Speaking Atticus

Speaking Atticus
Atticus does not speak fluently. Over the years we’ve been given every possible explanation for this. He’s mentally retarded, he has autism, he’ll grow into it, it’s just a CP thing. Almost always, like, so close to always that the distinction is negligible, the assumption has been that his speech is a result of his intellectual abilities. He’s had school psychologists tell us, with him on my lap, that we should be happy if he could make change one day. He’s had teachers who refused to teach him. He’s had family members talk about him like he’s not in the room or ask if he likes to watch the Simpsons because he likes the colors and not the biting social satire.

If he didn’t speak at all he would have been given a communication device by now. But he speaks enough that it often gets misinterpreted. Autism has come up a whole lot, which I would welcome if it was the appropriate diagnosis, but what they’re trying to call autism is really just him knowing that therapist doesn’t see him and saving himself the trouble. So it’s been up to me to crack the code of Atticus.

I knew him. I just knew that everything I was hearing from the professionals and their evaluations based on one hour of standardized testing was false. I knew that he was brilliant and creative. I knew that the fact that he could read at 3 meant something and wasn’t just a fluke. The school psychologist who called Atti mentally retarded told me that his reading skills weren’t authentic. They were rote. If he could read than so could a parrot. He didn’t see my boy. But I do.

And as I searched for proof of my belief, I discovered something amazing. Atticus was communicating volumes. You just had to speak his language to understand. So I stopped trying to make Atti speak my language, and I started trying to learn his. I realized that the phrases he repeated from his toys were not just idle games. He was using them contextually to speak to me. He was using them like a rapper samples music and surrounds it with a new context to make something meaningful in a whole new way.

He does not have an official diagnosis of speech aphasia. But it is crystal clear to me that that’s what is going on. He receives language perfectly, but struggles to express language. The words are trapped in his brain.

But the music isn’t. Music flows from him. And he uses the language of his toys because after playing with them so much for so long, he hears the music in them. When he uses those phrases, they come out with the same pitch, intonation, rhythm, as they come out of the toy. Because he’s singing them. Have you ever heard one piece of speech over and over and over again? When you’re rewinding an audiobook, or restarting a podcast, or trying to find the right starting point in your TV show to skip the commercials. If you hear one piece of recorded speech over and over and over again, it sounds like music. You pick up on the pitch and intonation and rhythm that you weren’t paying attention to when you thought it was just speech, and if you hear it enough, it becomes a song. That is the key to Atti’s communication. The speech section of his brain isn’t cooperating, but the music section is. And it is not just cooperating, it’s compensating.

Whenever I need Atti to say something – a response to a question he gets in public, or how to behave in his classroom – we find the music in the phrase. I teach it to him like a melody. And then he can say it.

But that only started to happen once he saw that it was worth the effort. He had to see that I was going to hear him. And for that to happen, I had to go to him first.

Think about how discouraging it would be if no one ever listened to you. If people only told you things about yourself that you knew weren’t true, but you couldn’t make them see. If you had to go through the world with the brain you have now, but a gag over your mouth. You could never correct misconceptions. You couldn’t tell a joke or share your personality. You could never prove anyone wrong. So you’d give up. You wouldn’t try to talk with your teachers because you’d believe you couldn’t change their thinking. You wouldn’t try to pass the psych tests because you’d believe they’d just tell you you were retarded again, so why even put yourself out there? Think about your own emotional life, and then think about how that would be impacted if you could never talk it out with someone who loved you?

I refused to let my boy stay there. Every time he gives me a chance, I snatch it up. When he tries to say something and I don’t understand, I tell him to keep trying, but first I tell him to keep giving me a chance. I make sure he knows that I know how hard he’s trying and that it’s me who needs to make up the deficit. I’m trying to enter his world because he spends all day every day trying to enter mine.

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