I would wager that Charlie understands the lion's share of what he hears. Jim and I have no direct, actual, literal, "scientific" sort of evidence for this. But we do really feel that, for all we don't (yet; always) know why Charlie does what he does and says what he says, we do know Charlie very, very well, and he us. (Does anyone every truly understand and know why another individuals does and say what she or he says?)
A student who was struggling to speak a contemporary foreign language once noted to me that his instructor had told him that he needed to "think in [the contemporary foreign language]." This advice, while making sense, also made the student something more than exasperated: Here he was trying to learn the basics of a foreign language, only to be told that he needed to start by thinking in a language that he was less than even well-versed in.
On the one hand, I see Jim and me as my student, doing our best to speak and think in a foreign language---Charlie's communications, verbal and otherwise---and knowing that we're at the very tip of the iceberg of understanding. And on the other hand, Charlie is the student who hears some other language spoken copiously all around him, who tries so very hard to speak in it and use it and everything gets all flubbed out, no matter how hard he tries to "think in" the language that Jim and I and all of Charlie's teachers and therapists and others use. Either way, one party in the exchange finds himself or herself at a severe disadvantage, equipped with only a rudimentary vocabulary and fumbling to use those few words to express the full range of thoughts, needs, ideas.
So, while Charlie understands what it means when "no" is said to him, and says "no" himself at moments when he clearly does not want to do something, sometimes (as I've noted) he means something more like "maybe" or "give me a moment, I need to think about it"---even, as I've been thinking more recently, "not right now but hold on, I need more time to process what you're saying to me." When Charlie says "yes," people tend to proffer some object or action, and it can be too late for Charlie to say he really doesn't what such. "No" defers and delays, while "yes" often has the not-always-desired result of bringing it all on.
And lately, too, we've gotten a renewed sense of how much power there is in one word, whether said or heard by Charlie. He had a good day at school but, in the very last minutes, started asking about leaving and things escalated and he very quickly got very upset. He was able to stay in his seat and get himself calmed down, which I thought, and told his teacher when she related this to me after school, commendable.
Monday had gotten off to an unusual start. I drove Charlie to school and then, in the interest of making it to work at a reasonable time, my dad had also come to wait with Charlie till school started while I drove off. All went smoothly except that, as it occurred to me in reflecting on things, Charlie may well not have been too sure who was going to be picking him up. We had of course told him about this arrangement but it was definitely outside the usual routine.
And then, too, Charlie had woken up at 4.51am. Gotten dressed, put on his shoes, opened the door to go out. I said to him that it was really early and it was great he was already to go, we did need to wait. That was all and Charlie spent an hour pacing and sitting on a roller chair and sliding around. Around 6.15am I noticed him sitting on the blue couch and then saw him slouched over and sound asleep. He did wake up just around the time to drive him to school and walk himself into the car, but if his mind felt as tired as mine did at 2.45pm, no wonder something had happened.
In that early morning hour---5-6 am---I was careful only to tell Charlie once that he had a couple of hours to wait until we got in the white car and headed to school. Charlie's words can be his own worst enemy and it also doesn't help for him to hear something told to him over and over, like a constant reminder that he's gotten up quite early and has to wait.
Rom Houben is a Belgian man who, after being paralyzed in a car accident in 1983, was thought to be in a "vegetative state" for 23 years. As noted in yesterday's Guardian, he could hear and understand everything said around him, but was unable to say a word or otherwise indicate that he was fully conscious. Then, three years ago, neurologist Steven Laurys used a "state-of-the-art scanning system" and "found to his amazement that [Houben's] brain was functioning almost normally." Houben can now communicate with one finger and a special computer touchscreen on his wheelchair. "'I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,'" he has typed on his keyboard.Of course Charlie's situation is very different from Houben's. But the underlying theme of a person understanding so very much more than their body enables them to communicate---we think about this all the time in our interactions with Charlie. And that thought changes everything.