Language Quirks

Posted: March 18th, 2009 under communication, parenting.
Tags: , ,

This was originally a post over at my LiveJournal, but generated so many comments that I thought it might be of even more interest here.  I copied & pasted, which seems to have preserved the LJ font size (and I haven’t a clue what to do about it…or why, when I posted this and then looked at it, only one paragraph is “that” size…)  Over there (for anyone who wants to go look and read the comments) the title is Language and Autism.   I have invited the people commenting there to consider coming here and continuing the discussion.

Our son did not learn to talk early, and for years after he said his first word (many years) his syntax was odd enough to make his speech barely intelligible to most people.   Though it has improved a lot, he still gets “tangled’ sometimes, and often “mazes” (repeating parts of a sentence several times.)   It’s clear to me that he’s constructing the sentences in chunks, and has to repeat every chunk to get the whole thing out at the end (like those songs where you have to repeat a key part of previous verses–Old MacDonald’s Farm, for instance.)

I’m helping him (I hope it’s help) learn to write coherent essays.   Last night he brought me one that was light years better than he’s done before, but had a very interesting syntactical glitch in it.   He was talking about the restrictions he deals with on outings led by a social worker, that include other disabled adults–he can’t go to the restaurants he likes best, or buy the food he wants “because expensive things are unwanted to be bought on outings.”   And later, about activities he prefers,  “There are fewer restrictions because not as many people other people have to focus on.”

What’s fascinating is the clear thought behind the syntax:  he clearly understands the restrictions of the group outing, and some of the social reasons for those restrictions–and makes it clear he prefers to be taken to a recreational activity (by one of us) and left to do it on his own, including walking a few blocks to an eating place he likes, to choose the food he wants in the amount he wants.   Many of the sentences in the essay were correct, fluent, concrete, as they were.   The logical sequences, of liking this because A, B, C, and not liking that because D,E, F all made sense.

So where did “are unwanted to be bought” come from?   Knowing him, I see a conflict between the growing ability to be direct and straightforward in syntax and social stress…saying who made/enforced the restrictions might cause a problem.  Especially telling mama tiger, who’s been known to intervene forcefully.  (Not at this point.  He doesn’t have to go on these outings if he doesn’t want to, and he gets to decide if the pleasure he gets is worth dealing with the restrictions.  That’s how you learn to make choices that work for you.  Having to eat a kid’s meal once a week or less won’t starve him.)  Conflict between what he knows and what he thinks the other person wants to hear–and the struggle to resolve this into “polite” language explains, I think, the odd construction.


  • Comment by sari — March 18, 2009 @ 8:38 pm


    Thank you for providing a name–mazes–for the dysfluency our son struggled with. As frustrating as it was for the listener, who needed immense patience, it was even more frustrating for him when he could not communicate what he was hearing in his head. Some of the SLPs referred to it as stuttering, but he never stuttered in the usual way.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 18, 2009 @ 9:26 pm


    Michael has both stuttering and mazing, and at the moment these are the main components of his speech impediment. The stutter/stammer part has diminished with time, but the mazing is every bit as bad.

    And yes, there are times I want to scream “Just say it!” but I know he can’t. Nor does an attempt to “help” by anticipating and trying to get him past the stuck point work.

    It fascinates me (that being better than coming unglued) that he can write directly (97% of the time) but has such trouble speaking. We had many examples of that this afternoon, in fact.

    As I’ve read about with other dysfluencies, sometimes people can read aloud better than they can speak without reading. Today he brought me another practice essay, and I was trying to be a good writing coach (which is to say, not making it *my* essay, not over-correcting, etc.) As we moved things around, made changes, etc. he read whole paragraphs aloud–expressively, very well, without a hint of stutter or mazing. I was reminded of Winston Churchill, who had a bad stutter as a boy, and as a politician wrote all his speeches and practiced reading them to the point that it didn’t look like “just” reading.

  • Comment by sari — March 18, 2009 @ 10:16 pm


    Reading aloud did not help. In fact, it magnified the problem to the point where anticipatory anxiety would shut him down.

    I don’t know if Michael does this, but my son could recite what he’d read verbatim without the text in front of him, but would immediately start mazing when asked to restate the content his own words. Written tests of comprehension demonstrated full understanding, including the unstated but implied ramifications.

    The speech thing is huge.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 18, 2009 @ 10:54 pm


    Huge and variable from person to person. I don’t know if Michael can recite it–haven’t tried–but he has been able to read accurately (though not expressively) a long time. One of the most heart-wrenching things was right after my mother died…I found him in her bedroom, reading aloud the Beatitudes (N.T., “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted…” At that time his spontaneous speech was limited to 3-5 words, very stilted.

    But yes, if asked questions about what he’s read, the mazing starts immediately…and he tends to start with some rote “intros” and then try to fit whatever he wanted to say with those memorized starters. “Yes, and what would it…what would it mean if…yes, and what would it mean if…what would it mean if someone went to a store and…yes, and what would it mean if someone went to a store and the man said…”

  • Comment by sari — March 19, 2009 @ 8:41 am


    Ours was a little different. Like Michael, he’d start with a stock phrase and then cycle through 3-5 different choices for the next word, hit upon the right one and then repeat the process over and over and over…..

    Anxiety and stress exacerbated the problem, so he had better fluency at home than he did at school or in public.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 19, 2009 @ 10:56 am


    Anxiety, stress, and exhaustion exacerbate most dysfluencies in most people…if they have any glitches at all in their language system, enough stress will bring it out. People on the spectrum tend to have more obvious reactions to stress, but I’ve seen otherwise “normal” people stutter/stammer at public meetings, and some can’t talk in public (on stage, with a camera on them) at all.

  • Comment by Alex — March 25, 2009 @ 3:35 am


    This is interesting. I’m not as fluent speaking as writing, but not being autistic I pause or say ‘um’ or whatever. I do sometimes pause for an uncomfortably long time, under stress. It sounds like he has difficulty pausing his verbal machinery, and has to rewind. Maybe it would help to practice pausing on sentences he *isn’t* having difficulty with?

    This reminds me of something: I read this philosophy book, ‘Truth’ by Bernard Williams, I think it was. I got a hundred or so pages in, and knew that I wasn’t going to finish the book, because he was still on the *same damn thought*. I guess everyone has a natural rate at which we like to process things, and only philosophers can stand doing it really slowly.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment