Meet Monroe Dobbs. He didn’t learn to speak properly until he was seven. Instead, he babbled and chattered incessantly.
“He’d been colicky for several months after his birth, or so everyone had thought. Monroe knew better. His stomach wasn’t distressing him, it was all the noise. So many sounds, even the tiniest, thumped his eardrums and coursed through his body, driving him to angry tears. He couldn’t sort them all out and the cacophony overwhelmed him.
“Not only was his hearing super sensitive – he could pick up the rough scratching of a fly rubbing its legs across a room – colors gave off their own noises, as did people He’d had to learn to focus on the sounds he wanted to hear and filter out those he didn’t. By the time he was three months old, he had reasonably mastered this skill and found that everything was speaking to him. The pale blue curtains in his room whispered, “Swoosh, swoosh, shh,” and sung him to sleep. Dusty brown potatoes hummed low, like stately Tibetan monks. The rocking chair in the living room complained about its loose, creaky joints. Fluorescent lights screamed violent pink at him.
“These languages spoke more elementally than words and were easier to learn than English. They were honest languages that bounced off his diaphragm and told him who he could trust and who he couldn’t.”
Now, meet Amanda Baggs, a 27 year old autistic woman who doesn’t speak the way most of us speak. She was featured in the latest issue of Wired magazine (16.03) in an article called, “Yeah, I’m Autistic. You got a problem with that?” by David Wolman. (Online title: “The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know”) In the article, Wolman mentions a YouTube video that Amanda made of herself engaging in her typical autistic behaviors. Midway through the video, she provides a translation, which is read by a computer-simulated voice as she types it. According to the Wired article, Amanda “explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings. These forms of nonverbal stimuli constitute her “native language,” Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language.”
See that last sentence in the quote? When I read it, I couldn’t help but feel that it was oh so familiar. And it was. If you look back up to the last paragraph about Monroe Dobbs, you’ll see a sentence about languages more elemental than English. Through the Wired article, Amanda confirmed what I had written several years ago. You see, Monroe Dobbs is one of the characters in my Greenville series. The first few paragraphs of this post are reprinted from my story “Tongues.” Along with super-sensitive hearing, Monroe is a synesthete, a person whose brain mixes the senses. His abilities, which are not understood or accepted at first, lead to another more incredible ability, which I shall not give away so as not to ruin the story.
I have long been fascinated with the various ways our brains work. What is normal? What is an anomaly? The Wired article discusses some of the strengths autistic people exhibit over the rest of us (called neurotypicals in the article). Autistics have “a higher prevalence of perfect pitch, enhanced ability with 3-D drawing and pattern recognition, more accurate graphic recall, and various superior memory skills.”
Our Eldest Son has an ability to draw in 3 dimensions that is uncanny, and he has the ability to do it without looking at anything for reference, plus, he can draw this way with his nose only a few inches away from the paper. Unlike most artists, he doesn’t have much need for pulling away from his drawing in order to be sure the perspective is correct. He just does this automatically. That has me thinking – does Eldest Son’s brain have anything in common with the brain of an autistic who has this ability?
From “Tongues” again:
“When he spoke in pure sound, he picked the language that was most appropriate for the situation. Thus, when there was danger, he shrieked like a blue jay.”
I shall let you ponder the notion that the truth is stranger than fiction.