Who has seen the wind
Neither you nor I;
But when the trees bend down their heads
The wind is passing by.
This is a stanza of a poem I first read in a second grade reader, I think with a line drawing of a tree with its branches set askew to show the wind bending through. I was probably drawn to it because the poet's first name was almost mine; because her whole name---Christina Georgina Rossetti---was so melodious; because of the poem's nursery-rhyme tone, the
i rhyming with
by, the slant rhyme of
bend---because of the sounds of the poem, and the poetry of the writer's very name.
And it is poetry---not science, not genetics, not neurology, not molecular biology---that, I often think, has helped me to understand Charlie.
I am more than curious to follow the latest research about autism, about what complicated combinations of genes might be involved, about what is unusual in the "wiring" of the brains of autistic persons. While such studies may ultimately explain the "what" of autism---what is autism, what causes it---I travel back to poetry to get answers that are a little more immediate.
"Wendy bue car, Kristy bue car, b'ack oh-voh, b'ack oh-voh, b'ack rekk-tan-goh." Charlie spoke this stream of shape-and-color-talk in an exchange with me. It was 10pm and he was, once again, wide awake despite a full day at school, afternoon ABA, and a walk-run to the train station before dinner. In fact, he was completely alert, jabbering snatches of syllables, and running through the house with sudden bursts of speed and jumps. (Sometimes Jim and I joke-sigh, too bad he isn't in school now at 9pm and after.)
"How about we try this puzzle?" I said as I found him sitting in a messy nest of blankets, pullows, soft and squishy balls, and a plush snowman on his bed. The design was Thomas the Tank train and two other trains---I do not know any of their names except for Thomas', Charlie never having become a fan (pace Charlotte Moore's noting on p. 177 of George and Sam that "an admiration for the works of the Reverend W. Awdry is almost a diagnostic requirement of autism"). In the background were fireworks, a ferris wheel and a carousel, all gleaming with egg-yolk-and-white colors so they would glow in the dark. Charlie set to work (he tends to do the frame and a section first, as Conor does in these photos).
Charlie started talking more and more as he did the puzzle (and as the hour got later). There were some strings of rhyming vowel sounds---like Rossetti's
by---that I responded to, in like rhyming fashion---and then the longer phrase of therapists' names and their cars and the shapes and the colors. One is Charlie's current speech therapist, the other the first lead therapist in his home ABA program, and they look nothing alike. It's the fact that they both have blue cars that (I suspect) caused Charlie to mention them together: Charlie tends to see such random associations of people as reasons for them having something in common, all because of the color of their cars. I think he has been talking about the speech therapist and (as he did tonight) "shapes! black shapes. b'ue ovoh, b'ue rectangoh, b'ue shapes!" because that was a program he learned with the ABA therapist, some seven years ago.
And then, when he tries to talk about all this, Charlie tends to get stuck on the very sounds of the words, on the rhyme and repetition of "blue"; unless we ask him to speak slowly "rectango" and "trywango" still sound as if they are the same. Charlie then says these words over and over---"stims" on them---and to a certain beat.
Just as there is repetition of sounds and rhythm and meter in a poem, all of which result in a poem--in Charlie's case, a phrase---sticking in one's head and on one's tongue.
That is how I try to understand Charlie's repetitive speech, especially when its content does not seem attached to the immediate reality around him. Charlie does still speak a lot of what sounds like babble; living with autism and Charlie has been teaching me that you've got to look beyond what his words say to get his meaning. You've got to figure out the sense of the sounds.
When one learns to interpret poetry in school, one is taught to look not only at what the words say, but at also "how" they say it, at what is the "music" of the words:
The sound must seem an echo of the sense
as the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wrote in an Essay on Criticism.
"HOO dihoo."said Charlie. He was three-quarters done with the puzzle.
"Hoop dee doo?" I asked, remembering this DVD.
"Muiwee Zheff!" Charlie raised his eyes to grin at me: I had figured it out.
Not that I'm so sure of what "it" is (a memory of the colors of that Wiggles DVD? the silly party polka atmosphere?). Just as we know the wind is passing from the way the trees bend down, so I know that Charlie's speech or babble or verbalizations are signs of something else---of him communicating.
I have to keep looking close, and listening.