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Autism and Language and the Beauty of Speaking Literally

It was a rainy autumn, when Tristan potty trained. Autistic kids can have trouble learning to listen to their bodies, and it had been a veritable cha-cha-cha that had frustrated us all – a few steps forward, setbacks and then try, try again. The tipping point was this iPad potty, which took the stress and pressure off Tristan. Finally, he was stomping in puddles on the ground outside – lekker in de plasje stampen in Dutch — and making tidy puddles in the pot inside.

I tell you all this so you understand how aghast I was when, not long after this, Tristan used the potty, stood up, lifted up his foot and put it right down into the pot.

What. Was. Going. On???

I asked him why he had done that, but he refused to answer and continued. I would drop everything and run to the bathroom, when I realized he was using it, to stop him before his foot went in the toilet. Then, after a week of this, the penny dropped.

Everything we say has two meanings: what the words actually mean (literal) and what we want them to mean (figurative). A good example is the figure of speech “hit the road”; it doesn’t actually mean to hammer at the concrete with our fists, but rather to leave or start on a journey. Autism and language development can often be at odds; autistic kids tend to struggle to understand figurative meanings, but are pros at literal thinking. And Tristan was no exception.

The Dutch word for ‘pee,’ plasje, is figurative; its literal definition is ‘puddle.’ Tristan knew it was OK to stomp in the puddles outside, and so thought it was fine to stomp in the inside pee-puddles as well.

After I had a good laugh and explained the difference between what was said, and what was meant, we had no more problems. But it was just the start of my au-some new appreciation for language.

Everyday language is peppered with metaphors, puns, idioms, sarcasm, hyperbole, exaggerations, implied assumptions. For most kids, the figurative meanings come as naturally as learning the literal language. But for autistic kids, it’s like learning two different languages. (If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you can probably relate.) Add to that an inability to keep eye contact or gauge facial expressions, which many autistic kids struggle with, and it can all be ‘lost in translation’ even in a native tongue.

Tristan thinks in pictures. When he hears or reads a word, he transforms it into a mental picture of its literal meaning. Switching over to the figurative meaning of the word means changing that image to something else, often something unrelated. If we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” Tristan would run, round-eyed, to the window before he could switch his image of pets to one of water. It is a rather strange expression, when I think about it from my son’s perspective, with little connection to the actual, literal occurrence.

This effort to switch between literal and figurative interpretation mode is exhausting for Tristan, and it’s changed how we communicate at home; I cannot tell him to “pull his socks up” if I want him to work harder at an assignment.

Still, we want to mindfully expose him to figures of speech so he is able to communicate with others who don’t know or won’t take into account the way his mind works. We have found that a less taxing way of doing this is to use common expressions like “laughed my head off” or “drinking like a fish.” We use concrete, short sentences and figure in time for him to formulate a response, since auditory processing disorder, which often accompanies autism, means it takes Tristan a little extra time to understand spoken words. We try to provide lots of context, we use clear inflection, and we try help him find the appropriate response by identifying our own speech before we say it (e.g., saying “this is a question” before asking something).

Still, we have misunderstandings, and they can often cause hurt feelings, frustration and even meltdowns. When this happens, we discuss how we could have said something better.

Our communication is slower and more fraught than most people’s exchanges. Figurative language often gives us a quick or more powerful way of sharing a complicated thought or feeling. It’s what makes poetry beautiful, a joke funny, or a song resonate in your soul.

But Tristan and his autism and language have literally brought all of that to me and more. There have been funny moments, like with the plasje. There have been moments to teach and to learn. And then there are moments of pure heart-wrenching beauty.

One day, Tristan pointed to a framed photo and asked me who the man was. I explained it was a photo of my father, his nani Maya’s husband. His name was nana Praveen, I said. He had passed away long before Tristan was born.

Yet Tristan’s response was, “I miss him.” My husband and I exchanged glances. How could that be, my husband asked him, when he had never known my father?

There is a French phrase, tu me manques, which literally means “you are missing from me.” I asked Tristan if this is what he had meant, and he said yes.

Tristan didn’t long for my father’s company or voice or personality, the way I would mean when I say I miss my father. Rather, he recognized that he had missed his chance at getting to know my father; that they had just missed each other in passing, in this grand corridor called life.

What could be more poetic than that?

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