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Figurative Language and Profanity – What Autistic Children are Literally Thinking

Because most people with autism, especially children, are literal thinkers, they tend to misinterpret figurative language. Profanity makes it even worse.

As an autistic child in a special education school, I learned figurative language early. starting with idioms. It’s a phrase to express something not taken literally. A good example is “break a leg,” and it is a figure of speech used to wish performers good luck. (It’s traditionally bad luck to say “good luck” to them as they go onstage.) Another example is a “Charley horse,” which defines a leg cramp – and I can use it in a sentence: I had a Charley horse last night, and that reminded me that I have to eat more potassium. My favorite idiom, of course, is “doing Disney,” which means going to any Disney theme park resort or cruise.

But most others of the same disability as me, especially children, are not as lucky to correctly interpret idioms. Their literal thinking makes it difficult to interpret them, visualizing a Charley horse as a horse named “Charley.” When directors or families tell performers to break a leg, they visualize them literally breaking their legs through methods of injury. When they hear the command, “Let’s do Disney,” they don’t really know how to do Disney.

To add insult to injury (I mean, to make this issue worse), personifications and metaphors are other figures of speech in which they tend to take literally. A personification is a literary device in which a human emotion or action is given to an inanimate object, like the maple trees peeing out sap. A metaphor is another in which two unlike things are indirectly compared, like oatmeal is fuel for the body. Most autistic children imagine maple trees going to the bathroom and letting out sap from their bladders and oatmeal mixed with rocket fuel.

Profanity, or “bad words,” makes interpreting figurative language even more difficult, and those slang terms can be either personifications, metaphors, or idioms. Take the vulgar synonym for “poop,” for example. If an autistic child knows the word pretty well and someone exclaims about something being a load of bullpoop, chances are that he will imagine a huge pile of manure from bulls. Same with the word poopload – if children hear about many school groups in a theme park being a huge one, they imagine the groups carrying a huge pile of poop around.

So what can you do to help your children with autism interpret figurative language and use cleaner ones?

  • Start Early
    Again, I went to a special education center and learned figurative language early. You can do that too by teaching your children what those figures of speech mean. Worksheets on personification, metaphor, and idioms with some visuals are best.
  • Monitor What Your Children Watches
    I suggest that you stick to G-rated or PG-rated movies – they contain almost no profanity and are enjoyable to watch. Same with TV – watch up to TV-PG shows for the same reason.
  • Watch Your Language
    Especially if he knows the meaning of the root word, avoid using bad words. Tell your family not to use them when your children are around. In fact, don’t use bad language in the home as they will imitate their loved ones. Avoid slang and other figures of speech, especially until your child is old enough to be ready to know the meanings.

Temple Grandin once said that to neurotypical people (non-autistics), the Chinese proverb “One picture is worth ten thousand words” is romantic. But to autistic children, they think of it literally, picturing a picture with a price tag that says, “10000 words.” But teaching children with autism how to interpret figures of speech does not have to be a pain in the apples (which means a very difficult thing to do) – it can be simple as telling others and yourself to watch your mouths.

Useful Resources
Autism (Using Slang)
Building Competency with Figurative Language One Idiom at a Time
IdiomSite.com
Literal Language

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