Thursday, September 13, 2007

There Is No Us


One summer, my friend, Jake, five years old, would interrupt me angrily from time to time to tell me that"There is no us!" I did not know what he was talking about for the longest time. He tried to make his meaning more clear when he said "There is no we!" after I said we were going to take pictures one day. "OK" I said, "I will take a picture and then you will take a picture and then mommy will take a picture and then we will ask Jean to take a picture of all of us." Jake was interested in taking pictures so he just mumbled that there was no "us". I thought that he was just being literal about how many people could really hold a camera and take a picture. But that was not his point, I realized, when he corrected me about my use of "us".

That day, as we were taking pictures, he looked at our back door and said "Exit is going outside" so his mom explained that Jake was trying to understand why the word "Exit" was above some doors and not above others, and then I suddenly had a moment of insight about the us/we thing. I tried my new theory. "Jake" I said, "I will take a picture of you and mom together for your grandma and grandpa and you can give the picture to them." Sure enough, Jake said, "There is no them."

Jake was confused by the pronouns "us, we, them" because these pronouns referred to different sets of people all the time. How could "we" refer to him and mom and I one moment and to his mom and I and Jake the next? He wanted to make a rule to banish these words altogether--just as he had, some months earlier wanted to be the one who decided what new words meant and get others to adopt any word that he made up. He about drove his parents crazy with that phase.

I was amazed at Jake's specific awareness of what aspects of language were confusing him. He understood that it was the pronouns that made the sentence confusing. Understanding the meaning of pronouns requires some social awareness that eluded Jake much of the time. This pronoun difficulty is a common problem for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. But I had never met a child who could pinpoint that pronouns were confusing.

We made a book that day in which I took pictures of all the combinations of people I could with Jake and wrote under each one something like "In this picture, we means Jake and mommy and Tahirh" or "In this picture we means just Mommy and Jake" "We means different people at different times." Jake argued with me the whole time I was making that book but he stopped arguing about the pronouns after that day and he used these pronouns correctly.

It was interesting that over that summer, Jake became much more imaginative and he started to pretend wild and amazing things in his play. All through the summer he kept checking on what was "pretend" and what was "real" and then making up more outrageous pretend situations where he was in charge of more aspects of the world. There were themes in his play of questioning who was in charge of everything--from who was in charge of deciding on the meaning of words to who was in charge of going to Heaven. Sometimes Jake was in charge of who got into Heaven and sometimes he pronounced that God was in charge.

I felt at times like I was witness to a genius child who was able to hone in all the most puzzling aspect of language and life. At times, Jake was stuck on some almost meaningless (in my mind) distinction or angry about some social hierarchy that was not negotiable (like who got to be the teacher) and I wanted to shake him out of his endless questioning. But many times, when I thought about what he was actually saying, I was in awe.

1 comment:

Serene said...

I'm with Jake. Now that the majority of the emails I write are to parents and coworkers that are non-native English speakers, I try to take out as many pronouns as possible. Otherwise it is just too confusing to figure out who I am referring to.