Talk. Any Way You Can

Robert is ordering his lunch at McDonald.  Not without difficulties, desperate repetitions, and partially futile efforts to spell words “coke” and “fries” he managed to order chicken nuggets with fries and coke.  Now he has to ask for sweet and sour sauce.  He does ask.  A few times. But yet again, five syllables of, “Sweet and sour sauce.” are wrung into a knot  of one undecipherable sound.  I suggest spelling and Robert starts,  “S, w, e..”.    The young woman at the register doesn’t make a connection.  She repeats “s” and “w”, but still doesn’t know what Robert wants.  Robert spells again.  This time  he adds something new.  As he spells, his fingers seem to write the letters in the air.  The young woman has an idea.  She gives Robert paper and a pen.  Robert writes “sweet” .  Now she knows.  She gives Robert one tiny box of the sauce.  Very loudly and clearly Robert protests “TWO, TWO, TWO”.  He gets two packets , grabs them, and leaves.

The strange thing was that Robert was happy.  I expected him to be irritated, stressed, even humiliated.  The process of ordering simple meal took so long, so much effort, so many trials, and so many misunderstanding that it had to be draining.   I am not sure if it was worth to force Robert to order by himself.  At some point I even told him that if he doesn’t order by himself we would have to leave McDonald without eating.  I am not proud of myself, although the effect of that mean warning had two positive consequences. On one hand it convinced Robert that he couldn’t turn to me for help in ordering and so he doubled his efforts.  On the other hand, the young employee felt much more empathy toward Robert.  Not only he had difficulties speaking but also had a mean person with him.  So she decided to help him tell her what he wanted. She, too, doubled her efforts.

I felt confused, humiliated, and guilty but Robert was happy!  Why?

Because he managed without my help?

Because he was proud of the way he pretended to write ?

Because someone on the other side of the counter made an extra effort at communicating with him by giving him a pen and paper?

Or maybe  he was just glad that the ordeal was over and he got his chicken nuggets, fries, coke, and  two packets of sweet and sour sauce.

Talk to Them, Listen to Him

Every Wednesday, on a way home  from Robert’s adaptive  horseback riding we practice ordering a sandwich in Subway (his favorite chain). “It-al-ian”

-Louder. –


Not much louder. Syllables are clustered together in a hard to recognize sound.

Making a game.  Repeating it over and over as if we were screaming the name of a soccer team during a match. “It-al-lian, It-al-ian, It-al-ian!”

It should come easy.  It almost does. “It-al-ian”

In the Subway, Robert’s production of “Italian”  regresses to a scrambled sound.  The confused employee looks at me for help and translation.  I turn to Robert and draw a triangle in the air to remind him that the word has three syllables and he should space them accordingly.  Robert says it better.  But the employee attention has already shifted to me.  Like so many people before him, he doesn’t give Robert a second chance.

With a hardly hidden mixture of frustration and irritation I refuse to translate. “‘You have to listen to him, I point to Robert, I won’t be always here to interpret what he says.”

Robert is lost and uncomfortable.  He repeats the word over and over but with each utterance it becomes less clear.

Time for plan B.  I ask Robert: “Do you want French or Italian bread?”  Robert replies: “Italian.” Since there is no French bread on the menu, the employee understands.  He asks, “Long or short?”

Robert says quickly, “long, long, long”.  Too quickly for the employee who, yet again, turns to me for help and asks, “Short?”.  I am both depressed and angry.  It is true that Robert’s speech is hard to understand. But there is also no effort on the part of other people to understand him.  The employees at this and other fast food restaurants don’t show any interest in engaging in communication with Robert. Maybe they are just simply lost.

So I continue with Plan B which is to give Robert two choices hoping that he would repeat the chosen word in such a way that the employee understands.  I ask again, “Robert, do you want looong or short? This time I move my hands out for “long” to demonstrate the longer span, and bring them together for “short”.  Robert says, “Long” and imitates my movement.  The employee understands.  It already took too much time, so I just continue with plan B, asking questions myself. “What cheese do you want, American or provolone?”  It doesn’t really matter because Robert likes both and chooses sometimes one, sometimes the other.  Today he chooses American and the employee understands.

“Robert, do you want pepperoni or ham?”


The difference in sounds is such that there is no room for error.  And yet not once before when Robert pointed to Pepperoni and said “pepperoni” he was not understood.

I go on, “Do you want it toasted? YES or NO? ”

“Toasted, toasted.”

Now, I just ask for a few leaves of spinach on top.  I do that myself because  Robert is not really sure he wants anything green on his cheese. Still, he accepts my decision.  Maybe because protesting would be too hard and would take too much time.  He is hungry after all and wants to eat.

The employee asks Robert what he wants to drink.  Although Robert pronounced the word “coke” with a short “o” sound, the employee does understand.  There is of course one more question to ask, which I forgot about. So the employee utters it, “For here or to take out?”.  Robert understands and repeats a few times with a strong conviction “here, here, here”.  Then he pays with his debit card, places his tray on the table, and goes to the fountain to fill his cup with ice cubes and coke.