There are many unwritten rules in society that govern our behavior. While most of us intuitively understand these rules, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have not automatically learned the conventions and nuances that make up their social environment. These unspoken or “hidden” social standards can make the world a confusing place and result in life-long challenges. For example, social expectations such as “it is not polite to interrupt others while they are talking,” “take turns in conversation” and “discuss other topics besides only those you are interested in” are not taught and are assumed to be known and understood. We seem to have an “unconscious” navigator that allows us to make intuitive sense of the unspoken rules in society and adjust to the social demands of our everyday lives.
The unspoken rules of social engagement involve the use of the pragmatic, social communicative functions of language (e.g., turn taking, understanding of inferences and figurative expressions) as well as nonverbal skills needed to communicate and regulate interaction (e.g., eye contact, gesture, facial expression). This includes body language and idioms, metaphors, or slang – phrases and meanings that we intuitively assimilate or learn through observation or subtle cues. Individuals with ASD tend to interpret language literally and may be puzzled by the common everyday expressions used by a typical peer or adult. Consider how idioms or figurative speech such as “how the cookie crumbles,” “curiosity killed the cat,” and “when it rains, it pours” might have a totally different meaning and result in confusion if taken literally. In order to understand language, we must understand what the idioms in that language mean. If you try to figure out the meaning of an idiom literally (word by word), you will be bewildered. While the typical individual might understand that the phrase “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” and accompanying body language (e.g., voice, body) communicates to the listener that something unfortunate has happened, to someone with a pragmatic social-communication problem, this idiom will have a completely different meaning and be confusing. The following are but a few of well over 3,000 idioms in the English language.
- Bite off More than you can chew
- Cross that bridge when you come to it
- Everything but the kitchen sink
- Get up on the wrong side of the bed
- Have a bone to pick with you
- Have your cake and eat it too
- In hot water
- Kill two birds with one stone
- Out of the clear blue sky
- Piece of cake
- Put all your eggs in one basket
- Raining cats and dogs
- Read between the lines
- Rub the wrong way
- Run circles around someone
- Sick as a dog
- Throw in the towel
- Till the cows come home
- If the shoe fits, wear it
Additional examples can be found on http://www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms/
It is important to not assume that your message is being interpreted correctly. You should always check for understanding and “say what you mean.” Jennifer Twachtman-Reilly (2010) offers some tips for improving pragmatic inference ability in children with ASD. For example, teach the child to comprehend the figurative meaning of idioms by focusing on the context to determine the speaker’s intent (e.g., When the teacher says, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” when you start this project. What does this really mean?). Providing visual supports can also be helpful in conveying the hidden meaning of the message. The following resources should be helpful in navigating the confusing world of idioms.
Myles, B. S., Trautman, M. L., & Schelvan, R. L. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Shawnee Mission, KS: Asperger Publishing Company.
Snodgrass, C. S. (2004). Super Silly Sayings That Are over Your Head: A Children's Illustrated Book of Idioms. Higganum, CT: Starfish Specialty Press.
Terban, M. (1996). Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms: More than 600 phrases, sayings, and expressions. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
Twachtman-Reilly, J. (Spring, 2010). Tips for improving pragmatic inference ability in children with ASD. Autism Spectrum Quarterly.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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