Matt is autistic. When it comes to conversing, Matt is very autistic. Although he has come a long way from where he started 22 years ago (when autism first revealed itself at the age of 2), he still has many obstacles to overcome - not the least of which is being able to initiate a conversation. I can ask Matt questions and he can reply – no problem. If I bring up the topic I can get him started on a conversation. Matt is intelligent. He knows quite a bit about many subject areas and tons about his favorite subjects; VT football, Manga, Dale Earnhardt, and his art. The problem is that someone else needs to initiate the conversation to get him started. Ask Matt about the latest ranking of VT football and he’ll give you the stats, smile and look directly into your eyes as he waits for the next question. Ask him about our dogs, cats, general family welfare and he’ll give you the “They’re fine!” If something unusual happens during his day he’ll tell you all about it – as long as you inquire specifically about the incident. It may be that he fears looking different than other people or may even fear speaking. Maybe he views the knowledge he possesses on specific matters as all general knowledge and therefore sees no reason to actually have to say it out loud. He’ll tell me someone called, but I have to ask first, “Matt, did anyone call today?” I’m still working on this problem. Until I can figure it out I will continue to initiate the conversation.
It seems as though Matt has always been this way. I know I need to ask and keep asking if I am to keep the conversation going. When he’s very excited over a particular subject he’ll keep the conversation going without too much prodding. Mostly, Matt is happy and content. He sees no need to engage in conversation. There are times at family get-togethers where Matt watches, listens, laughs and smiles as others tell a story. On occasion Matt will give me “that look” –the one asking me to help him join in the conversation – and I will oblige.
“Christopher, tell Matt the funny story you just told me.” His brother, Christopher, will turn to face toward Matt and begin the story again. Matt’s face displays joy, his eyes locked on his brother, showing Christopher he is paying attention and providing feedback in intervening short sentences, such as “Oh my!”, and laughter. Christopher can keep Matt engaged in a discussion better than anyone. Matt just doesn’t initiate a conversation – it’s just not him. I assumed his autism made it too difficult. Then, a few weeks ago something wonderful happened.
It began when my computer died. The blue screen of death had me in a panic. I’m a teacher. All my grades, assignments, exams and contact information for my students reside in that metal box of binary code. Christopher, my personal IT guy, was advised of the problem and we were discussing what could be done about my possible loss of data. We were discussing various options on the phone. Matt, Tom and I had been sitting in the living room watching TV and had put our movie on pause to converse with Christopher on the phone. I made the suggestion that perhaps we could pull Matt’s old computer out of storage and transfer the hard drives. Matt has a laptop computer now and has not used his regular computer for years. Matt’s eyes flashed. He gave me a quick look. What was that for? I wondered, but then quickly put the question on hold as I continued trying to figure out what to do about my computer. Tom scheduled a time to drop my poor computer off with Christopher for the next day. We hung up and went back to watching our movie. I had already forgotten about the “look” Matt had given me.
Hours later I headed for bed and grabbed my nightly hug from Matt. He gave me a big hug, said good night and I shut my bedroom door. Not a second had gone by before I heard a light tapping on the door. I opened the door to see Matt, tears welling up in his eyes and a look of fear on his face. “Momma, I have to tell you something”, he began. “OK Matt,” I replied. “I don’t like computers.”, his voice wavering. He started to cry. “What’s wrong, Matt? Here, come sit with me a moment.” I said walking him toward my bed. We both sat on the edge. “I hate computers. Remember the bad stuff? I don’t want my computer – ever!” he said as forceful as he could.
Oh! I get it. Matt was remembering the last time his computer was in his room. I had found some pornographic material on it and had grounded him. Come to think of it, Matt hasn’t surfed the Web since – something I hadn’t even noticed until he said that. “Oh Matt, that was a long time ago. You were just a teenager back then. The computer is clean – no bad stuff on it anymore. Actually, your computer may be able to save all my teaching stuff for work. Matt, your computer might save the day.” I tried to explain.
Matt was showing some signs of relief, but he was still confused. This incident with my computer had sparked a bad memory for him and he didn’t know what to think. He was afraid that bringing the computer back might cause him to be grounded again – a most horrific feeling for Matt. We sat for maybe 15 minutes on the side of the bed. He talked to me, without me asking questions. He needed no prodding to empty his soul to me about his fears. I understood his concerns and addressed them. I had no idea he wasn’t on the Internet anymore and vowed to help him get back on-line again. We conversed. He told me his fears and expressed his anxiety over the Internet. I explained the whole computer mess to him, assured him his computer would not cause him anymore anxiety, and promised to help him get back on-line. We have a wireless and he’s quite capable of logging on but he fears the Internet may lead him to places that he is not allowed to go. I believe it will take some time to calm his nerves completely in regards to the Internet (something we will be working on).
Although Matt felt bad about the computer I can’t help but see the wonderful miracle beneath the tears. Matt initiated the conversation. He asked me questions, told me of his anxiety and fears and expressed his concerns about having the offending computer back in the house. I answered each question and explained the reasoning for needing the computer. I also reminded him that the memory that haunted him so was from a long time ago, when he was still a child. We talked. Tom sat on the other side of the bed quietly listening to our conversation. When it was all over Matt gave me a hug and kiss. His eyes were bright again and a smile had returned to his face. “Good night, Matt” I said as he headed for the door. “Good night, momma” he replied. A moment later all was back to normal - except it wasn’t.
It dawned on me as the door closed that something wonderful had just happened. I had just had a real, honest to goodness “normal” conversation with my youngest son for the very first time.