Longtime readers know that my older brother is autistic. He recently moved to a new house in the city. With a new house came new staff and two new roomies. We’ve had a few hiccups, but Bill has taken them in stride.
Last year, when we finally got the opportunity to move Bill closer, my sister and I decided to learn sign language. Bill has limited speech and does not speak in sentences. After years of speech therapy and being surrounded by verbal people, Bill has expressed his preference for sign language. We noticed that he gets frustrated when folks don’t understand his speech…but it took us a long time to come to the decision to learn sign language.
As children, we were discouraged from signing with Bill because the focus was on improving his verbal speech. But Bill is 40 years old now…and he clearly prefers sign language. So, we came to the decision to err on the side of communication and see where that takes us.
My sister C- Money has been taking sign language instruction from a tutor and we practice at home. We’ve focused on the words we know Bill uses and are building from there.
Fastforward to a couple of weeks ago.
I got a call at work.
Bill’s new house manager was on the line. Staff had reported that they had accidentally given Bill his morning meds…twice. Since his meds include two pills for high blood pressure, this was not a little fuck up. I called C-Money to fill her in…she called the house manager back…and we all ended up at the Missouri Baptist emergency room.
FYI – Missouri Baptist has got to have the quickest ER in town! We were seen within 20 minutes and the entire experience took under three hours. The ER staff talked to Bill directly (a huge plus, since far too many medical folks tend to talk around the patient when the patient is autistic).
Anyhoo, the ER doctor said Bill would be fine but wanted to run a blood test. Bill’s blood pressure was low, but still within the range of normal. Double dosing blood pressure meds can be dangerous as hell…so we subjected Bill to a blood test just to be careful and then waited to see the results.
As we waited…and waited…and waited (the MOBAP ER was fast, but it still took some time)…Bill started signing that he wanted to get the hell out of Dodge and go for a ride in the van.
C-Money started signing back and the most remarkable moment of normal unfolded in the ER room.
I watched as my sister and brother started fussing with each other over whether or not we were going for a van ride now or later.
Bill’s face was animated. He jumped up and leaned toward C-Money, hands flying as he signed his opinion that the van ride should commence immediately. C-Money, trying not to laugh as she egged him on, kept repeating that the van ride was going to have to wait because Bill let staff double dose him. He didn’t appreciate her sense of humor and the fuss-based debate went on for a while.
The doctor came in. Bill’s blood work was fine and we were free to go. He shook the doctor’s hand, turned to C-Money and signed van with a smirk on his face, and then made for the door.
Later that evening, as I processed the day, I realized that was the first time I’d ever seen my siblings really argue. Oh, we’ve disagreed amongst ourselves before. Bill has expressed annoyance and frustration with us plenty of times.
But that was the first time I can recall ever seeing them communicate like that…really communicate, person to person, with both participants understanding each other and thinking the other was wrong as hell.
There are a lot of reasons why my parents focused on verbal communication when we were growing up. This is a speaking world and they wanted my brother to be able to ask for help, tell people when he was in pain, and express his wants and needs in a manner that speaking people can understand.
His speech, though limited, achieves that goal. He speaks softly…in single words. It gets the job done.
But communication is different than single word declarations that get the job done. At least it is in our situation.
When I sign to my brother I often mess up…when I get it right he turns to me and signs “Good job!’
I’m looking forward to more opportunities to chat with my brother, rather than at him…to get to know him better and enhance our relationship.
And we may have to add some signs for “I’ve already taken my blood pressure meds this morning!” to the mix.