Rob stands across the counter from me in the kitchen in all his 18-year-old glory: gym shorts, bed-head, and 2-day beard.  He bends his 6’3″ frame forward and speaks to me in Japanese, which I can’t understand, but the meaning of which I can guess, since it is almost noon.  He translates: Feed me. I laugh at him. Feed me. I’m Hungry. Nice to meet you, Mr. Hungry. He mock-scowls, and says in Japanese – what are you going to do about it? I pretend to think hard. Um…Sympathize? I make the world’s smallest violin with my thumb and forefinger. He scowls harder, and I suddenly I’m playing the air-violin in grandiose gestures, and we’re laughing. I point to the fridge. You know what to do. So he gets out the frozen chicken, some fresh broccoli, and some frozen rice, and proceeds to make himself lunch (or should I say breakfast).

This is a ritual that Rob and I have gone through for years, although the Japanese is a recent addition. Now it is a joke, something we laugh about, but when he was younger it was not so funny. When he was very little, trying to get him to ask for what he wanted was difficult. Autistic children don’t tend to ask for what they want; often, they don’t realize that you don’t already KNOW what they want; or if they do, they demand rather than ask; the niceties of please and thank-you often seem superfluous to a child whose use of language is merely instrumental, not social. So our ritual is actually a fossil record of sorts, a trace of the long process of teaching him to speak: first to use words to get what he wants; then to ask rather than demand. That was the point of “Nice to meet you Mr. Hungry.”  He needed to learn that a bald statement of his feelings was not the same thing as asking for me to do something. Once he mastered that, then the   struggle became to get him to do things for himself rather than have me do them. Then the ritual became a way of exploring jokes – understanding gesture, humor, a shared sense of history. I am proud of his new independence: proud of his increased understanding of the nuances of communication, so that he can make a joke. He knows he can do it himself.  He knows I know. He knows that asking me in the old way is a way of making that joke. He knows I will not make him lunch. He knows how to make his own lunch. And now, he can say it in Japanese – a language I don’t understand, so that he has to translate for me – a way of coming full circle, of making language something he can teach me.