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Be Careful of What You Say to ASD Children; the literal-Minded 8 year old

Matthew Alexander Rivera, modelOur Words and our ASD Children

Being mindful of the words we use when we speak to our ASD children can be exhausting, but so can the meltdown that follows misinterpretations. Understanding how their highly literal minds process the words is crucial.


It’s Sunday again and I am reminded of what my 8 year old boy said to me last Sunday.
I didn’t watch him get dressed and leave the house to go outside to play. Only a few minutes after he left the door burst open again.
“Ma-a-a-, I’m fr-r-re-e-ez-ing,” he said putting his ice cold hands inside the sleeves of my shirt. “It’s cold outside!”
He sounded truly perturbed, which puzzled me.
“Of course it’s cold, Matthew, it is November.  And you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt! Go get changed.”
“No, Mom it’s freezing outside.” He said completely ignoring my instructions to change his clothes.
“If you put some warm clothes on, you won’t be cold”
“But it’s not supposed to be cold!”
“It’s November, put warm clothes on,” I insisted.
He still didn’t budge. “It’s Sunday, it’s not supposed to be cold.”
“Why not?”
The little man dropped his shoulders, and sighed, “Mom, SUN-day.”
He walked away from me shaking his head like there was something seriously wrong with Mom. How could I not get it?
To little man it was Sunday, which meant the sun was supposed to be out, and he was not supposed to be cold. He left me sitting here at my keyboard completely dumbfounded.  How long has he believed that Sunday meant the Sun would be shining?
I told a friend of mine (who I suspect is an undiagnosed Aspie) this story. She told me that when she was young she always insisted on eating French fries on Friday, because that was what she was supposed to have—her fries on FRY-day.
I often get glimpses into his literal world, fortunately, I can relate to his literalness but I often forget what it was like to be that young and take the world even more literally than I do now.  I wrote last week about his irritation with the “Slow Children” sign at school here.
My youngest (22 month old) has begun a screaming head banging stage! It’s awful.  And—he has had an ear infection, and has not been sleeping well at all.  My husband has taken to driving him in the van at night to get him to fall asleep.
Finally after a long day of screaming, I got him down for a nap. It was just in time for my 8 yr. old to get home from school. He came running in the house with his friends from next door.  Since the baby was sleeping upstairs, I let them play the Wii down in the living room (big mistake).
After several times of telling them to quiet down that went ignored, I finally shut off the game and made everyone go outside to play. When they burst through the door again, waking the baby, I yelled that everyone needs to go outside to play.
“And don’t come back in the house!”
About a half an hour later I was sitting in my bedroom, which has two windows facing the front of the house, when I heard my eight year old crying—hysterically. I ran outside to find him bent over the front of our mini-van, with his head in his arms, tears flowing down his cheeks as he sobbed.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
He could barely get the words out between sobs. “I-I c-c-c-an’t come back in my house. I’m kicked out.”
The girls next door had to go inside, and my little man thought that he could not come back inside—ever!
LESSON LEARNED: I must be extremely careful of the words that I use when I speak to him. He will take every single word literally, and infinitely. Don’t come back in the house—for him, meant don’t ever come back into the house—EVER. This little mistake caused a complete meltdown which could have been avoided.
The word “NO” is another pitfall to avoid.  If he asks me a question, for instance, “can we go buy ice-cream?” I cannot simply say, no. I must qualify my answer.  No, we cannot go today, or right now, or it’s too cold outside today, or something. If I do not and simply answer, No, meltdown can quickly follow.  It is not because I told him No, but because he took that NO to mean no, not ever.  We can NEVER go and buy ice-cream-EVER.
To the non-ASD person, this can seem like a child just being a brat, just wanting to get their own way (sometimes, yes—this can be true), but more likely it can be a misunderstanding, a literal misinterpretation of the words that you speak.
Growing up I had many of these misinterpretations, which were looked upon as my being difficult (intentionally), or throwing a tantrum when I didn’t hear the answer I wanted. Many times, that simply was not the case.
For an example of my literal-mind growing, where just one word made all the difference, or rather caused all the problem read: School was a Minefield.

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Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.