“Mummy what does that actually mean?” I hear this numerous times a day as Caleb tries to process something I’ve said or something he’s heard. That’s because people with autism have difficulties in understanding verbal and non-verbal communication.
Most of the language we use is actually non-verbal; we use facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice and when we do talk we tend to use a lot of figures of speech (phrases that have a different meaning to its literal definition). This, along with some other processing differences can make it very tricky for someone with autism to communicate effectively. Caleb, as someone on the autistic spectrum, can find it hard to see the unseen bits of information that go on around us all day. It is difficult for him to think what others are thinking and the information he sees is literal – it’s difficult to match that information up with a persons feelings. It’s also tricky to see the big picture – someone with autism will process little bits of information at a time and they will often miss clues that lead to the bigger picture. While these processing differences can also be strengths; someone with autism will often see tiny details, they may be able to solve problems/projects with small detail, it can also make every day communication a challenge.
Here are some funny examples of literal thinking that we’ve experienced with Caleb over the last few months:
- The Christmas song “Santa baby” – Caleb hated this song over Christmas and he would constantly say “why are they singing Santa baby? Santa is very old, he is not a baby”.
- When watching “toy story” one of the characters said “it’s raining cats & dogs”. Caleb asked me what that meant because rain is water and he couldn’t see any cats or dogs in the rain on the film.
- “It’s freezing outside” – no mummy it’s 3 degrees. If it was freezing it would be zero degrees or below so really it’s just cold.
- When playing a board game I told Caleb to turn the timer round. The 10 second timer was taking ages, I looked at Caleb – he was turning the timer round & round in his hands instead of turning it upside down like I’d expected he’d do!
- When baking I asked if Caleb wanted to lick the bowl. Yep he actually took the bowl, stuck his face in & started licking the sides. Well I didn’t ask if he wanted a spoon to scoop the cake mix I just said “lick the bowl”.
- On coming home from school one day Caleb heard a class mate say a rude word. I explained the word was very bad and that I didn’t want him to use it or call anyone that name. A few days later I heard him repeat the word while playing action figures. He was playing a baddie – “but mum you said it was a very bad word so baddies must say it??”
These are just a few funny examples that we’ve encountered but you can see how confusing it must be for someone with autism to work out every day what people are actually meaning and what people are actually expecting of them. In our house we always have to think before we just say an instruction and if Caleb doesn’t come back actually wearing his jacket then I know he’s taken my instruction “find your jacket” quite literally! “I did find my jacket, it’s on my bedroom floor” well I didn’t ask him to put it on or bring it downstairs did I?!!