I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “functional language” lately. You know, the kinds of words and communication patterns we use to express needs, wants, and ideas with other people. The kind of language that falls into patterns: “how are you today?” “Fine thanks, how are you?” I’ve been thinking about it because my son was assessed for Autism spectrum a few months ago, and this is an area the school psychologists honed in on: he struggles, they say, with functional language. He does not respond in expected ways to formulaic questions. (How boring.) Instead, he chooses symbolic language. (How exciting!) He goes several steps beyond expressing needs and wants and instead tells you what’s most important to him: big picture thinking, long-term ramifications, global connections. At the very least, he defies patterns.
Let me give you an example from their report. The psychologist asked my son “how do you get along with your step-sister?” This seems like a straightforward question. He’s only been living with his step-sister since last summer. No doubt the psychologist was trying to determine the dynamics of sibling relationships at our house, and possible stresses from the transition of all of a sudden having a step-sibling. Fair enough. No doubt the psychologist was expecting answers such as “we fight a lot,” or “we don’t talk much,” or “she likes to do her own thing,” or something else that describes how a sibling relationship might function. But my son’s response was “we wear the same shoe size.”
For those of us who know the context, my son’s response actually encodes an incredible amount of information about their relationship. My bonus daughter is small for her age, and my son is small for his age. Yet he is 8 and she is 14, so he puzzles over this fact: how can they wear the same shoe size? It’s a truly interesting connection for him. Furthermore, my bonus daughter is also neurodivergent: she communicates by typing on an iPad; she struggles with a seizure disorder; she is frequently ill; and she really does prefer lots of alone time with her fave music. Their relationship will likely never resemble how neurotypical siblings interact, but who cares? Occasionally my son initiates typed conversations with my bonus daughter. More often, though, they happily co-exist in their own preferred comfort zones. Now this kind of information is really complicated to explain to a school psychologist. Maybe my son thought it was none of the psychologist’s business. Maybe he was trying to honor that the most important aspects of my bonus daughter’s being cannot be reduced to “we don’t talk much” or “we get along fine.” And maybe, given that he feels so disconnected from other people on a regular basis because his brain works in such different ways, maybe a shared shoe size is the sort of connectivity he cherishes. But this example was used as an indicator of poor functional language skills because he didn’t answer the exact question that was asked in an expected way.
Expected and unexpected are terms often used to “help” autistic kids learn which of their behaviors are socially-acceptable and which are not. As an example: Michelle Garcia Winner’s “social thinking” curriculum* begins with expected and unexpected as key terms to help kids understand when their behavior is acceptable and when it isn’t. What neurodivergent kids are really learning when we call events expected and unexpected is what we neurotypicals find comfortable and pleasing and what we find uncomfortable and displeasing. Unexpected language patterns are “non-functional” because they are not goal-oriented, they don’t accomplish a task. How boring.
But adults sometimes get a pass when it comes to non-functional language. Adults are expected to be fluent in metaphors and references; adult conversations often diverge from expected patterns. Yesterday I took some time in the middle of a road trip to shop for shoes for the boy child. As I entered the store, the sales person began to regale me with sales announcements: we’ve got ladies’ wedges and sandals over here, and they’re all on sale, she announced. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’m looking for my son.” How would you interpret my response? She thought I was literally looking for my son, as in, my boy is missing and I thought I might find him in this random shoe store in Waco, Texas. “I don’t think I’ve seen him,” she said, and I had no idea what she meant. After I picked out 2 pairs of boys’ shoes and brought them to the counter, she realized what I meant. “Oh!” She said, “you meant you were looking for shoes for your son.” And then we laughed about our communication gaffe, extended the joke a bit further, and then I left with shoes I bought for my son. So as part of this exchange, she misunderstood what I said because I did not respond in syntax that she expected. Did I fail at functional language? Did she? We were able to work that conversation out, because we both realized that we had expectations about how / where the conversation would go and we were willing to work towards mutual understanding. Nobody was around to judge us and categorize our conversation as non-functional.
Admittedly, the stakes were pretty low yesterday, worth only about 2 pairs of shoes. The stakes are higher when one is being evaluated for “functional” and “non-functional” language or anything else. And while I won’t deny that communicating with my son is sometimes a challenge because (1) I have trouble keeping up with his fast processing speed, (2) I don’t share his vivid imagination, and (3) my expectations are too often grounded in literal rather than symbolic language, I cannot accept that his way of languging is non-functional. If anything, it is hyper-functional. It is steeped in layered inferences, puns, in-jokes from many years ago, references to books he’s read and movies he’s seen. Spend one hour with my child. He’ll blow your mind with the connections he’s able to make and frame in language.
*In the original version of this essay, I indicated that I otherwise like Michelle Garcia Winner’s “social thinking” curriculum. Based on feedback from very wise people, I am reconsidering the value of this curriculum. Thanks to all who help me to check my ableism.