Autism And The Alphabet: Dylan and the ‘W’

Munch 003My last couple of posts have focused on Dylan’s love of paintings and my attempts to understand the role of art in his life. In order to do this I identified imagery which Dylan seems to respond to and constructed a therapeutic narrative around it. A comment on my last post, however, reminded me that I was making assumptions about Dylan’s viewing. How could I be sure Dylan was responding to the images in a painting? Perhaps he was attracted by the light or by a picture’s lines?

My initial reaction to the question ‘why don’t you ask Dylan what he likes about the paintings?’ was that I couldn’t. He (I mean we) don’t have the language. But the question set me thinking. Maybe Dylan was indeed gazing at darkness rather than thinking ‘rock’, or enjoying the quality of contrast rather than the thing I call ‘a cross’. I convert the light and the dark, the colours, shapes and lines to concrete nouns for Dylan but perhaps what he likes about the paintings aren’t the things I give him words for.

Maybe I need to view Dylan’s paintings with the part of my brain which sees spatially instead of with language. Rather than labelling objects in a painting I could offer Dylan the spaces and shade. Such an approach would fit with what I have already learned about the way he sees the world. Elsewhere I have described how Dylan sees hair on trees instead of leaves and tells me that the cheese is crying when I melt it. I have suggested that Dylan’s lack of language might allow him to experience phenomena more intimately and intensely than I am able to because he uses his senses rather than these inadequate words. Dylan’s perception of the world, I have speculated, may be right-brained whereas mine is left; where I see ‘curtain’ Dylan might see silver light spilling from a vertical edge.

See saw

W 005I must have been thinking about this a few days later when I picked up a magnetic letter from Dylan’s bedroom floor. Because I was about to say ‘Oh look Dylan there’s a letter’ or ‘look here’s a W’ when I remembered Elisa’s question ‘Why don’t you ask Dylan what he likes about the paintings?’. Could I be open-ended about the W? Could I ask Dylan what I had found on the floor?

Oh look. What’s this Dylan?

See saw

I stared at him in shock. Then I asked again.

See saw

You should have seen my face 🙂 I cracked such a grin. What a gift. Dylan sometimes hands me these, unasked for, but I might never have received this one if I hadn’t asked the question that way. The see-saw was my first open-ended gift.

Seeing W

wikipedia.orgDylan’s magnetic W is the same shape as the version produced by a keyboard: not actually ‘double U’ (as the letter is pronounced in English) but rather ‘Double V’ (as it is pronounced in French). Although this version of W is commonplace today, when I was a child it had curves not angles. In handwriting lessons we were taught to practice forming our Ws by joining Us together and moving our hand briskly and freely across the page, line after line.


Just like Dylan I made letters into pictures. My friends and I thought we were terribly risquĂ© when (collapsing in giggles) we decorated our UUs with squiggles and dots to turn them into bottoms and bosoms. Perhaps I didn’t see a see saw because of the cursive way we wrote our Ws but I can’t help thinking that had I looked carefully – as Dylan does – I might have seen a swing boat.

Hearing W

publicdomainpicures.netAs well as the mismatch between the visual ‘W’ and the heard shape ‘UU’ I encountered other problems with this letter as a child. I remember sitting on the back step of a friend’s house on a warm day one long school holiday. We had got the writing bug and were sitting in the sun with paper and pens. I don’t know how old we were – perhaps seven or eight, maybe a little older. I remember my friend asked her dad, working in the drive nearby, for a spelling.

How do you spell daffodil?

D- a- double f – o – d – i – l

I had never heard anyone use the ‘double letter’ device before. I remember I felt anxious about the letters I had heard but didn’t have the confidence to ask my friend’s dad to repeat them. I did my best but something seemed wrong with my word:  Dawfodil. It looked a bit odd. I wasn’t going to question my friend’s dad though.

Suddenly he was hovering above me, looking down at my page: ‘What have you got there?’, he asked, ‘Why have you written a W?’ He had said W I told him. He checked his daughter’s writing; she hadn’t made the same mistake. My friend must have heard the double letter expression before but it was unfamiliar to me; I had assumed a letter with a ‘double’ sound in it meant W. Afterwards I would use the double device triumphantly and often:

M – i – double s – i – double s – i – double p – i

I’d do well to remember the confusion and anxiety I felt about my dawfodil though; it might help me understand just a stamen of being Dylan.

Teaching W

W 003Because the names, shapes and sounds of letters aren’t intuitive or easy, attempts have been made by practitioners and publishers to develop teaching resources and methodologies. Whether or not these help probably depends on an individual child’s learning style. A kinaesthetic learner, for example, might respond to the Steiner approach to learning the alphabet through music, movement and drama. This method involves children physically taking on the attributes of each of the letters of the alphabet and embodying learning through the senses. The magnetic letters which I use with Dylan are also aimed at children who learn through their senses as they can be experienced by touch and smell as well as sight.

amazonw2As a phonetic method the commercial resource Letterland focuses primarily on sound. Available in a range of formats (jigsaw, books, video etc) it works through the association of each letter with an alliterative character (human or animal). So, for example, C is Clever Cat, J is Jumping Jim and W is Walter Walrus (though when my children were small it was Wicked Water Witch). Many children respond well to the Letterland alphabet – I remember my step daughter liked it and it really did seem to help her developing literacy. It doesn’t suit every child though; my daughter was lukewarm about it and it never held any interest for Dylan. Now, perhaps, I can understand why; Dylan doesn’t hear a Walrus, he sees a see saw.

Just as I put a  ‘w’ in daffodil because I thought I heard one, perhaps Dylan visualises see saws in words with w:

Yelloseesaw [Yellow]

Seesawonderseesawall  [Wonderwall]

Seesawindoseesaws  [Windows]

I have been wondering what else Dylan sees in the letters of the alphabet. One day I will ask him but not all at once as it would overwhelm him. I’ve tried to guess though – O could be wheel perhaps:

Twheelwheelkit  [Toolkit]

Wheelseesawl  [Owl]

Mwheelther  [Mother]

W 007Looking again

If Dylan sees letters as objects unconnected with the sounds they represent then it must be very hard for him to make sense of letters as signifiers. To my knowledge the only group of letters Dylan recognises is ‘Dylan’ and this is because he has been exposed to them as a sequence rather than as individual characters. What might be the implications for supporting literacy development in children and adults with autism and learning disability? Based on my limited observations of Dylan I would hazard that for some young people the ‘look say’ method might be a more appropriate approach than a phonetically-based system. Learning words certainly seems more effective than learning letters for Dylan and if I had his early years again this is probably what I would focus on. Then again, that way I might have missed the see saw…

W 014


The daffodils are via; the swingboats are via wikipedia; the Letterland book is via Amazon and the other photos are taken by me. The picture of Dylan on a seesaw (aged three) was taken in France in 1997.

8 thoughts on “Autism And The Alphabet: Dylan and the ‘W’

  1. I wonder if Dylan can tell you what he sees in all the letters of something like the word ‘walk’ and if that sequence of letters reads to him like a group of objects/sounds/smells that make it so walking is not what he thinks of, rather he sees that group and thinks of seesaws, pretzles, sticks, and chairs – which are nothing like walking. Perhaps just LL would be better for walk to Dylan? or /_\_ ? Letters are truly abstract things. Any English speaker can look at Cyrillic (Russian or Greek) writing and not recognize anything, it’s completely unknown to them.


    • Yes! That is exactly what I was imagining – that if other letters mean different things to D then he could end up with a sequence of references which are nothing like the meaning of the word! I suppose that’s why rebus symbols are good for Dylan – they are clear and he understands them pretty well. I’ve always known that Dylan ‘doesn’t read’ but the possibility that he is reading sequences of letters in this pictorial way reminds me how much scope there is for mis-reading to happen between us. I love your pretzel! Now that’s what I shall see instead of a’s. Thank you!


  2. consider this: if you were to teach a blind and deaf person (helen keller) one must build for them an image to go along with certain forms (dots). These dots all in each sequence for each thing do not mean their seperate parts.

    There is a concrete image and item that goes with each one. Thus letters are abstract and without an image or a meaning until in context. There are some who also have this idea with numbers, severe form of dyscalcula (sp?). No ability to retain concept and meaning to numbers, let along stringing them together in functions.

    if i were using pictures on a board…i must be certain if i chose an image of a maple tree in a field with blue sky and grass. I KNOW when I am choosing, what I am choosing to see. However it would be important to use finger touch and direction on what to ‘see’ and to attend to. And often when i did that with my own kiddo when he was young, he attached meaning to the action of his finger touching and missed the point altogether 🙂

    They try to solve this by using highly simple black and white shapes for thing on a card. but then there is no association with the real….

    so for us, we had to chain them altogether and cross reference….
    card tree, card color image of same tree, take image outside hang onto tree hold up picture, offer books magazines and point to many images of trees and back to touching tree….command to go touch another tree…and an assist to do so and often a sign for tree

    therefore concept of tree is not fixated and can even be seen and expressed as imagination in clouds ect.

    as they advanced we’d spell tree onto the tree with finger, we did it in sand, we put the image or the object beside the word and it became

    I think i tricked expression and identifying with what others were saying or doing from them.

    I can’t wait to find out other W type seesaw thoughts he has how wonderful to be asked!!!! excitement and lack of boredom yay!


    • Your description is so interesting Elisa, thank you. Funny you should mention Helen Keller – I was reading something about her the other day and thought about Dylan. I like that idea of chaining and cross referencing. It’s an approach which might well be appropriate for Dylan. I’m not sure how Dylan felt about my open question. Usually he struggles with these and I find I have to offer some sort of framework – two or three options for example. But I would certainly NEVER have offered a see saw option so it was exciting for me and perhaps as you say for Dylan too 🙂 Thank you Elisa!


  3. This was really interesting, Liz. Very thought-provoking, and the comments too.

    Smiled at the “double-f” as I learned to spell Mississippi similarly:
    M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-hunchback-hunchback-I

    I’ve not looked at letters as shapes or symbols in many years (more as patterns on a keyboard), so thanks for helping me continue to look di-double f-erently at the world around me.

    Hope you are well (number 9 coming up soon, right?)
    x, Christy


    • Hi Christy – it’s very lovely to hear from you – thank you for reading and commenting. I’m so pleased to find another person who learned Mississippi that way 🙂 When I eventually got to see it I sat on the banks watching the paddle steamers and chanting my spelling charm 🙂 You have a good memory: yes, anniversary on the 19th (not quite #9 – 7th this year). This year has been a tough one at times but I’m still strong. I like the idea that life works in 7 year cycles so have let myself believe that pushing through this anniversary will really be something. How lovely it is to see your open road and blue sky! And I love the new name and its reasons x Liz


      • Ah…nine-teen…maybe that’s why I was thinking nine?
        Congrats in advance!
        And thanks for the nice words. I’ll be writing a rationale post soooon.
        If you plan to write about your year, I’d love to reblog…or if you’d like to guest-post about anything, you have a standing open invitation.
        Be well my dear! -c

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Learning Through Dialogue: reflections on blogging (ii) | Living with Autism

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