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Friday, March 20, 2015

Word Retrieval and Blaming The Cat

Yesterday, Janey tripped over a cord when I was vacuuming.  She screamed, and I turned off the vacuum and ran over to her.  She was fine---she didn't fall down, just lost her balance a little.  I started saying the things mothers say when their child is upset "What happened, sweetie?  Are you okay?" Of course I knew what happened, but there's kind of a patter that kicks in at times like that.  What surprised me was what Janey said.  In between tears, she said "Did Merg scare you?"

Merg is one of our cats.  He was nowhere near us at that time, and certainly didn't scare Janey.  I said "Merg scared you?" in surprise, and Janey said "Did Merg scratch you?"  With Janey's usual reversals, she meant of course that Merg scared and scratched her.

This incident made me think about how Janey's issues with word retrieval might be the cause of a lot of her anger and lashing out.  It so often seems like it's very, very hard for her to find the right words and sentences to use.  She knows what she wants to say, but she can't think how to say it.  So instead, she says something that DOES come to mind.  There was a time a few months ago when Merg did scare her, after she pet him a bit too much, and we asked her at that time "Did Merg scratch you?"  He hadn't, but the phrase stuck in her mind.  I'm sure we might have said then "Did Merg scare you?"  When Janey was scared by the tripping, somehow that script came to mind.

So often, Janey asks for things, and then when she gets them, she acts like you have done something very wrong in giving them to her.  I am thinking that many of these times, what she asks for is not what she wants at all.  She'll say "I want bacon!" or "I want Kipper!" when she wants SOME kind of food or SOME show, but not those specific ones.  And we, understandably, try to give her what she asks for, and I can imagine how frustrating that must be for her (and for us).

We have tried using visual aids to help Janey with this, like pictures of various foods or shows.  However, it often seems like the word retrieval is more than just not being able to say what she wants.  It extends to being able to point out what she wants.  She often brings us videos, videos she knows by pictures on them, and then when we put them on, there is again the fury.  Her mind seems to trip her up, like the cord did.  It isn't able to form either a word or a picture for what she really wants, although she knows what she wants in other ways.

It's hard to think of a solution to this problem.  It seems like there are circuits in her brain which just don't allow her to find words or pictures in an straightforward way.  I feel for her so much with this.  I can't imagine what it would be like to want something, to know it's possible to get, but to not be able to find the words to ask for her, or to be able to pick out the right picture, or write the word down, or really communicate in any way what it is that is wanted.

This problem also makes it very easy to unconsciously influence what Janey says.  Sometimes when we are desperately trying to figure out what is wrong, we give suggestions, and Janey grabs at them like a life ring.  For example, if she wakes up screaming, we might say "Do you want bacon?" and she'll echo that---"DO YOU WANT BACON?" So we think we've hit on it, only to make her bacon and see her get even more upset.  Even in the Merg-cat case, something we said months ago popped back up and lead to her accusing Merg of evil-doing he had nothing to do with.

At times, I feel like this problem with being able to communicate is a huge part of what makes Janey challenging.  Other children with autism seem to be able to use communication devices or programs like Proloquo, but I think that is when the problem is more with being able to use verbal speech.  Janey is easily able to form verbal speech---I think the problem is more being able to access in her brain either a word or a picture for what she wants.  And I wish very much I could help her more with this, help her communicate her wants and needs so we could better meet them.

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