Friday, 18 March 2011

Soooo... Tell Me What'cha Want, What'cha Really, Really Want....

Abstract Language
Rhetorical questions

Most kids on the spectrum don't understand these, as they typically think in literal terms.  Glen, Dayton's father, makes up his own "slang language," as he's the group's clown and likes to joke around and pull pranks on his friends and co-workers.  This tends to be counter productive to Dayton's very concrete and literal understanding of what is discussed.  Fortunately, we're aware of Dayton's language deficit, and can help him through it.

Think for a moment what this means for Dayton and others on the autism spectrum in the school setting.  Teachers, principals and guidance counselors are famous for using rhetorical questions meant as a directive to the child.  Let's look at a couple of examples, shall we...

Example 1)  Did you forget something?
Dayton simply answers with a short "no," which to the teachers shows defiance or lack of respect.  This of course results in a trip to the Principal's office, which Dayton will protest to, because in his mind, he's answered the teacher's question.  If he had known he had forgotten something, he would have got it.  In his mind, he doesn't understand why he's being sent to the Principal's office because he's done nothing wrong.

Example 2)  What part of paying attention do you not understand?
Dayton:  "all of it."
Obviously, Dayton is asked to go to the office again.  In his mind, again, he simply answered the question honestly.  He really doesn't understand the implied meaning of "do what you're told." 

Language...  we take it for granted so often that we are able to "read between the lines."  for the kids like Dayton who fit on the higher functioning side of the autism spectrum, it is difficult to believe that they don't understand the intended meaning behind idioms when they are capable of having a conversation.  These kids look so good, with no visible disability, so the teachers forget that they are neurologically different from the rest of the student body. 

Unfortunately, because of their language deficits and misunderstandings, these kids are labelled as bad, manipulative or defiant.  Naturally, this results in negative consequences for these kids, by being punished with no understanding as to what they have done wrong.  And now they're mad...  Wouldn't you be?  What happens when you get mad, or feel you have been wrongfully accused of something you didn't do?  Oh yes...  do you sense the suspension just around the corner?

Now does this mean these kids can't learn abstract language?  Of course not.  Teachers just need to take a short minute or less to ensure that the child understood what they had meant.  I do it all the time at home.  Here's a quick example of something that happened just last weekend.

We had grandma and grandpa over for supper Sunday night, which even though it may have interrupted Dayton's routine, he very much looked forward to.  Dayton loves his grandparents dearly, and looks up to grandpa.  After supper, grandma and I helped Dayton plant some peas, as his school project of planting beans didn't workout too well.  Once we finished, he wanted to play with his Nerf gun my friend had given him as a birthday present.

At 7 pm, I asked Dayton to start his bed time routine.  I normally have him in bed at 7:30pm, with the lights turned off and the TV ready to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants until 8pm, when he turns the TV off and goes to sleep with his cat Jack.  This night he tells me that instead of watching Sponge Bob, he wants to visit with grandma and grandpa.  I agree and go to the laundry room to finish the heap of laundry.

Well...  All I heard was Dayton's Nerf gun shooting foamy bullets at my walls.  I come back out and ask Dayton why he isn't spending time with his grandparents.  I'm frustrated, tired, and feeling ill.  All I want to do is get this laundry done, sit down with mom and visit with her a little longer.  I slip and make a mistake...

"Stop pushing my buttons!!!  Get ready for bed, NOW!"
"What buttons?"
"Oh no..."
"Where are these buttons?!"
"Honey, it's a figure of speech."
"Dayton, sometimes when we get upset, we will say something like "stop pushing my buttons."  It doesn't mean that we actually have buttons to press."
"What about our belly buttons?"
"We don't press our  belly buttons, and if we did, nothing would happen."
"Sooooooo, there's no buttons for me to press...  then why did you say I pressed your buttons?"
Let's try this again...  "Sometimes, people get upset, just like mommy got upset with you, see my face?"  I make it a point to frown, and ensure he understands that my face means I'm frustrated.  Dayton struggles with recognizing facial expressions.  "When you won't stop and listen to me and obey, it makes me upset, and when you won't stop what you're doing..."
"Pressing buttons."
"So you don't have buttons."
"Right, mommy doesn't have buttons."
"Other than your belly button."
"Right babe, other than my belly button."

It takes some time, and it can be a little frustrating, but it's something that needs to be done.  Dayton has now learned an expression, one I hope he can remember for next time someone uses the idiom.  Things that other children (I hate using the word "normal," it drives me crazy) are able to decipher, kids on the autism spectrum need to learn, and discuss in order to understand.  How wonderful it would be if Dayton's teachers accepted this!

As my dad always says instead of saying good bye, "Consider yourselves hugged!"



  1. Dayton has improved over last year.... but, he can still talk circles around a hummingbird ;)

  2. Thanks mom! You've been a huge help!!!

  3. Oh, I can totally see you two having that conversation! LOL

    It is true though - most of us take those figures of speech for granted. It doesn't occur to use that someone might not understand. In the book "House Rules" by Jodi Picoult (you seriously have to read that book) the autistic boy that the book is about explains it as being in a foreign country and trying to learn a new language. The language books that you learned from do not include figures of speech that vary by each area so unless someone explains it communication can be very frustrating.

  4. Hey Danielle, I do have the book, and I'm reading it as we speak. I'm reading chapter 3 now. And yes, figures of speech are difficult for Dayton. I'll never forget the day I told him "I have a bone to pick with you." He totally lost it, wanting to know if it was a murder victim's bones, dinasour bones... it was an hour later that I got him to understand that there were no bones, and then I was too tired to explain why I was upset. LOL.

  5. Hi Lou!

    First off, I found you through Danielle and knew I just had to stop by your blog.

    After reading this post...oh boy do I know THAT conversation. My oldest son, Mike, is on the spectrum. At 17, he's finally starting to "get" the non-literal nature of idioms. Well, at least understand that not everything said is meant literally.

    However, we still struggle with the gray areas. If I had a dime for every time Mike said something like "You know, Mom, technically that word means...." Heaven forbid if I use an adjective in a slightly different way than it's intended! For example, I can't say "the sun is blinding bright today" without Mike explaining to me that it can't be blinding because I can still see.

    Somedays, I love him for his "technicalities." Other days, I would give my right arm for a roll of duct tape. (Just don't tell Mike I said that...otherwise I'll have to listen to an hour of why I technically can't give my arm without a trip to the hospital to stop the bleeding, and how it's probably not legal to give my arm to someone, except of course, if it were a transplant, and then I probably wouldn't get to pick who the arm was given to...yadda, yadda, yadda.)

    Keep up the great posts...I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog! I'll definitely have to come back later, after I'm done working for the day.

  6. Hi Sandi!
    Thanks so much for the compliment! I'm so new at this, a baby really, so it's really encouraging that I'm making an impact as this is the whole point of my blog, to raise awareness!

    Again, thanks so much!!! I'd love to hear more about Mike!!!