Mother tongue

One of my favorite and my best things about Jonah is the way he uses language. He spoke hardly a word—maybe a “mama” here and a “dada” there—until he was nearly three and a half years old. And honestly, I didn’t mind.

He’d had what you might call a perpetually screaming (think pterodactyl shriek) infancy, which was progressively assuaged by the developmental of new motor skills. When he could sit up, short periods of relative calm ensued (until he fell over). When he could crawl he really had someplace to go, which meant a little more control of his body and his environment, which meant the cries usually came when he was overly tired or hungry or under-stimulated.

People talk a lot about the autistic tendency toward overstimulation and very little about those who experience the opposite. Jonah’s a seeker. Needs it, to a certain extent, to locate his position in space on this earth. He can also get a little high off of it, so rather than calming him down, the running or jumping or rolling or spinning just ramps him up. But really, who doesn’t like feeling a little high?

So when J was busy exploring his environment (learning to walk made our pterodactyl nearly extinct), he didn’t have much use or need or time for language. He could do simple signing for the basics—a little food, a little drink, a little please and thank you. Being on the go was the most important thing. At that point he had found a way to get what he needed. Okay, so he was perpetually bruised or scraped or goose-egged. And he did get stitches when he was two. O, and then there was that tooth he knocked half-way out a few months later. But besides that…

I should clarify here that Jonah was not devoid of language. He was devoid of intelligible language. Somewhere around two (two was a banner year), he began speaking a kind of fluent gibberish—though the word “gibberish” is misleading because while he wasn’t intelligible, his speech was not meaningless. He was telling a story; there was no mistaking it. Somewhere, on a tiny tape recorder in a box I’ve yet to unpack since we moved to Ohio, lives an archive of J’s very own mother tongue.

I admit I was curious as to what was going on in that brain of his. I always have been. But somehow, John and I were content to let him speak when it was his time, not ours. I’m grateful for this patience (ignorance?) on our part. Because when the words did come, they came swiftly, falling over each other, spilling out in a rush. We did a lot of interpreting the first year or two. Sometimes people were astounded at his vocabulary, sometimes they were confused by his tendency toward Yoda-speak. (Example: “My touch is ruined! So sick I am.”) I admit it’s strange to hear a four-year-old say, “When I am patient, I will be a man.” In a way, he just modified his original mother tongue so that the rest of us could understand.

One of the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM IV reads, “stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language.” J hits this one on the head. It’s not just the order in which he says things; it’s the way. I’ve never heard anyone talk the way he does, and I love it.

J’s definition of the woods: “You know what the woods are? When there’s lots of trees crowding the people so that the sun doesn’t cover their eyes.”

After I had umbilical hernia surgery and Jonah caught a glimpse of my incision he exclaimed, “You have a meat belly!”

Upon sniffing his dad: “You smell grateful.” (or is that really “great-full”?)

“My ‘fantastic’ is fun and joy and scream out loud!”

“I’m a hair artist am I.”

“My two brains were so angry with me when I got out of bed!”

There’s a dozen more I never wrote down. But I’ll end with his newest, proudest skill. He’s been working hard to master the /th/ sound. Until now, he’s always substituted /f/ for /th/. “Thank you” is “Fank you,” that sort of thing. He sticks out his tongue and very emphatically verbalizes the /th/—as in “THor, God of THunder.” Click HERE to hear and see for yourself.


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