her, right now, if she sees a present, it’s to do with ‘birthday’ and ‘party’ and she’s only just about got the hang of opening them (unfortunately she will open any present in her vicinity – her own or someone else’s!) I’m not even sure how I feel about this one. On one hand, it would be so lovely for her to get caught up in the excitement of Christmas like her brother still does (although, at 8, for how much longer? Waaaaaahhh!) but on the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to try to expect a child with little capability of abstract thought to grasp a concept that (whisper) isn’t even real. At the moment, she enjoys seeing decorated trees, Christmas lights and presents, so that’s good enough for me. And she definitely ‘gets’ the magical appearing chocolate in her advent calendar each morning, even if she doesn’t understand what it is that the calendar is counting down to.
I hold on to the hope that one of these days, we’ll be at the checkout, she’ll be stealing someone’s shower gel or bananas, and the question will come… “awww, what’s your name?” And I’ll cringe. And I’ll pause, and take that inward breath and, before I can answer, a little voice will say, “Tink. My name’s Tink.”