Monday, November 5, 2007

Answer Me a Question

Jamie only liked to ask questions if he already knew the answer. He liked to have a conversation this way: 1) He asked a question 2) his conversational partner answered the question "correctly" or 3) Jamie provided the "correct" answer.

I fell in with Jamie's plan very well the first day that I met him but when, on our second meeting, I heard all the same questions, I was less cooperative.

"Why are there fire detectors?" Jamie asked
"In case there is a fire." I answered on day one.
"Why are there fire detectors?" Jamie asked again on day two.
"Why are there fire detectors?" I asked back on day two.
"In case there is a fire." Jamie answered.

"Why is there a refrigerator?" Jamie asked on day one.
"To keep food cold" I answered on day one.
"Why is there a refrigerator? Jamie asked on day two.
"So that food does not spoil." I answered on day two.
"TO KEEP FOOD COLD!" Jamie corrected me, clearly a little agitated.
"Why do we want to keep the food cold?" I countered--not adhering to his three part plan.
"Why does the door close?" Jamie asked--ignoring my question entirely.
"The door opens and closes" I commented.
"WHY DOES THE DOOR CLOSE?." Jamie answered.
"I don't know" I replied.
"For just a little privacy, here!" Jamie scolded.

"Why are there lights?" Jamie asked next.
"I don't know, why are there lights?" I asked back.
"To make the room light." Jamie answered.

"Why is there a wall?" Jamie asked.
"I don't know how to answer that", I answered.
"Why am I smarter than you?" Jamie asked.

There are at least three possible explanations for Jamie's conversational gambit. But none of them occurred to his dismayed parents. They were beginning to feel tortured because he was insistent that they answer his questions and he had some favorites that he asked many times a day. I needed to assure them that he was not trying to upset them by asking these questions over and over. I explained that he asked the same questions over and over so that he could get a predictable response. That much was sure. The fact that he wanted to converse with them was evidence of his desire to interact with them I said. That was putting a good spin on this behavior but it was true, I think.

Predictability Seeking. That is explanation 1.

Language comprehension difficulty. That is explanation 2.
Kids with ASD are often unable to comprehend novel language so asking a question that is a real question opens the child up to confusion. It is not so hard for a child to ask a real question, and hear a novel answer, if parents show kids what they mean whenever there is any indication of confusion. "Let me show you." should be a very common phrase if you have a child with ASD.

Explanation 3 is that Jamie was just doing what others did all the time to him. Others asked him questions even if they clearly knew the answers.

"What color is that?"
"How many fish crackers are there?"
"What is that called"
"What does a cow say?"
"Where did we go this weekend?"

When kids with ASD are little and not talking much, parents often bombard them with performance questions like this. If the wrong answer is given, parents correct.

When kids with ASD are a little older and talking a lot, they bombard their parents with performance questions like this. If the wrong answer is given, they correct.

The moral of this story is:

1) Only ask real questions--only questions that your child can answer and you can't. E.g. "Do you want juice or milk?"

Don't ask performance questions. E.g. "What color is milk? (Don't ask this because you know the answer already).

2) Only answer real questions. Real questions are questions where your child needs some information and you have it.

Don't answer questions that your child already knows the answer to.

Find other ways to have a predictable social interaction--like singing a song together. It is perfectly alright to repeat the same words over and over in a song.

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