Yesterday M brought home some reading homework that required her to figure out when a compound subject such as "Tim and Jane" is converted into a first-person plural indirect object pronoun.
Confused? Well, I was too.
It went something like this:
Tim and Jane asked Mary and Joe to come with them. "Come with us," Tim said.
Circle the names that can be substituted for "us."
a. Tim and Jan
b. Mary and Joe
M found it difficult, and we worked on the idea of "us" for quite some time. By the last question on the worksheet, she seemed to understand it. Sort of.
It reminded me of our earliest ventures in personal pronouns, and what I learned then about how professionals in the autism and special education world may understand us and our children.
As you probably know, one of the language "defects" observed in children in the spectrum is difficulty understanding personal pronouns. This difficulty is attributed by autism experts such as Simon Baron-Cohen to the autistic individual's supposed defects in theory of mind, or their "mindblindness."
And, when you think about it, personal pronouns are fairly complex.
Let's say that I say: "It's a picture of me." If you respond by saying "It's a picture of me," you'd be wrong, unless of course you and I were both in the picture. Getting your child to learn that "you" and "I" and "me" are relative words is one of the early speech-language challenges.
One day, not long after M was first evaluated for her speech and language deficits, I brought home a package of snapshots. M was about three years old at the time and she was thrilled by snapshots. Still is, though we're mostly digital in our photos these days. Anyway, as we were going through them, I was talking to her about each of them. We came to a snapshot of me, sitting at my desk in my office.
I said, "Look M., it's me at my office."
"Me at office," she said.
"No honey, it's me—Mama—at the office," I said, pointing at myself.
"No no," she said, "Me at office."
"Honey, look, it's Mama, me, at office," I tried to persuade her.
"Me-me at office!" she said.
I was about to give up and move onto the next picture, when she took the picture from me, and pointed to a tiny, tiny image inside the image. On the shelf in my office there was a framed snapshot of her. "Me in office," she said. She had zoomed in on the photo of herself on the shelf in my office.
I was amazed. That's some visual acuity that she's got there . . . to pick out an image of herself that was no more than 1 or 2 millimeters wide, inside a 4x6 snapshot.
When M was evaluated by the in-network speech language pathologists, they generated a report that labeled her play "perseverative" and her speech "echolalic," and that commented on her inability to use personal pronouns accurately.
At that time I was still in the autism mom stage that I call "refusal." Some people call it "denial"—suggesting that one just can't wrap one's brain around the truth about your child . . . that one is just incapable of grasping the horrible reality. But I call it refusal, because I think it has more to do with refusing to accept professional authority and pronouncements.
Anyway, I was on the phone with the SLP who had written the report, and I told her about M's amazing recognition of herself in this photograph . . . About how I had at first thought that M was having a problem with pronoun confusion, but that actually I just wasn't seeing what she was seeing, and therefore wasn't understanding that she was right, that she was in the picture. I was very excited and effusive telling the SLP about my discovery.
"Yes," she said, her voice flat and deflating, "M. has splinter skills."
"Yes, splinter skills. She has some specific strengths. That's typical of kids like M."
Apparently, autistic kids have a remarkable capacity to see the parts of an image, even in the absence of the whole, making them particularly skillful at putting together jigsaw puzzles. A splinter skill.
O-kaaaaay, I thought. So now I'm starting to understand this:
Autism Axiom #1: What's good about my kid is bad, and what's bad about my kid is also bad.
Most people get to understand that their personal characteristics may be viewed as assets or liabilities, depending on the context. The ability to focus and persevere is tenacity in one setting, obsessiveness or perseveration in another.
But in the land of developmental diagnostics—at least among the clinicians we first encountered—there were only liabilities. Everything was to be converted into evidence of the four D's: damaged, defective, diseased, disabled.
This approach might work for a professional building a case for the child's pathology, but it sure wasn't working for me.
Writing in 1943, psychiatrist Leo Kanner called the skills of autistic kids "islets of ability." I'm not sure who came up with the even more dismissive term "splinter skills." Sounds as though we ought to be looking for a pair of tweezers to yank those skills right out of them.
The earliest example of this language of "splinter skills" that I've come across is in a 1971 article by DeMyer, et al, in the first issue of the Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia. But that was the first issue of this publication, so who knows—clinicians might have been using the splinter skill language for much longer. I'll have to look into that.
Personally, I prefer islets of ability. Sounds rather nice . . . though I can't figure out if I should be imagining small, lush, tropical islands of skill in a great sea of plentitude, or great craggy stones jutting up from an ocean of ineptitude.
Whichever it is, I'm quite certain that the best course of action is to remember that even when I can't quite see it, that Sweet M is in the picture.