As a latchkey child in the 80s, I watched more than my share of 30 minute American TV sitcoms. One of my favourites was Three’s Company which detailed the foibles of the overly libidinous Jack Tripper and his roommates. I distinctly recall how it was the first time I realized that media used formulas to tell stories. In Three’s Company, a standard episode began with a hilarious misunderstanding, a wide of the mark approach to clarifying the mistake, and finally a tidy, if not inappropriate, resolving of the miscommunication. I realize now that much of my family’s existence with my brother was like a constant rerun of a Three’s Company episode, except without the superficial Hollywood endings.
When it came to oral communication, because of my parents’ having little formal education and English as a second language, we yelled a lot. The grammatical structure in how we spoke was extremely basic, and we expressed nuance by the volume of our voices. Since we knew little to nothing about how best to communicate with my brother, he got yelled at quite a bit. The screaming would always send him into a tailspin, as though each decibel was multiplied by a hundred to him. The more we didn’t understand how to get messages across to one another, the louder it got; the louder it got, the more we didn’t understand what each other was saying. If you’ve ever been in a room full of howling, barking dogs, you can get the picture. Again, like many aspects our life, it was maddening at the time, but hilarious upon reflection.
The only time we got a respite from the noise was on all the days and evenings I had to babysit him. I remember these moments so fondly, because it reminds me of how close we used to be, like Calvin and Hobbes. These days I feel more like a parent to him. Back then, we were buddies. He hung on my every word, repeated everything I said as though it were gospel. He used to tell me things I could never imagine him telling me now. Every night, I’d have to remind him not to worry about all the things he was worrying about. My brother could never fall asleep without me holding him, and sometimes I wonder if he needs someone to hold him now. Why do we stop holding each other when we get big and lumbering? Maybe my brother would be a lot happier now if I still held him like the old days? Maybe I’d understand what was going on in his mind and heart a lot more. Touch and soft words were how we used to talk to each other, how I used to help him get from anxious states into calm ones. I’m sad that growing up made us lose that.
It’s funny how we take communication for granted. Considering how much of our days are spent sending and receiving messages in all manner of forms, we still seem like fledglings in society when analysing whether or not our signals are actually getting through. Delving into the literature on autism made this point stark to me. The more I learned about the states of mind of an autistic, the more I realized I had spent my entire childhood in a household where communication was sent but not received.
I remember the first time a consultant handed me a binder and CD Rom called Boardmaker. I thought it was the silliest looking software I’d ever seen. Made up of a library of simplistic and iconic clipart representing moods and actions, I couldn’t understand how such a technology could go anywhere beyond a novel means of communication. Still, with a high degree of skepticism, I tried it out. Immediately, I saw the impact of talking in pictures.
My brother was suddenly understanding what I was saying. When I asked him to please do more of something while stopping something else, the message was no longer passing him by like so many wafts of smoke. When I created a social story to prepare him for an event, his anxiety level regulated. Of course, I began simultaneously to communicate with my student Timothy in this manner, and saw almost identical results. This one little experience of finally being able to express simple messages like “We are going to a restaurant tomorrow” or “Yumi is your niece” made a huge impact on me not only as a parent and pedagogue, but as a social human being in general. I now knew the difference between telling and communicating.
From that day forward, I never made assumptions that just saying something equated comprehension, or that just hearing words meant listening. It made me so much more creative in how I both sent and received messages. As someone who is currently privileged to consult and collaborate with many educators in different contexts, I constantly notice the power of reflecting on the actual results of communication, not just its intent. Communication, I realize more and more each day, is not something to be taken for granted like the air we breathe. Rather, it is an infinite and exciting problem to solve.
This was also when I began to reflect on the extent to which I exhibited cognitive similarities to my “disabled” brother. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, but today I realize it was the beginnings of exploring neurodiversity.
Part 6 soon. Read the rest of the series.