More on Autism – The Object Lesson

First of all, Happy Easter!  Secondly, please remember that April is National Autism Awareness Month.  I hope you’re doing your part to help educate people about autism.

Many if not most autistic people are exact-word oriented.  This not only means that they oftentimes cannot decipher seriousness from jest when a voice inflection makes similar words or phrases sound different, but it also means that they have trouble comprehending colloquialisms.

As an example of the voice inflection thing, I have a good friend named Maryann who calls everyone “bitch.”  She is the nicest lady, and she’d rip her teeth out with pliers and give them to you if you really wanted them.  She’s got a heart of gold, and she’s the kind of friend everyone should have.  But when she sees me, she always greets me with a smile, a hug, and “Hey, how’s my favorite bitch today?”

One time, Maryann called my house, and my autistic daughter answered the phone.  She announced to me that Maryann was on the phone, and with a smile on my face, I replied, “Tell that bitch to hang up the phone and get her butt over here so I can see her in person.”  Obviously, I was excited and happy to talk to Maryann and anxious to see her in person.

But even though I had a lilt in my voice and a smile on my face, my daughter scowled and told Maryann, “My mom says you’re a bitch for calling instead of coming to see her in person!”  Then she hung up the phone before I could get to it.

My poor daughter has been the victim of these mishaps all the time.  She must be so confused when people get angry because of something she’s repeated the wrong way.  She’s also had her own feelings hurt for times she misunderstood what someone else was saying to her because she got too hung up on their exact words.

As far as colloquialisms, an example might be that if an autistic person hears that someone “has skeletons in their closet,” they think that their wardrobes are literally filled with old bones.

One of the things I get most frustrated with both my autistic children, is that because of their exact-word oriented mindsets, they are both completely unable to grasp an object lesson.  I believe the reason for this is two-fold, and it not only encompasses their inability to understand hidden meanings in words but also their lack of empathy which is another trait of autism.

For example, once when my son Jeremy was six, he kept going into his sister’s room and stealing pieces of her Halloween candy.  I lectured him about dental hygiene, about too much sugar, and about stealing, but to no avail.  Finally, I took some of his Hot Wheels cars and gave them to my daughter Stefani so Jeremy could see how it felt to have someone take something of his.  He didn’t understand the correlation because he didn’t have any of his own candy left to take, so it wasn’t the same.  Furthermore, he didn’t get it because “Mommy was stealing his cars” which was nothing like him stealing Stefani’s candy.

To make matters worse, when I finally got completely fed up with his “sticky fingers” (which would only mean to him that he should wash his hands), I took him down to the local police department and asked them to lecture him about what happens to people who steal.

The police officers in Kingston, New York were happy to oblige, and they went as far as giving Jeremy a tour of the jail and letting him walk inside an empty cell and seeing where he could end up if he continued to take things that didn’t belong to him.

Unfortunately, the trip to the police station didn’t work, and I finally locked Stefani’s candy away for safekeeping.  Fast forward fifteen years…  It was only last month that Jeremy, who is now twenty-one, was sitting next to me while we watched a police show on television.  When a commercial came on, he turned to me and said, “Remember that fun field trip you took me on to the police station when we lived in New York?”

My jaw dropped open.  Was he serious?  I told him that the reason for that visit was not a field trip but because he kept taking his sister’s candy.  I had no idea that for the past fifteen years, he never had a clue!

So that’s the end of my autism lesson today.  I’ll be back tomorrow with my regularly scheduled post, and I’ll be back the first Sunday of next month with more on autism.

This is an actual school paper done by an autistic child. You may have seen this floating around on the internet before. This is exactly the kind of thing that my children, and even me at times, would do when given such vague instructions.

29 thoughts on “More on Autism – The Object Lesson

  1. Great post Rachel! I love reading all of your autism posts. Sometimes they really hit a nerve, because they give me an insight into how things might be for Carys, so I’d like to thank you for that. Carys has no speech, so this doesnt apply to her, but it’s amazing how much we take non verbal cues alongside conversation for granted. It must get so bewildering at times for your son and daughter. Really, there is no logic at all to much of what we say! 😀

  2. Thanks for this Rachel. As I read more and more about autism this month, I feel myself relating more and more to the people who suffer with it, thinking, ‘is this really that different from something I would have done?’ I guess that is part of the goal of understanding and raising awareness.

    • Well, sometimes I’ll hear people say that, but then they see it in action such as with my kids, and they will then see how extreme the autistic ones are as opposed to “regular-brained” people. 🙂

  3. In all fairness Rachel, it does sound like a fun field trip! haha ❤ I was thinking while reading your post, one can experience the same difficulty when translating from one language to another. Colloquialisms don't translate and your example of telling that bitch to hang up and come visit would have the same affect as what your daughter said.
    Diana xo

  4. Very eye opening. It would be interesting to see a character like this, but in an historical setting before we knew autism even existed. It could be interesting in fantasy too. It would take a lot of research, but it could be interesting.

  5. Interesting, as always, Rachel! Thank you for the education.
    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but on the TV show “Parenthood,” one of the characters is the son who is autistic. It was interesting to see how he grew up over the course of the show.

  6. Great post, Rachel, as always. 🙂
    My son, who has Asperger’s can be very literal and I agree, it can cause many headaches.
    I found a fun book, ‘An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions’ (would also work for anyone on the Spectrum who has difficulty with interpretation issues) by Ian Stuart-Hamilton that helped him immensely.
    I had to shake my head when I read what your son said about the field trip to the police station, I understand completely.
    Thank you for helping people better understand those with Autism. 🙂

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