In Which We Drive to the Beach But That Is All
On Motherhood, Again

There's No Such Thing As Nonsense

I've had some research about bilingualism on my mind after reading it over the weekend. I know a couple of languages and, thanks to the ease with which one can find websites in any possible language, I've been able to practice them regularly. When I was in school, speaking in a foreign language was absolutely not my forté (hence I ended up studying Latin and ancient Greek and, for two years, classical Chinese). Now, much less hampered by being overly self-scrutinizing and worrying about making the proverbial fool of myself, I do a lot better trying to stumble my way through speaking in a foreign language.

I've no scientific protocols or data to back this up, but I like to think all the languages I know and have coursing through my head have helped me better understand Charlie. I don't expect the subject of a sentence to be the first word. I can see how an adjective can be used as a verb and I can tell when a verbal idea (like 'wanting', or 'giving') is expressed even when a verb is not used. I'm not bothered by the omission of definite articles (Latin has none). Of course a word, even the straightforward-seeming 'no' can have multiple meanings -- can be polysemic -- based on context. And, just because some verbal utterance is incomprehensible in English, does not mean it could be an actual word or phrase.

The last point in particular may be a reason why I never think of any sound Charlie produces as 'babble' or 'nonsense' or 'just meaningless sound.' If you start from the premise that every utterance is meaningful, and that Charlie, though severely limited in his speech, is bursting with communicative intent, you start to see how much he is communicating, however little he speaks in recognizable words.

Another thing we're always reminding ourselves about is the lag between something happening and Charlie expressing how he feels. At his class's weekly grocery store trip, Charlie tried to throw a Pyrex pie dish -- a similar item was once thrown at home -- and then a plate and he got very upset. I could tell he was troubled when he got off the bus but he gradually cheered and started calling for a bike ride. Jim, once home from his first day of teaching summer school, was glad as ever to pedal off with Charlie, but our boy was first unusually solemn and quiet and then crying. Once home, Charlie got into his ultra-demanding mode, calling for this and that food and to go here and there; we settled for a ride to the pharmacy and then made a swing by McDonalds with Charlie saying 'yes' and then 'no' and then 'no' and then 'yes' and 'no' and back and forth.

We got him two hamburgers and a small French fry and Charlie ate it all. For the rest of the evening, he vacillated between a cheery mood and a troubled one. As it grew later, Charlie went into the kitchen and called me and then wanted me to leave. I went in and out (I can always find some random thing to do in the kitchen) and, at one moment, found Charlie doing the equivalent of pull-ups on the counter, between taking bags of dried fruit and chips out of the a cabinet and lining them up and eating watermelon.

Surmising he might need to get some physical activity, I suggested a walk. Charlie said 'no' and went up to his room , only to tromp down after 11pm and ask for his socks and a walk.

We pointed out that it was late and that, should Charlie rise early enough, we might walk then. Charlie turned around and went to bed and within minutes we could hear him taking the regular breaths he does when he is sleeping.

So many thoughts and yearnings and confusions and contradictory emotions and ideas.

Few words.

Lots of heart.

Strong boy



Amen, Sister!

I am a foreign language by trade--now devoted full time in homeschool to helping Mars find English words, symbols and ideas that mean something in terms of his Autistic experience.

For example: Instead of the painful "yes/No" dichotomy, Mars and I use the Autism friendly and neurologically accurate computer concept "Loading."

Like the poet, Adrienne Rich, I continually have "The Dream of a Common (Autism) Language."

If only the common experiences of many Autism families could be used to create a "bi-lingual" dictionary to give our children and their caregivers in the future when we are no longer able to translate for them!


Wonderful post. Thank you.

Kristina Chew

@Shirley, thank _you_!

@Sarah, I love that way you and Mars use 'loading.' Sometimes we say Charlie is 'processing' -- sort of the same thing, perhaps? Yes/No have been increasingly fraught verbal territory for Charlie (and us).

Brenda (mamabegood)

((hugs)) So with you on the bilingual ... I know Spanish and French and smatterings of related romance languages ... but I always attributed by facility for languages and for understanding my son as a facility for empathy and intuition ... hard to explain ... easier to learn languages if you are in tune with the person and intuitive of feelings ...

My son throws when he's anxious. And can't verbalize his pain or physical needs. Though he is very verbal.

He also squeezes things (me, the cats, etc) when he needs proprioceptive squeezing himself ... besides swimming, does Charlie have anything or allow someone to provide deep pressure?


Great post, Kristina. I've studied French, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, in addition to my native Southern US English, and am often amazed by how knowing other languages and having lived in a non-native setting helps me translate/intuit whatever my son is trying to communicate. He's quite verbal now, but his pronunciation and syntax are very irregular (sideways, even.) His torrent of words is hard to interpret, but as you say, never nonsense unless he's being deliberately silly. I see languages as innate pattern matching, like analyzing music. He is understanding Spanish pretty well, which just thrills me! Also, love the pic of Charlie's pushup on the countertop - my kid does that everywhere. Apparently 1 afternoon a week of gymnastics is not enough...

Kristina Chew

Welsh! I'd love love to learn that....and Russian..... Yes, the house is jungle gym pretty much.

Love how you describe languages as "innate pattern matching" with an analogy to music.

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