When it was time for cake at my second birthday party, I sat at a table surrounded by smiling grown-ups. One of the grown-ups asked me a question. I don’t remember the question itself, but I remember my answer: “Actually, it’s crooked.” Actually and crooked were two of my favorite words as a toddler. Whether or not it really answered the question, my reply made every adult in the room laugh. I felt a little embarrassed.
My mom remembers people in the supermarket staring in surprise when they heard clear, complex sentences coming from a tiny child in a shopping cart seat. I remember wondering why other toddlers didn’t talk the way I did. I spoke fluently at twelve months old.
Around age three, I spontaneously started to read. This made most school work easy and opened my world to many wonderful stories, but my teachers weren’t sure what to do with a child who entered school already knowing how to read well. I was bored with phonics lessons. (Letting me work on new vocabulary instead of phonics may have been a good solution, but no one thought of that.) When I read aloud in class, the teacher often told me to slow down so the other children could keep up.
Fortunately, the psychologist who diagnosed me with autism realized that not all autistic children start speaking late; some start speaking early. Not all professionals seem to realize this. I have almost never seen precocious speech on “signs of autism” lists, which often focus only on delayed or absent speech. Is this because many people see autism as a collection of deficits, while talking early is considered a strength? Does it have anything to do with the huge influence of Autism Speaks, whose advertisements often show a narrow stereotype of a silent, somber child? A Google search for “autism and precocious speech” brought up almost nothing relevant. Even among the autistic community, I seldom notice any discussion of early speech.
I recently had a conversation about precocious speech with Lauren Smith-Donohoe. Both she and her daughter are autistic. However, because they both spoke earlier than typical children, it took them a long time to get a diagnosis. Lauren Smith-Donohoe expressed concern that most parents don’t realize precocious speech and reading come with their own set of challenges. Adults may unfairly expect precocious children to act older than they are, and advanced readers may be exposed to topics that are not appropriate for children.
I’ve noticed that parents and teachers sometimes think everything a precocious child enjoys has to challenge their brain, or it isn’t worthwhile. Even if a second grader can read on an eighth grade level, that doesn’t mean books written for eighth graders will be interesting or relevant to them. When I was seven, my mom threw a fit because my dad bought me a computer game I wanted, intended for age seven and under. I continued to enjoy the game for many years. Challenging your brain is important, but doing things just for fun is also important.
A child who sounds like a little adult is still a child. A big vocabulary does not equal emotional maturity—especially for someone with a developmental disability. My difficulties with social communication and emotional regulation were no less real than those of an autistic person who talked later than average. And knowing a lot of words definitely didn’t mean I knew how to put my feelings into words.
Perhaps “signs of autism” lists should say something like “May start speaking earlier than typical, later than typical, or not at all”. Such a statement would help people understand that there are many ways for autistic language to develop, and that early-talking autistic children do exist.
Autistic community, let’s talk about early speech. Were any of you precocious speakers or self-taught readers? Did talking or reading early make certain things easier or harder? Did adults expect you to act more grown-up than you really were? Has anyone ever said you “couldn’t be autistic” because you didn’t have a speech delay? I would love to hear from you.