I’m thankful each day that Connor is able to say “I love you, mommy”. I never take that for granted because I know that there are so many others that would give anything to hear those words. Or to hear any words.
For all intents and purposes, Connor has functional communication. He can ask for something he wants, answer questions with varying degrees of accuracy, and even tell jokes. God, the jokes… His first “real” joke just happened this weekend. I say “real” because it was the first one that totally made sense, rather than the usual “Knock knock. Who’s there? Fart. Fart who? I just farted in your face, bwahahahaha!” We were playing air hockey, and he sunk the puck in my goal and said, “Oh yeah, Santa went DOOOOWN the chimney! How you like me now?”
I laughed my ass off. It made sense, it was a play on words that fit with what just happened. It was perfect.
But that doesn’t mean that he has mastered functional communication. Because he is highly verbal and because he is “high functioning”, people don’t often understand or realize that his communication is still impaired, especially at school.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, functional communication is defined as follows:
Functional communication skills are forms of behavior that express needs, wants, feelings, and preferences that others can understand. When individuals learn functional communication skills, they are able to express themselves without resorting to problem behavior or experiencing communication breakdown.
It’s a broad definition. So although someone may seem as though they can communicate quite well, the real test is whether they can “express themselves without resorting to problem behavior…”
The reason I have functional communication on my mind has everything to do with cereal.
See, the other morning I called Connor out to breakfast. As I made my way toward the shower, he started yelling “but I don’t WANT cereal! Why do I have to have CEREAL!?”
“Great, more whining and complaining,” I thought.
“But you like Oatmeal Squares, you eat it all the time,” I said.
His response left me thinking about the damn cereal all day. He said, “the cold milk gives me goosebumps.”
He’s never said that before. It made sense to me now. It was a cold day, and having cold milk in his cereal made him feel more cold. It dysregulated him. Normally, he would have just whined about not wanting it, and asked for other things. And normally I would have assumed he was being controlling and difficult.
Because he added the sentence about the cold milk, his statement about not wanting cereal became functional.
This was a breakthrough, and I complimented him on explaining the problem to me. Since we were running late, I asked if he could manage the cereal this one time, and the next day I would make sure he had something warm to eat. He happily agreed. Because of that extra piece of communication, we were able to negotiate and work out a solution together.
All that day I thought about the cereal, and wondered how many times I’d dismissed his behavior as “controlling” or “whiny”, when it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t able to communicate effectively.
I remembered what I used to know, once upon a time. Functional communication involves many layers and subtleties that are hard for our kids to master. It means we have to ask more questions, whenever possible. It means that when our kids are whining or acting up, we should assume there is something going on that they haven’t been able to communicate to us.
It helps to think of the layers of functional communication by comparing two statements. Consider the first statement below:
“I like the cake, it’s good.”
In contrast, here’s another description of cake, by Maria del Mar Sacasa, at Serious Eats:
“…softened butter is whipped with an egg yolk and confectioners’ sugar, then spread generously between the layers. The result: a light, crisp, chewy meringue with inexplicably creamy, lightly sweetened swirls of butter.”
The first statement conveys the very basics, while the second statement offers a detailed description that leaves the mouth watering. It is the details that our kids struggle with, that often leads to tantrums, full-blown meltdowns, or simple misunderstandings.
From now on, whenever I encounter whining or tantrums, I will remember the cold cereal. I will try my hardest to help facilitate more in-depth communication, and stop chalking it up to just “bad behavior.” I will help him to describe the cake in all its wondrous detail.
And tomorrow, we will have pancakes for breakfast.