Children With Special Needs: Understanding Idioms

by Kimberly Kaplan

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My autistic child is a very literal thinker. He is much more comfortable with the concrete; numbers, exact measurements, details about preferred topics, and proper names of things. Numbers are especially satisfying to him. He is confident with the concrete.

He struggles, however, with the abstract. Read him a story and ask him to consider why the author wanted Spot to chase the ball, and he is less sure of himself. Often he won't answer. Or, if we try to get an answer out of him, it is a struggle.

What are some ways we try to help him learn about the abstract?

One way thing we do is stop reading a book and ask him what he thinks might happen next in the story. Or we ask him to explain, in his own words, what happened in the story. This is not his favorite thing to do. He gets uncomfortable. We try to press him, but he struggles with it.

What else do we do?

We try to teach him idioms.

Our child doesn't understand idioms or commonly used expressions that say one thing but mean something else. He tends to take things very seriously and has trouble broadening what he knows. He can't accept that a phrase may say one thing yet mean something completely different.  He just doesn't "get it."

Idioms are abstract. "I just put my foot in my mouth," does not mean you actually lift up your foot and insert it into your mouth. "It's a piece of cake," does not mean something is actually a slice of your favorite chocolate cake.

One time, my child and I were discussing a movie. He asked me what it was about and I told him the bad guys were trying to destroy the sun to take over the Earth. My child looked at me and said, "They're trying to destroy the son? They're gonna destroy me?"

Now sun/son is an example of a homonym, "two words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling." So, imagine expanding that understanding to a full phrase, one that is said one way but means something else.

Why is it important for autistic children to learn idioms?

We all want our children to one day go out into the world like typical children. This is not easy for any parent, but deep down it is what we're supposed to be doing. All I'm trying to do with my child is to help him navigate the world one day.

Yet I have a child with high functioning mild autism. He doesn't understand people easily. He understands adults better than kids his own age but, given a choice, he'd rather be home on his computer or playing with Transformers than being in a group of kids playing a game of soccer.

Idioms need to be learned now because of how hard they are to learn.

How do you help autistic kids learn idioms?

First, I'll discuss teasing.

There was a time not too long ago that my child did not understanding teasing. I'm not talking about the mean kind, but the gentle parental kind. I have a tendency toward sarcasm, so finding "little" ways to gently tease my child was easy for me. And necessary.

Why?

Our hope is that one day he'll be able to recognize teasing. And he's beginning to do just that! He "outed" Mommy and Daddy twice in the past week. A year ago, he would have gotten upset after one of us had to explain that we were just teasing.

Now, when we tease our child, we always explain to him that we were just teasing. Or he outs us. I have explained on many occasions why we tease him. I tell him that I want him to be able to recognize when he's being teased.

What else can you do?

We have a book about idioms. The book lists 20 well-known idioms. Each one has a picture of what the idiom is actually saying then, next to the first picture, is another picture of what the idiom really means.

Remember, our autistic children tend to be visual learners. That's why the pictures of the idioms are very useful. They can recognize a goofy picture of a kid trying to put their foot in their mouth. The picture looks silly. Then, they can see a picture of someone who looks like they're sad because they may have just hurt someone's feelings after saying the wrong thing. Or after putting their foot in their mouth.

Pictures work.

What else can you do?

If you are familiar with social stories, you can also draw an idiom yourself and then sequence the story to show what the expression really means.

This type of abstract learning for our kids takes time. My child is just now beginning to really recognize a gentle tease. It's been about a year, but he's getting it.

Try to start early with your child. Earlier is always better. And, try not to get frustrated if it takes a long while for them to "get it." It's an investment in your child, but it'll be worth it!

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