In my opinion, “literally” is literally one of the most over-used, incorrectly applied words in the English language. “I mean, I literally jumped 10 feet in the air!” Um, no, you literally did not.
But literal thinking and behavior takes on a whole new meaning when navigating life with children on the autism spectrum. These kids tend to be very literal, concrete thinkers and you must choose your words carefully.
Hope generally follows clear and concise instructions very well. Recently, we were at occupational therapy and the therapist was trying to teach her to do dot-to-dots. She drew a few dots and numbered them and then helped Hope draw a line from dot 1 to dot 2. Then she told Hope to draw a line to 3.
So, Hope drew a line to 3. Literally, to the number 3, bypassing the dot. The therapist was really frustrated with her, told her she’d done it wrong and that she was supposed to go to the dot. Hope got extremely upset because she had done precisely what was asked of her, and then was told it was wrong.
I had to intervene and explain to the therapist that she needed to give exact directions, and honestly, she didn’t take it very well. Sometimes even people who are trained to work with developmental disabilities don’t understand, and we all left the session upset and frustrated, which was unfortunate, to say the least.
Teaching Gray to understand phrases, sarcasm and “understood” expressions has also been an adventure. It’s a really important skill for him to learn, because he is so verbal and loves to converse. But sometimes it is so hard for his mind to get around these concepts.
When he was around 4, Brad and I were watching TV and talking through a commercial. All of a sudden, Gray dumped the phone on my lap. “Why did you bring this to me?” I asked. And he told me, “That man on TV said to call 1-800-XXX-XXXX RIGHT NOW! So call RIGHT NOW!”
After I explained that I wasn’t going to call, the meltdown was phenomenal. He truly thought catastrophe was imminent if I didn’t make that phone call, and I got some insight into how much work we were going to need to do to help protect him from those who would take advantage.
Honestly, it was scary imagining the myriad of ways a concrete thinker could be used and hurt out in the world. And so we had to talk a lot about expressions, about advertising and sarcasm. We would make ridiculous statements and jokes and use those to teach him.
It was so hard for him. Sometimes, he would ask us to stop talking to him like that, ever again. And my heart broke, because it’s hard to see him struggle and I didn’t want him to be uncomfortable, but I couldn’t stop. Because that’s not the way the world works, and I have to prepare him to live in it. Gray wasn’t the only one shedding some tears during this process.
But we made headway, he began to understand and we were encouraged. But there was still work to do. He was about 8 years old and we were driving home, when Gray announced that he was hungry and asked for some food. I checked the bag, but I didn’t have anything with me, and I told him we’d eat when we got home.
He started crying and raging that he COULDN’T wait. He was hungry! We had to stop and get him something NOW! And on and on…
I explained that we were only 15 minutes from home, that we would eat when we got there, and then I added, “For goodness sakes, it’s not like you’re going to starve to death!” And he said, in all sincerity, “What if I do? How do you know I won’t starve to death? I’m hungry, and I might!”
I was absolutely floored. After years of working on this, he truly believed that he could die if he got hungry. Because of the phrase, “I’m starving to death.” He thought that if he didn’t eat immediately upon a feeling of hunger, he could literally die. No wonder he raged against our seeming indifference to his hunger.
It made me wonder if that was the root of a lot of his anxiety and behaviors, and I began over-explaining myself. If I realized I was using a common expression, I explained it. And he responded. He still would prefer that people just say what they mean clearly, but he understands that that’s not how most people talk, and he now can handle it.
And sometimes he takes me by surprise. Recently, he mentioned something that he was planning to say to someone else, and it was pretty rude. I told him he absolutely couldn’t do that, and he said, “Yeah, I know, Mom. Don’t you know sarcasm when you hear it?”
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