autism,  high school,  home strategies,  learning strategies,  reading comprehension

A Funny Thing Happened When We Gave J an iPhone 4

I think it’s one of the biggest ironies of my life that I am obsessed with language, communication, and literature and those three things are the biggest things my son struggles with.

I’ve loved language as long as I can remember. I remember staring at my Cheerios box as a kindergartner, figuring out that gratuit next to the picture of a key chain meant that something free was inside, that the word pamplemousse on the juice container meant grapefruit, and being absolutely thrilled to finally start learning French at school in grade 4. The only math I liked was when had to solve math facts in order to decode messages (3+4=7; 7=A; now discover the secret message!). In university I started as a broadcast journalism major because I loved writing and stories and thought that was a good way to make money. After my second year, I switched to an English major and even contemplated switching to Linguistics for a hot minute during my last semester of English before I graduated because I thought that was pretty darn cool too. (I ended up with a BA in English, minor in Communications and a couple of classes short of a French minor too, so yeah, I was into the language thing). I even checked out the Speech and Hearing program at MSUM when we first moved to Fargo, and when I realized have to take a ton of extra undergraduate science classes before I could apply for a Masters, I dropped that and decided on getting my MFA in creative writing. I’ve been obsessed with language–all parts of language–my entire life.

Which is why I struggle with J’s struggles with speech. I don’t know why he refused to talk when he was 2 years old even though I knew he knew the words and he knew exactly every single word I spoke to him. I don’t know why J could read and sound out words–far above his reading level in elementary school and not understand a darn thing he read. I don’t know why J can’t have a “normal” conversation with people outside of our house when he can carry on just fine at home. I don’t know why he ACED intro to languages in middle school but struggled with an actual French class.

With all my background and dabbling in language I cannot figure out for the life of me why J struggles with language.

A few weeks ago, while my cousin was visiting us, I noticed his partner’s elementary age daughter had an iPhone–not just any iPhone, and iPhone 4. That probably doesn’t sound like anything remarkable at all, but I was super impressed. It was perfect for her. Most kids these days, even elementary-aged, kids have smart phones, but her iPhone 4 was a dinosaur compared to most people’s phones today. I know–I had an iPhone 4 in my sock drawer. Terrible internet access. No memory whatsoever. Can’t download an app to save a life.

So when my cousin was off to Vancouver, I resurrected that old iPhone 4 with J in mind. Steve and I have wanted to get J his own phone for a while now, but J and phones are complicated. He can’t have unlimited Internet access. He can’t even have a calculator on his phone. Those two things alone trigger obsessive behaviour and anxiety down the road. But we want J to learn how to text and communicate with us for safety reasons. So it’s sort of a catch 22 (yes, I know there are “dumb phones” out there, but the numeric keyboards share alphabet symbols and would be super frustrating for J).

But the iPhone 4! That’s something we could work with. Dumb enough AND smart enough. It took me 2 days to set up that darn thing (I am not technologically skilled AT ALL). The phone had an old operating system and wouldn’t update. I couldn’t download the new operating system. Finally I found forums online with directions on how to reset and wipe your phone and download the new ios operating system from your home computer. Anyways, in the end, we got our perfect phone for J. Texting ability and Facetime with wifi access, no Internet (Safari) access (the access to almost everything on that phone is on lock down by me), and I buried that calculator app (that apparently you can’t delete) deep in some obscure folders. J isn’t very technologically skilled either, so I know he won’t be able to get around all of the parental locks or go looking for the calculator. At this point he really knows nothing about phones.

It’s been an interesting experience teaching J how to text–which is our biggest goal for J with this phone. When I first texted J a succession of texts, his phone would ding and interrupt whatever else he was doing, and in an annoyed voice, he’d yell from his room,”why does it keep doing that?”

“Because I want to have a conversation with you,” I texted back.

Once J started realizing he could “talk” through texting, that’s where it got really interesting.

When J is at home, he has “normal” conversations with me, Steve, and W. He tells us what he wants, he tells us if he needs help with something. He tells us if he wants to make brownies or go for a bike ride. He tells on W whenever she’s doing something that she’s not supposed to be doing (like being on her phone too long). That all changes when he leave the house. When he leaves the house it’s as if he’s forgotten how to use language altogether. He says random things. He talks about obsessive things, usually the same 5 topics–the zoo, words without syllables, “have you ever been to (insert restaurant or town name here), or quizzes people on math problems (and usually changes the answer to trick them or see if they’re paying attention). Often, he makes no sense whatsoever.

And that’s the type of language usage, that language he uses with anyone outside of our family, was the language that started popping up in his texts:

This random list of statements is how he often talks to other people. It drives me absolutely crazy.
Often J likes to rattle off a list of things he likes to people, without waiting for a response back from them. This is where I think texting will actually be good for him. He’s such a visual person so to see the messages from me in blue and his in white and how they should visually be more of a back and forth conversation might be helpful.
“Someone is coming over to clean the family room.” (The city assessor was coming over to assess our house for taxes, I was trying to get the kids to clean up). He is actually trying to tell me here that he cleaned the living room, which is something I had asked him to do earlier that morning. The idea for the message is in fragments, a lot of the words are there, but it’s not the right order, it’s not the right message. I’ve realized through his texting that I need to be much stricter in making him accountable in his word choice. Forever I’ve been told from his speech therapists to not “stop and make him correct his language on the spot,” but to instead “repeat back and model the correct language” like I did in this text. Now I’ve decided we need to change it. Have him correct it on the spot and make him really think and fight for what he’s trying to say. It’s been hard. He really struggles, but I think he’s getting the idea that he can’t just fly through the words and expect people to understand him.

Not only did I notice the repetitive, almost frantic language that he exhibits with other people, I started noticing the inaccuracies or “loopholes” in his language when he’s using his real, “home” language, like this:

I don’t know why texting changes J’s home language to “outside” language. Anyone have any ideas? Why does J turn to the obsessive, “frantic,” nonsensical language on his phone just like he does with other people who aren’t his family? I always thought that spoken language was harder for J because it requires a whole complex system to navigate (mouth, facial muscles, teeth, tongue, etc)?

I don’t have any answers right now. Just lots of things to think about and consider when we’re trying to improve his expressive language skills. It’s also made me more aware to be more picky with him when he uses his “real” language. Most of the time, he’s got the words, and even if they’re not in the right order, or completely accurate, I know what he’s saying and let it slide–when I wasn’t even aware that I’m doing that.

For someone who loves language, communication, and meaning, I guess that’s my biggest enigma to unravel.


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