The Curse of the Idiom in Literal Land

March 28, 2018

Most of us don’t realize how confusing an idiom can be.  It does become an issue when we are trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak our language.  Usually, we use these sayings every day and don’t even know it.  I found out the hard way that idioms just don’t compute for the autistic brain.

I didn’t realize just how literal my son’s world was until I almost completely crushed his spirit by accident one day.  That fateful morning, I was giving my kids the list of errands we needed to run. As I listed all that we needed to do, you could just see them beginning to dread this trip.  Just then, I realized that I could make a quick change and eliminate one stop completely.  I explain this and said that we could “kill two birds with one stone.”  As soon as those words left my mouth, I realized I had made a mammoth mistake. My son screamed out, “WHAT?! WE ARE GOING TO KILL TWO BIRDS?!” His face showed pure terror and horror at the thought.  Quickly, I explained that it just meant we would do two things at once and ran over to give him a big hug.  It took me a while to reassure him AND for him to actually believe that the birds would be safe when we ran our errands.

After that crisis was over, I realized that I needed to change how I said things.  I also texted my son’s BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) who was in charge of his ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy plan. Yes, we did giggle at my mistake, but we realized that we needed to add a goal to his ABA Therapy plan.  For months after that incident, my son’s therapists would explain what an idiom meant and then quiz him once per therapy session until he eventually mastered each phrase.

Months of this passed and he finally mastered an entire list of idioms.  My husband and I were so proud of our son!  It was another accomplished goal on this long journey.  And then, we hit another bump in the road with another family idiom of sorts.

As I was growing up, when we finished a gallon of milk we would say that we had “killed the cow.”  I know we had used this phrase and explained it to my son before, but I hadn’t used it in long time.  That morning, my son asked for another bowl of cereal.  We had just run out of milk, so I told him that he couldn’t because we had just “killed the cow.”  “WHAT?! WE KILLED A COW!!” he shouted.  Again, I had to assure him that no cows were killed by our breakfast and that we had just run out of milk.  This time, it was a whole lot easier for him to accept my explanation.

Those who have autism live in what I like to call “Literal Land.”  In Literal Land, there are only two colors:  black and white.  There is no grey.  It’s difficult for the autistic mind to read between lines or to infer a meaning from the hints we are giving with our words.  So, you must teach that grey area.  It’s definitely not an easy road and it does not happen overnight.

The most important thing you can do as a parent or family member of an autistic person is to understand that we can help the learning curve along when it comes to idioms and other sayings.  Begin by changing the way you word directions, questions, or requests.  When trying to give directions, make sure they are concise.  Try to eliminate all idioms and sayings at the beginning.  You will find that you can help take away some of the stress for your autistic family member as they begin to learn this new skill.  As time goes on, eventually, they will begin to understand and grasp the meaning of idioms and learn about this grey area.  Just remember that even though we love them dearly, to our autistic child, sibling, or friend, WE are the strange aliens that don’t make sense.  Above all, be patient and love unconditionally through this process.  You might just be the one to come away learning more about yourself than you thought possible!

With a lot of faith, love and fidget toys,


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