How to Stop Confusing Your Child: 10 Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Every child has a "blind spot" in learning and understanding things. Many kids don't "get" algebra, for example. This is a challenge that the child can usually overcome at some point (e.g., with the help of a tutor). However, in children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), the "blind spot" happens to be reading social cues – and it is permanent (called mind-blindness). This blind spot is right there in their face, every day (e.g., dealing with parents, teachers, peers, etc.).

There are certain effects that make language vivid and engaging, fun to use, and interesting to listen to (e.g., figures of speech, sarcasm, body language, tone of voice, etc.). But these effects can stand like sturdy roadblocks between the messages we try to give our kids and their ability to receive them.

Aspergers and HFA kids with language processing problems, developmental delays, and other special needs can have genuine difficulty understanding the nuances and subtexts of language. If your youngster reacts to something you've said in a way that surprises you (e.g., ignoring, overreacting, defying, misunderstanding, panicking, giving you that "deer in the headlights" look, etc.), then consider the following:

1. If your message is anything other than simple and straightforward, pare it down and try again. You may be surprised at how much more cooperative your youngster is when he actually knows what you want.

2. Just as you wouldn't talk to a 3-year-old the same way you'd talk to a 13-year-old and expect the same degree of comprehension, you can't talk to an Aspergers or HFA youngster with delayed language, social or emotional skills in a way that would be appropriate for his chronological age.

3. It's natural to try to add more and more explanation when you feel that your son or daughter doesn't understand what you're saying, but if language is the problem in the first place, adding more language probably isn't going to help.

4. Instead of trying to “tip” your Aspie to your meaning with tone of voice, body language and wordplay, use simple repetitive phrases that are easy to understand. If you want your youngster to do something, start by saying "I need you to ..." If you're talking about feelings, say "I feel ..."

5. Without an awareness of the way tone of voice and body language can change the meaning of words, your youngster may misinterpret your intention or your level of urgency.

6. You may be inflating your statements for humor or out of anger, but your youngster may think you really mean it. He may:
  • accuse you of overreacting
  • panic or overreact
  • not know what to make of what you've said
  • think you're being cruel

7. What seems friendly and harmless to you may seem threatening and confusing to a youngster on the autism spectrum who does not understand that you don't really mean it – or even why you would say a thing you don't mean.

8. If you use an expression your youngster is not familiar with, or if he doesn't understand that words can be used in ways that have nothing to do with their literal meaning, then your statement may seem silly, annoying or incomprehensible.

9. If your youngster is unable to pick up cues from your tone of voice, he may take what you say at face value (i.e., the exact opposite of your meaning).

10. Children on the spectrum can learn to not take things literally, but they don't seem able to let go of one meaning (they need to store both). Thus, expose your youngster to as many “silly phrases” 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. Learning them early can save confusion and embarrassment later.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Annie Eskeldson said...

Fabulous article!! So true - thank you for posting! ~ Annie Eskeldson

Anonymous said...

Once when I was upset with our cat I told him to leave and not come back unless he was dead. Of course I was joking, but my daughter panicked. Poor girl - it bothered her for days. She'd continually ask me for reassurance that I was just joking.

Gina said...

This is a great post. I couldn't agree more. I have to be straight forward with my son and if I am not, he gets confused and upset. This is a nice reminder. Thank you!

Caroline said...

A great article.
Keeping communication easy to understand is really useful not just for communication with children with developmental or 'learning disabilities' but also for dealing with limited information retention abilities such as Alzheimers.

Malea said...

This is a great article, and while I understand that these tips are especially important to parents of Aspie kids, I think they are also quite important for all parents in general.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher, any and all helpful tips are welcomed! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I said to my son before, " ur driving me up the wall" only cause he was fighting with his brother. He laughed and said mum u cant drive cars up the wall,and u don't have a license. Both true statements but not what i ment lol.

Melissa said...

I told my 16 year old Aspie that he needed to get his ducks in a row. (We actually do have ducks.)He said how are you going to make then line up? He thought I meant the actual ducks!Even after 16 years I'm still surprised sometimes by how literal he really is.

Anonymous said...

Good article...i can tell sooo many stories about my daughter and I! Lol. My daughter once was due for a snack and I asked if she wanted to eat some goldfish (refferring to crackers), she walked up to her fish tak, looked at the fish, and pointed, and back at me w a scared look on her face. Poor baby! :(

Anonymous said...

Very true!! My father made the mistake of telling my son that his new haircut was "sharp". My son spent days telling everyone not to touch his head because they may cut themselves!!! It's a funny story, but there was a great deal of anxiety that came with it. This is a goos idea - early exposure, so it doesn't lead to future anxiety and embarrassment.

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