What We Have Here … Is a Failure to Communicate

25 Jan

“Don’t be smart, Mister!” I scolded my then 8 year old Aspie son, after he back-talked me about something or other.  He looked at me, wide-eyed with confused uneasiness.  He knew from my tone of voice that I was angry with him, but he didn’t understand my words… (Don’t be smart?  Isn’t being smart a good thing?  What is wrong???)

As I watched his facial expression retreat from disrespect to confusion to worry, I realized that we were experiencing a breakdown in communication.  I stopped and considered my impulsive reprimand…  Ah ha!!!- Gregory was interpreting my words literally!  At face value, the idiomatic phrase “Don’t be smart” went contrary to my usual promptings, so naturally it didn’t make sense to him.

Like most Aspies, Gregory is naturally very literal and needs to be explicitly taught to recognize when an idiom or other figurative language is being used.  Once I explained that “Don’t be smart” is a figure of speech that means ‘Don’t be fresh’ (hmmm…ok, that’s another figure of speech….) or ‘Don’t be disrespectful’, then he understood.  My message got through  and he apologized for being rude.  My mission was accomplished with that particular communication ‘battle’, but I realized that we had yet to win the ‘war’…

The Hidden Curriculum – Part III – Figurative Language

As discussed in my blog series The Hidden Curriculum, Aspies and others with social-cognitive learning disabilities, can have great difficulty decoding hidden curriculum rules.  Figurative speech, and most especially idioms, fall into this category.

A life-long avid reader, I adore imaginative figurative language and admire writers who can incorporate it effectively into their writing to add color and interest.  Well written prose, with the help of ingenious figures of speech, can take a rather mundane concept and turn it into a memorable, thought-provoking ‘pearl of wisdom’.

As you may recall from your grade school English classes, figurative language contains images and comparisons.  The speaker describes something through the use of unusual comparisons, for effect, interest, and to make things clearer. Appealing to the imagination, figurative language provides new ways of looking at the world – adding richness and depth to our communication.

To refresh your memory, here are some common types of figurative language that we use on a daily basis:  (See how well you remember… I had to look a few of these up!)

As fun, creative and widely used as it is, figurative speech is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense. And herein lays the problem….  It is common for young kids to take things too literally, but when this misunderstanding continues with age, it can create significant comprehension and therefore social issues.

Figures of Speech Game

To help Gregory develop his sense of figurative language, I created a “Figures of Speech” game that we played each night at dinner time.  I printed out hundreds of common idioms, such as “Quit horsing around”, “Roll with the punches”, and “Bite my head off”.  (An entire chapter is devoted to examples of Figurative Speech and Idioms in Brenda Myles’s wonderful book, The Hidden Curriculum, which formed the basis of my series on the subject.)  As we all sat around the table, one of the kids would read aloud a figure of speech from a little slip of paper and then everyone would try to guess what it meant.  Then I told them what it meant figuratively, including, whenever possible, how it originated.  We giggled about how silly it sounded when interpreted literally, so they could begin to recognize these types of phrases in daily life.

During the game, we would review sayings that we had already covered, to reinforce the learning process.  This time around, the kids usually guessed/expressed the figurative meaning correctly.  We also had lots of fun having everyone come up with other idioms, either from things they had heard or from their imagination.  We all enjoyed many laughs and the lessons got through, because nowadays, when Gregory hears an idiom on tv or reads one in a book, he’ll turn and inform me, “That’s a figure of speech!”

I am Tongue Tied

During a school book fair where I was volunteering, I came across a wonderfully silly kid’s book called  Even More Parts by Tedd Arnold (of Fly Guy fame.) Through the use of very cute cartoons, the author introduces all sorts of common idioms dealing with body parts – from head to toe!  Just imagine the literal illustrations of someone saying “I lost my head”, “I keep changing my mind” or “I am tongue tied” – hysterical!  I bought it immediately – what a fun way to ‘get’ figurative language!    I presented it to Gregory, who was instantly mesmerized by the cartoon pictures of a man who ‘sang his heart out’ (his red, beating heart falling onto the floor), and the boy who ‘went to pieces’ (his snap-together body parts strewn all along the sidewalk).  The book was a huge hit with all three of the kids, who giggled at the absurdity of the literal interpretations to these well known idioms, so I subsequently bought the complete set (Parts and More Parts!)  Kudos Mr. Arnold!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Today, as a result of our ‘Figures of Speech’ game, the Parts books and lots of general reading, Gregory has a well-developed sense of figurative language.  Even when he doesn’t understand exactly what an idiom means, he recognizes that the phase is not meant literally.  But even better yet, Gregory uses figures of speech himself – to add richness and creativity to his own speech and writing!

So, the next time your child becomes concerned for your safety because you are “just going to jump in the shower….”, you might want to consider a couple of these techniques too.  Comprehending idioms and figurative speech can pose real difficulties for those on the Spectrum who see the world through literal ‘glasses’, but with a little work and a lot of silliness, our kids don’t have to stay ‘out in left field’…

14 Responses to “What We Have Here … Is a Failure to Communicate”

  1. Terry Herman Sissons January 25, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    I have known for some time that Aspies tend to interpret the world literally. I was unaware that, nonetheless, they can learn to recognize and use figures of speech.

    Thank you for such a marvellously encouraging post.

    • Joanne Houldsworth January 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

      Thanks Terry – And I found your blog post on Asperger’s and Fundamentalism a unique take! 🙂 Thanks for the pingback!

  2. Lizbeth January 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Hi there!
    Found your blog while I was out searching…I have 3 kiddo’s as well, the oldest (7) is an Aspie. Soooo much in common. It is good to see/hear how well your son is doing!


    • Joanne Houldsworth January 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      Welcome Lizbeth! Having three young kids is challenging enough, but add AS into the mix and things get really interesting! 🙂 More power to you!
      Yes, Gregory is doing so well – we couldn’t be more proud of him! I am sure we have some challenges ahead of us, but for now, we are ‘smelling the roses’!
      Regards, Joanne

  3. Karin January 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    Thanks Joanne. A wonderful and enlightening article. Dinner at your house sounds like a great time!

  4. Ray Meehl February 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Nice post mate.

  5. Kristi Allen March 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    I am a student teacher in a secondary English program right now and have a kid with Aspergers in my class room. He’s high functioning and does well except for when it comes to figures of speech. I’m pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to teach him to understand the comparison part of a simile. He knows how to recognize one but can’t really understand it. Do you have suggestions on how to teach this to him?

    • Joanne Houldsworth March 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

      Kristi, how great that you are trying so hard to reach your student on his terms!

      I have not worked on similes specifically with my son, but I think applying a logical approach with lot’s of repetition might work. For example: The phrase, You are as sharp as a tack. He knows he is not a tack, so he can assume that it is a figure of speech. He can apply his logical brain to come up with a list of characteristics of a tack, such as: small, sharp, pointed, used to hold things on a board, etc. and then see which characteristic(s) might best apply to him. Sharp is another way of saying smart, so he can extrapolate that the person is calling him smart. Walk through a lot of different examples, and I’ll bet he’ll catch on.

      Another possible resource for you is a textbook that I just learned of (but have not read yet), called Quality Literacy Instruction for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

        by Christina Carnahan, ED.D, and Pamela Williamson, Ph.D. As I said, I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know if it covers the topic (or how well), but it might be worth a look.

        Good luck! -Joanne

  6. Monica Ternovan April 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    this reminds me of the time I told my son 8yo Aspie that it was raining cats and dogs… he was highly disappointed when he ran to the door and saw that our yard wasnt full of dogs and cats… OOPS! LOL

    • Joanne Houldsworth April 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      Too funny!!! I just love the new twists and ways of looking at things…


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    […] What We Have Here … Is a Failure to Communicate (via Aspergers : A Mom’s Eye View) Posted on January 25, 2011 by Barry Houldsworth “Don’t be smart, Mister!” I scolded my then 8 year old Aspie son, after he back-talked me about something or other.  He looked at me, wide-eyed with confused uneasiness.  He knew from my tone of voice that I was angry with him, but he didn't understand my words… (Don’t be smart?  Isn’t being smart a good thing?  What is wrong???) As I watched his facial expression retreat from disrespect to confusion to worry, I realized that we were experiencing … Read More […]

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