Recently I had asked a child, “Can I go to your school?” He looked away with an amused smile and replied, “Maybe I think it (school) is for kids!” The adults in the room broke out in laughter, before I went on to explain myself more clearly, “Can I visit you in your school?” This time, I got the answer I was looking for, “Yes.” This example struck me that what we often assume to be easily understood could hold an entirely different meaning for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It leads us to ponder - how clear are we in communicating our intentions to our children with ASD?
Perhaps it is not often reflected upon but our everyday communications presume shared understanding between communication partners. It assumes that there is a common focus of attention, with an understanding of the intentions of both parties. On top of that, our spoken words are full of abstract language that is embedded in a pool of hidden social rules and cues that we register and adjust to with relative ease. Take the weekly staff meeting for example – before the boss enters, someone announces in a hushed tone, “He’s here!” What would you find yourself doing? How did you know what to do based on those words you just heard?
When we see the complexity of integrating social cues and spoken language in the scenario above, we can try to understand how our children with ASD may interpret language literally. It is known that ASD affects these social-cognitive skills, which are essential for learning to understand the intentions and language of others. We also know that these skills are developed when children engage in social interactions. It is during these interactions, that they are attempting to make sense of the world around them. When these are affected, they may explain why a child with ASD may have difficulty interpreting language that has more than factual references.
Hence, while our children with ASD are learning the social-cognitive skills, how do we ensure that our words convey exactly what we intended?
First, be specific. This reminds me of what my mentor used to say during my early days as a young early intervention teacher -
Instead of – “Can you put your bag down?”
Be specific. Say – “Please put your bag down.”
Second, tell your child what you would like him to do. The need to infer requires that the child be able to read the social cues and intentions of the person. As highlighted above, it may be missed and will seem like a statement of fact. Therefore,
Instead of – “The classroom is not a playground.”
State the action you expect. Say – “Stop running. Please walk in the classroom.”
Third, teach your child the meaning of idioms and cliches before you use them. Or more simply,
Instead of – “You are the apple of my eye.”
Say – “I love you very much.”
With this, let us keep in mind that our children with ASD depend on us as their guides to navigate their world with them, by being as clear as we can with our use of language.
Hobson, R.P. (2012). Autism, literal language and concrete thinking: Some developmental considerations. Psychology Press, 27(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10926488.2012.638814
Notbohm, E. (2005). Ten things every child with autism wishes you knew. Future Horizons.
Twachtman-Cullen, D. (2014). Symbolic communication: Common pathways and points of departure. In K. Dunn Buron and P. Wolfberg (Eds.), Learners on the autism spectrum: Preparing highly qualified educators and related practitioners (pp. 106 - 131). AAPC Publishing.