• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”

Idioms and Autism Spectrum Disorders / Asperger’s Syndrome

idiomsLearners with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) such as Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), continually struggle over what they perceive as utterly pointless turns of phrase. Idioms are a minefield for these very literally-minded learners. Often children with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) respond to idiomatic expressions in a way that is perceived as “sassy”; however, the truth is, they do not understand idiom, metaphors or figurative language.

Difficult Idiomatic Phrase for ASD Children and Adults

The following is one Asperger’s Syndrome (Adult) learner’s response to common idioms: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” – Well, if they are chickens they’re already hatched.”Easy as Pie” – How easy is that?”I’m all ears” – Then what are you talking to me with?”He’ll get a taste of his own medicine” – Isn’t medicine supposed to be good for you?”You can’t have your cake and eat it too” – What kind of sick person would give you a cake, but not allow you to eat it?

Literal and Logical Meanings are Necessary for the ASD Child

These particular idioms are especially troublesome because literally they are illogical, which poses an extreme challenge to Asperger’s children and adults alike. Idioms are a challenging area of linguistics. There are literally hundreds of idiomatic phrases in the English language. Multilingual English learners have the most difficulty with them because they cannot be translated literally, and the smallest mistake in grammar or vocabulary changes the meanings of the phrase. Many first-language English speakers struggle with idioms as well; this is most evident in younger beginning readers. These younger children often make tremendous intuitive leaps interpreting figurative speech as their exposure to different expressions increases. These intuitive leaps may not be possible for the child with an autism spectrum disorder, and therefore, they need to learn these phrases by rote memory.

It is important to remember that the ASD child honestly has difficulty with metaphoric language, or figures of speech. Their highly literal minds are wired-differently than that of the “normal” or “neuro-typical” child. These children need to understand what you mean by the words you speak to them. Be clear, concise, and to the point. Speaking exactly what you mean, steering clear where possible of metaphors and other figurative language, will help you to communicate more effective with these highly literal minds.

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, three of which are on the autism spectrum.
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