Autism And Other Pervasive Disorders – Idioms And Literal Language

I’ve been taking a graduate course in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over the last few months and I’ve loved it so much more than I can say. Having been out of the school circuit for 17 years, it’s definitely been eye-opening across the board! But nothing beats the feeling of learning more about ASD and other pervasive developmental diseases – I’ve truly found my passion, and am ever eager to apply what I learn to my volunteer work with children, teens, and adults of varying disabilities.

In a recent discussion we talked about idioms – a type of “language” that we all use without really thinking about it. Neither, therefore, do many of us consider the implications on individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities and delays. As I prepared for the discussion, I realized that I couldn’t think of any I had used “off the top!” Sure enough, as I snooped about online, I discovered I use quite a few. For example:

All ears                                                It takes two to tango

Blessing in disguise                          Method to the madness

Chomp at the bit                                Not playing with a full deck

Cry over spilt milk                             Off his rocker

Curiosity killed the cat                      Once in a blue moon

Devil’s advocate                                 Over the moon

Silver lining                                         Piece of cake

Hit the hay                                          Speak of the devil

Hit the nail on the head                    Take it with a grain of salt

My classmates also came up with a hefty array of phrases, many of which I hear or say myself (“I lost my marbles!” comes to mind. 🙂 )  In combination with meticulous observation of my own idiom usage (for the purposes of this assignment) I found that I say them with relative frequency in every day speech. . .as does just about everyone around me. The funny thing is that I actually had to look up examples – using idioms is so much a part of our language that I wasn’t even aware. This sentiment was, as it turns out, shared by my classmates…

Having learned throughout my course that individuals with ASD often take language literally – truly at its face value – I am now far more attentive to my verbal language when communicating with them. Paired with deficits in social skillsets (such as joint attention, inability to read body language, verbal tone, cues and so forth), the literal translation of idioms could pose a substantial challenge during interaction. Our course has touched on the multitude of challenges that children with ASD face in the realm of communication (which includes a lot more than just “verbal language.”) The point has also been made that it isn’t always obvious to an outsider that someone with ASD won’t understand conversation, as some have a large (and impressive!) vocabularies.

I recall once saying (prior to my class, in a volunteer capacity) “you could be a pro!” to a child with ASD kicking a soccer ball. He asked what I meant and I realized that I didn’t say “professional soccer player,” which is what I needed to express in order for him to understand my meaning. While not an idiom per se, the language was not complete – an abbreviation I took for granted was not clear to him. This experience was eye-opening and I realized I needed to up my awareness when conversing with an individual with ASD. It is not at all a matter of intelligence – I find many to be incredibly bright…and they are! – more that I need to recognize the common trait of taking words exactly as spoken. I myself have a tendency to read into what I hear, sometimes taking comments as literal and serious.

Despite that English is my only fluent language, I always loved learning foreign languages in school. I remember purchasing books that offered slang and street French / Italian (even Latin!) so that I could perhaps utilize the language in the way native speakers do…or at least follow their conversation. Slang and idioms are a HUGE part of a culture’s social structure – they are thrown around with such frequency that not understanding them can pose a substantial language barrier as well as, at worst, flat-out social isolation. Think about learning a new language in school, then being immersed in that culture. The stream of communication of someone native to the language will be riddled with idioms – we all do it! We might then find ourselves saying, “what do you mean?” just like the child with ASD asked me.

This is a massive task for teachers because there are infinite ways in which idioms may present, and there are in the order of twenty-five thousand in English alone. (Wikipedia, as retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom ) We read an article written by Temple Grandin earlier in the course and she mentioned how she has to mentally retrieve visuals and concrete memories based on previous experiences to know how to respond appropriately in social situations – what a daunting task! When we study a specific technique in Ninjutsu (a current Martial Art of mine) we sometimes discuss that the founders of the Art did not always teach a follow-up submission or takedown with it – the reasoning was that there are so many permutations, the task would not only be overwhelming, but students would be trying to remember far too many combinations (diverting attention from the more important fundamentals.) Way to go, Temple, for mastering that ability!

In the case of language, however, not learning idiomatic expressions will absolutely leave a child at a disadvantage – out of the realm in which peers and others knowledgeable about their disabilities (and therefore able to accommodate), an individual with ASD may be left bewildered by the normal conversational style of society. Again, as above, potentially leading to isolation and less opportunity for interactions (which also means less practice!)

Teaching generalization is vital for the individuals, and I do think key idioms must be addressed. That all said, I think that a learning program must – as all instruction – be highly specific, and tailored to the individual with ASD. If he or she is at a level at which more can be mentally digested, perhaps more idioms can be taught – but I sincerely believe that core fundamentals of are crucial, and must – as an order of operations – be learned before attempting to master more descriptive, idiomatic expressions. (I did see, per the below, a plethora of visual representations of idioms, which would be a perfect way to introduce them to children with ASD!)

Mom

Today is my mother’s birthday, so I thought I’d honor her by sharing her absolutely phenomenal talent.  What’s even more wonderful than these beautiful arrangements is the reason behind them. . .

For as long as I can remember, my mother has participated in some kind of volunteer or charitable work.  She’s done countless classes for children, in particular, over the years, and loves nothing than giving, sharing, and seeing others surprise themselves with talents of their own.

She recently spearheaded an event, Flowers, Fashion, and Footwear, that raised money for a local social service agency that she has worked with for many years, Community Centers Of Greenwich. CCI services children, adults with special needs, and seniors, and provides educational and financial assistance for lower-income families.

I am convinced that my love and passion for volunteering with these communities was passed down by her and my father’s dedication to helping where they can.  I am honored to be their child and thankful for the early exposure to these wonderful aspects of community service.

For the CCI event, flower arrangers were called upon to pick a pair of Louboutin shoes – owned by Kent Russell, perennial specialist – and design an arrangement to match.

I looked at the photos in the Fairfield County Look article (event link above) and without knowing hers, I gravitated to them as my “favorites.”

I grew up with the great fortune of having flowers and nature in our home all year round (yes, even in the throes of wintertime!) And it wasn’t just the beautiful blooms or branches, which I, for one, adore… The unreal sculptures and art she always manages to create look more like they belong in THE fanciest spas, homes, hotels…whatever!…in the world. They’re always breathtaking.

The shoes, of course, were art of their own.  Having been in the footwear and fashion industry for many moons, I watched the birth to death of many a pair…and I know exactly what goes into them.  I’d personally steer clear of stepping out in these if I were him, however, simply in fear of dirtying their impeccable polish!

In any case, I’ll maintain my mother has a supernal gift because there’s no explaining the talent – it’s an inherent spark I wish I had.  But I’m so very proud of her, and I’m inspired by the things she does to raise money to help wonderful causes…all the time. I can only hope to make as much difference in my life, and am blessed to have the example. (Keeping in mind I won’t ever quite get the hang of flower arranging!)

 

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Perspective – When My Attitude Flares Up, How I Tone It Down, and Why I Should

MOST of the time I *try* to be a decent human being.  I try to reflect on my behaviors – good, bad, and ugly – and to conduct myself in an upstanding way as much as I can.

I ALSO fall short plenty!

As human beings, we are subject to more influences than I think we ever want to admit (hell, even the moon has me all off kilter when it’s full!) We are subject to changes in mood, for so many reasons that it would be nigh impossible to list them all.  But that’s okay.  We are allowed to ebb and flow, because that is just the nature of life.  We don’t have to be perfect all the time, and even if we have some grandiose notion that we’d like to be. . .it doesn’t always play out that way.

But the other day a thought came to mind that stopped me right in the middle of my “if-the-car-in-front-of-me-doesn’t-speed-up-I’m-going-to-go-nuts!” rant.  It was such a jarring thought that my attitude shifted. Instantaneously.  

I have the wonderful fortune of volunteering with children with disabilities with two organizations – I’ve never found something that lit my heart quite as much (and that’s saying a LOT, as I am a truly passionate person about my life, my activities, and the careers I have had.) I love the kids, and I love meeting their parents – learning about them, their individualities, and what makes them happy, is an overwhelming joy.

So as I was having this moment of “can’t stand anyone” (and I think it was in reaction to a woman tailgating on the highway and giving me the middle finger, despite that I had no idea what I did to warrant it) I thought to myself. . .

What if the person in that car who I’m getting all flustered because of, or at, was one of the parents of the kids I get to work with?  Would I act the same way?

Resounding NO.

I wasn’t *trying* to give myself a guilt trip, or make myself feel badly.  When my behavior deviates – and I think it’s fair to say, as adults, we generally know when we are being unreasonable and inappropriate with our reactions (should we choose to be honest with ourselves!) – I am aware of it.  I do try to correct myself and in effort to curb poor actions, I have said to myself everything from “you never know who has a weapon!” “you can’t take back what you say,” to “that really doesn’t make me a good person to flip someone off”…!

Doesn’t always seem to calm me down, though!  

But. . .the thought that it *could be* someone in a situation such as the families whose children I work with shut me down pronto.

I would never want to behave that way with one of them.  And when I think about it, I can’t imagine I really want to act that way with ANYone.  What does reacting poorly say about me anyway? Nothing grand, I assure you!

When I think about it, it makes me feel sad that I would allow temporary emotions to overcome me in such a way that I lash out – in any regard.  As a human being, I know it is bound to happen, and that expecting myself to be Miss. Goody Twoshoes is NOT realistic.  But because I don’t know what other people are facing, and because I also know how blessed I am, I appreciated the supernal reminder. . .which stopped me from getting angry, or for the woman who flipped me off to ruin more than the few seconds of my day during which she did so.

I know I’m going to fall short sometimes, but that moment was one I know I will remember. . .

I have the blessing to work with those who have a journey fraught with challenges, and I LOVE the work because I have the opportunity to make lives better. To behave poorly as a result of flared emotions is to contribute in a negative way, and I will suffer personally when I choose that route.  The only thing that would make it worse is to also hurt someone else who didn’t deserve it to begin with…and I’d say I don’t really want to decide that someone deserves any of that.

 

Fearless

Fear of failure is common amongst us all… It is a painfully debilitating attitude which not only keeps us from learning, but potentially also from something we may truly love.  

To impose such binding limitations without offering our minds, bodies, and souls the opportunity to experience and grow with life is an injustice beyond reason.  There is never a rational explanation, nor any excuse – we must, in the face of fear, step forward, lest our lives slip from our fingers while we watch.

 

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Emphasis On Can

I love this quote from Autism Speaks – there’s nothing more important that encouraging children (your own, or otherwise!) by focusing on their strengths and positives.  

Autism Speaks, Dr. Temple Grandin

The world critiques enough, wearing down the strongest and most brave. . . Therefore at least give children (if not also yourself and your loved ones!), unhindered by the “should,”s “can’t”s, and “bad”s of adult conditioning, the opportunity to meet life with confidence and a smile.