Many individuals with Autism are literal thinkers. Often their interpretation of what you say, how they speak and how they interpret the world around them, is very literal. This literalism “results from the underlying communication disorder, which makes those on the spectrum unable to understand the shifting meaning of words in changing situations. In addition, they tend to persevere in their first impression rather than discarding it to test other meanings.” http://www.myaspergerschild.com/2011/06/aspergers-children-and-literal-thinking.html
In Australia we have so many colloquialisms and slang terms that can be confusing to individuals on the spectrum. There are so many phrases we use that can be confusing to an individual with ASD. Think about some of the phrases we bally about – “Pull your socks up!” “Get with the program!” “Get your skates on!” “I have a frog in my throat!” “Hop to it!” “Keep your eyes on the paper” “Take a seat!” … I could go on and on. This kind of language use can be very confusing to individuals on the spectrum and can hinder their ability to correctly interpret information around them.
I remember when my husband and I were teaching out west, we taught a delightful ASD boy of about 10 years of age. As Chris and he were walking back to his classroom one day, Chris noticed that the plants in a particular garden bed were dying. Chris remarked, “It looks like those plants are on their last legs!” The child replied, “I’m sure that what you meant to say was that those plants are on their last roots – plants have roots, not legs!” Of course he was absolutely correct.
Do you recall the Air Wick (room deodoriser) “Brighten up your World” campaign where the lady sprayed this wondrous deodoriser around her room and wonderful colours emanated from the dispenser? I couldn’t find the exact ad I was after but this is much the same idea just perhaps a different campaign http://vimeo.com/39743057. James told me one morning that he thought we needed to make our house more colourful. When I questioned him about how we might do this he said, “We need Air Wick! Air Wick will make our house all bright and colourful!” I attempted to explain to him that although it appeared that this was the case, that this would not actually happen – it was simply a strategy used by the people trying to sell Air Wick to make it more appealing. He wasn’t convinced.
We happened upon Air Wick products in Woolworths one day soon after this conversation and he was beside himself with joy. “Mum, Mum, they have Air Wick! Mum, quick, they have Air Wick! Let’s buy it and make our house all bright and colourful like on the TV!” There was much polite chuckling from the nearby shoppers. When I explained to him again that it would not actually make our house colourful he was so cross. His cross tirade began in Aisle 11 and did not conclude until some time after we got home. “Air Wick is just fake. The people who make Air Wick are just liars!” etc. James’ thinking is concrete and generally he assumes that what someone says is exactly what they mean according to his often literal interpretation of it.
Some time last year the boys developed an interest in magic and we attended a magic show with them. It was an ASD friendly event which alleviated much of the usual pressure I would feel about the boys needing to sit still, refrain from making loud comments and random noises and so on. This particular magic show had a lot of dancing as a segue between magic acts. James just could not understand why there was dancing. He was disgusted and outraged. “Mum, what IS this dancing about? This is a magic show. Why is there dancing! It doesn’t make sense! Dancing has nothing to do with magic!” And then there was the loud sighing and repeated tirades when the dancers would once again take to the stage between magic acts.
At Christmas time, a very kind family friend gave the boys their own magic kit. James was really excited about it and went hurriedly off to his room with his father and brother to explore the kit. Some moments later James came screaming out of the house, completely beside himself. It would seem that James was disgusted and horribly disappointed to discover the true nature of magic tricks – simply smoke and mirrors! He was irate – “This is just rubbish! Magic isn’t magic at all, it’s just a trick! It’s all lies, all of it!”
Having a literal interpretation of the world around you and having to constantly check that your interpretation of what is being said, is actually what is meant must be exhausting. For teachers and parents, it’s important to speak slowly, specifically and clearly – leave regular pauses so the child has time to process what you have said. The things that my kids say – the things that many ASD individuals say are absolutely priceless. It’s always healthy to see the lighter, funnier side of this however it is equally important to be aware of this issue so that we might make life easier for those with ASD.