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!)

How Anger-Inducing Is Misophonia…Really?

The extent to which a person might be pushed as a result of misophonia is not to be taken lightly – we’re talking to the absolute precipice of “The Verge.” As we speak – oh, the irony! – someone is tapping above my apartment, and I feel this murderous rage coming over me like an insatiable wave. 

No, I’m not kidding. 

I’ve popped in my trusty 44 decibel earplugs (thanks to my amazing husband), and turned up the soothing  “Get High” by the beloved Rob Zombie. “I’ve been stepping on the devil’s tail. . .” Uh, NO. But so someone is seriously stepping on mine right now!

AAAaAaARRrrrrgGGg!!!!

Anyway, misophonia was recognized more recently as a *air quote* condition *end air quote* (oh boy, thrilled to have one of those!) But I can remember struggling with sound sensitivity for…well, as long as I can remember. This article suggests that those of us with misophonia have had bad experiences in life and somehow our wires got rerouted straight to the anger-zone as a result. Hmm. True on the experience part, but most people have SOME baggage by adulthood. Human beings, hello? That thing called life, psycho bosses, and bad exes?

There is some tie, per the above, to the emotional circuit boards when “trigger” noises are heard – on the one hand, I like that my anger can be explained by a trigger prodding my emotional headquarters with a hot poker. I *kind of* feel redeemed. But I also feel like there’s suggestion of emotional instability. Of course that depends on whether we are we speaking about when the noises are occurring or the overarching picture (minus the noises.)  Thanks-a-lot, anterior insular cortex.

*thinking face*

According to other sources, such as this one, there are indeed biological cerebral differences in those with misophonia, and those without. You better believe my frontal lobe and anterior insular cortex would be doing some kind of Martial Art should it be subjected to an MRI while simultaneously being exposed to chewing, breathing, tapping, or other noxiously incessant sounds. My brain vs. Floyd Mayweather? Man’s lucky he’s already famous.

Yet other science folk say that it’s okay for me to “blame my brain.” That’s nice. . .have a scapegoat at the ready. . . But I feel a little disloyal tossing my gorgeously grey matter (how gloomy and gothic!) under the bus.

“Yes, my elegant encephalous…under the wheels you go! . . .Aaannnd the wheels of the bus go round and roundddd…!!”

On top of what’s already ailing, the same article claims that there’s extra activity occurring in:

  • My ventromedial prefrontal cortex (more emotional stuff, self-control, risk alerts, fear mechanisms)
  • My amygdala (motivation, emotional behaviors…uh-gain), AND…
  • My hippocampus (short, long-term, and spatial memory) 

Geezuz, for someone who hates parties, what the hell?! (Maybe they’re doing extra workouts? That might make some sense…) But then there’s the whole I-love-heavy-metal thing – I’m not sure I’m able to reconcile the discrepancy save to say that metal sounds uh-mazing. Chewing, scratching, neighbor’s-baby-crying? Doesn’t.

I’m glad at least there’s a community of us Misophonians (yes, I made the word up) with whom I can commiserate. I liked  10 Things Someone With Mispohonia Wants You To Know for exactly such support. The fact that someone made this image (below) also gives me some comfort. . .(it shouldn’t give anyone ELSE any though, since I punch things for fun.)

There isn’t a cure for this sensory sensitivity but I guess in a strange way I’m thankful (maybe not WHEN the chewing or tapping is going on. . .but after!)

I recently was observing a three year-old boy with autism for a graduate class that I’m taking. I noticed his propensity for reaching towards his ears and asked the teacher whether he had headphones or earplugs, as I wondered whether the crying (which he exhibited about 75% of the time or more) might calm a bit. Well…yesterday I heard from a classmate that the teacher tried headphones, and the child is crying FAR less.  What a joy to hear that news! ❤

As much as I want to seek-and-destroy the things that make my ears scream like banshees…the idea that I might have helped one person as a result is amazing.

I’d also like to – very loudly – note that my husband is a trooper through it all. He is always incredibly conscientious because he knows how painful this truly can be at times (and that it really ISN’T my…or my brain’s…desire to be that way!) Support is key (so long as it’s silent.) 😉 *LOL*

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