"Is there a way to teach a child with high functioning autism to not take the things a parent says so literally? My daughter’s literal mind is completely baffled by sarcasm. She will try to dissect and understand common phrases and end up with some very bizarre ideas about the world. I try to keep my sarcasm to a minimum, but no matter how hard I try to account for her literalism, there are always things that I miss. I end up saying something that confuses the hell out of her, and when I try to explain, it just confuses her even more. As just one example, we were running late getting out the door and on to a doctor’s appointment a few days ago. She was stalling, so I barked, ‘Get those shoes on your feet right now!’ So, she literally picked up her shoes and placed them ON TOP of her feet (I had to laugh). Anyway… how can I help with this issue?"
All kids have a "blind spot" in understanding various concepts. For example, some students don't "get" multiplication or division, but can usually overcome this blind spot at some point with the help of a math tutor. But, for the child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger’s (AS), the blind spots are reading non-verbal cues and comprehending humor or sarcasm. This is a permanent autistic trait called “mind-blindness.” Difficulty reading social cues affects every aspect of the child’s social life – at home, school and in the community at large.
Certain properties make language very creative, engaging, fun to use, and interesting to listen to (e.g., figures of speech, sarcasm, body language, tone of voice, etc.). However, these properties are often huge roadblocks between the messages parents try to give their HFA or AS youngster and his ability to receive them. “Special needs” kids with language processing problems, developmental delays, and other challenging conditions have extreme difficulty understanding the nuances and subtexts of language.
Since it is impossible to teach the HFA or AS youngster every innuendo of speech and nonverbal cues and multiple meanings, he may compensate by (a) becoming precise in language, (b) seeking words that have a definite concrete meaning, (c) concentrating on subjects in which he can be well-informed, (d) developing any nonverbal talents he may have to the point where he can earn the social approval he craves, or (e) reading extensively for information rather than pleasure, preferring fact to fiction.
If the HFA or AS child reacts to something that parents said in a way that surprises them (e.g., misunderstanding, panicking, ignoring, overreacting, defying, etc.), then parents should consider the following dynamics:
1. The HFA or AS child can learn to avoid taking things literally, but he may not be able to let go of one meaning (he may need to store both). Therefore, parents should:
- expose their child to as many “odd” as possible (e.g., “that opened up a can of worms” … “that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back” … “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” …etc.)
- explain what each of these phrases mean
- teach them early in order to save confusion and embarrassment later
2. If parents use an expression their youngster is unfamiliar with, or if she doesn't understand that words can be used in ways that have nothing to do with their literal meaning, then the parents’ statement may seem irritating and perplexing to the child.
3. If the parents’ message is anything other than simple and straightforward, they should attempt to simplify it and try again. They may be surprised at how much more cooperative their youngster is when he actually knows what they want.
4. If the youngster is unable to pick up cues from the parents’ tone of voice, she may take what they say at face value (the exact opposite of the intended meaning).
5. It's natural for parents to try to add more and more explanation when they feel that their child doesn't understand what they are saying. However, if language is the problem in the first place, adding more language isn't going to help.
6. Moms and dads should learn to say what they mean - and mean what they say (which is often easier said than done). To say something like, "If you don't do your chores - you're in deep trouble" may result in the child envisioning herself in a hole - or worse.
7. Just as parents wouldn't talk to a 5-year-old the same way they would talk to a 15-year-old and expect the same degree of comprehension, parents should not talk to their HFA or AS youngster who has delayed language, social or emotional skills in a way that would be appropriate for his chronological age. Remember, young people on the autism spectrum are “delayed” in their comprehension skills.
8. What seems friendly and harmless to parents may seem intimidating and perplexing to an HFA or AS youngster who does not understand that they don't really mean it – or even why they would say a thing they don't mean.
9. Without an awareness of the way tone of voice and body language can change the meaning of words, the youngster may misinterpret the parents’ intention or their level of urgency.
10. Parents may be inflating their statements for the purpose of humor or out of anger, but the youngster may think they really mean it. She may think her parents are being cruel. As a result, she may panic or overreact, or may not know what to make of what they have said, or may accuse them of overreacting.
It is crucial that parents think about how they word things to their literal HFA or AS youngster. Understand that your “special needs” child is not misinterpreting you purposefully. Be patient and try to learn to think how she thinks. Some of the best minds in the world are very literal. Looking at situations through the eyes of a child on the spectrum can give you a brand-new outlook on multiple aspects of life.
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