All of Nate’s milestones have taken the form of hurry-up-and-wait. When Nate started to crawl, he crawled backward on his belly for ages. When he decided to crawl forward, he just did it. Nate never practiced. In one fell swoop, he decided to crawl properly from the fireplace in the living room straight to the dishwasher in the kitchen, quite a distance for a wee tot.
Around fifteen months or so, Nate became upright. He cruised from couch to chair to table to tall toy for ages and showed no interest in attempting to walk without holding on to an item. He also showed little interest, at the start, of walking with the aid of a person, either. The week of Thanksgiving, Nate took his first solo step. We were so proud – and especially thrilled since we were visiting Chad’s family in a few days. We were certain that Nate would take off with his newfound talent just like crawling. After a little setback (the family visit for Thanksgiving overwhelmed Nate a bit), our boy took off walking—first with his alligator walker and then on his own, again from the fireplace to the dishwasher. (It’s a magical route.)
When it came to talking, we expected Nate to do the same: store up all his talent and, in one ta-da! moment, go whole hog into the world of chatting people up. Nate’s 21 months old now and there’s not a hint of verbiage. (He’s said “ba” three times in the past two weeks in reference to “bubbles,” but we need to wait and see if that word will fade like the rest.) So, without the ability to talk, Nate can’t really communicate. This makes him easily frustrated, which can lead to self-injurious behavior.
We have now been in therapy for eight weeks, the first of which was a partial week. During his very first session, Miss Alison decided that we would teach Nate the sign for “eat.” Nate likes to eat, he’s good at eating, and it made sense that Nate would like to tell us that his tummy was grumbly. To teach Nate eat, we put food on his highchair tray. Before he could have a piece of food, he had to sign “eat,” which is putting a closed hand to your lips. Since he didn’t know how to sign it, one of us would show Nate the food and the other one would position Nate’s hand properly, put it to his mouth for him, and say “eat.” Then we’d give him the food and a parade would ensue. (I’ve become really, really good at impromptu parades.)
For eight weeks, we have been doing this with Nate at nearly every meal. During those eight weeks, he signed “eat” on his own about five times. All the rest were either with the aid of myself, Chad, or our family friends. It was a lot of work for Nate to just get a darn cheerio at a meal….
Then, last week, our friend Miriam was visiting. (She happens to be Olivia’s big sister. Olivia, you may remember, was the impetus for the first successful picture exchange communication system (PECS) with Nate.) She was watching Nate while I got some work done. I hear Miriam say, “Ann, you better come take a look at this.” At the appropriate time in the day (suppertime), Nate spontaneously began walking around the living room signing “eat.” Over and over and over again. Miriam asked if Nate wanted to eat. Nate promptly signed “eat” again.
Giddy, Miriam scooted Nate over to his highchair and got him strapped in while I ran to get the video camera. Nate Fans, behold: NATE SIGNS EAT!
Just like crawling and walking, Nate stored up all of his “eat” signing for one spectacular moment and hasn’t looked back. But here’s the bad news. Nate’s generalized the sign “eat” and his other sign, “again.” In therapy, when his therapists ask him to do something like pick a block, he starts cycling through “eat” and “again,” hoping that one of those signs is what his therapist asked him to do. While he knows that “eat” means eat, he also knows that he has very few words in his toolbox (eat and again) so he’s just trying to chat us up with a very, very limited vocabulary.
I expressed to one of his therapists how frustrating it was that it took us eight weeks to get Nate to learn one sign. Her response was another Oprah aha! moment. Nate, it seems, ranks very low on imitation skills. (Remember his ADOS test when Nate refused to feed the baby bear? He didn’t imitate what Lisa was doing.) In fact, he doesn’t imitate things at all. Signing is an imitation of what someone else is doing and, eventually, the tot will catch up to the fact that the motion equals an item. So they anticipate that Nate will be slow to pick up signs. However, since many autistic kids (literally) think in pictures, they anticipate that he will take to the picture exchange communication system much more rapidly. Think about it—two weeks on PECS and Nate figured out the bubbles card. It took Nate eight weeks to master one sign.
We are keeping signing, PECS, and verbal communication in Nate’s toolbox though. Right now, he’s working on the signs for “my turn” and “bubbles” and his speech therapist just introduced saying the word “go.” (We have to squish his cheeks to make an “o” sound and hope he gets it.) For now, this little “eat” video makes my heart sing. Hey! My boy can say a word!!!