In a literal sense

I went to see Dr. Temple Grandin speak a couple of years ago. I just love her success story, because of the positive influence she has had on other autistics’ lives and her willingness to share her own stories to advocate for others. She gave me an “a-ha” moment that night when it comes to Jewel that I think of on an almost-daily basis.

Grandin said when she was a young child, she and her classmates were told to “draw a church.” Other students got to work, drawing the typical triangle/rectangle for the steeple, the roof, the square house part, maybe even adding in some stained-glass windows. But Grandin said she couldn’t just get to work, because the instructions set off the “card file” in her head she needed to flip through: did the teacher want her to draw the church she drove past in the center of town, the beautiful temple she had seen in a book once, Notre Dame or some other famous church? To the teacher, I am sure it appeared Grandin wasn’t able to grasp the instructions, a reflection of her intelligence. Of course that wasn’t it at all; she was processing the instructions differently than her classmates.

The “a-ha” came because I had had a similar experience with Jewel. I had asked her to draw me a tree once, trying to keep her busy. She said, “But mom, I don’t have enough paper.” In her head, to “draw a tree” meant that it had to be a true representation of a palm tree in the backyard, and exactly that size, about 30 feet. She was right, she didn’t have enough paper!

What comes intuitively to most is lost on Jewel and other autistics. And that hesitation in getting started is not a reflection of their intelligence, it is a reflection that they process information differently and more deliberately.

One of the key differences is how Jewel takes things literally, hence the “draw the tree.” It also takes her longer to process spoken words and determine the literal meaning. If someone is talking too fast, or including several directions all at once, something will get lost. And even as she figures out the literal meaning, there’s simply not enough time to get into the figurative meanings.

When Jewel was younger, saying something like a dress would “cost an arm and a leg” scared the bejesus out of her. She had no intention of losing two limbs for that dress. Idioms, euphemisms, puns and sarcasm cause a lot of confusion and upset to autistics. Most are visual as well as literal (concrete) thinkers, so the pictures in their heads when they hear phrases such as “kick the bucket” or “elephant in the room” have nothing to do with what those phrases actually mean. It takes a lot of effort to disengage them from those images and get them back on track. Only then can you get into explaining the figurative and broader meaning of those words.

Jewel is often laughed at for such misunderstandings, which of course adds to her stress. Also, there are times when her literal interpretation of instructions and rules at school are misinterpreted as noncompliance or “bad” behavior. It confuses her when she is doing what is “right” in her head and then learning from the teacher she is doing it all “wrong.” She is not deliberately trying to get out of work or do the wrong thing, she just needs guidance, support and clarity as to what the right, literal instructions are. Teachers can do this by avoiding abstract concepts and generalizations.

The concept of sarcasm is especially tough for Jewel. In the beginning, if someone would literally say something, she would take it literally. Then I explained that sometimes people say, “Nice haircut,” and mean exactly the opposite, because they are being sarcastic (and cruel as well, in this case).

The trial and error period on the sarcasm lesson is still going on with her. The other day, a boy cut his finger in class and was about to go to the nurse’s office. Jewel noticed and quietly took a bandage out of her backpack (bonus points for preparedness and empathy!) to hand to him. He said, “You keep Band-Aids in your backpack?” and tears sprang to her eyes as she quickly asked the teacher for a break.

Burned before by classmates, especially boys, being sarcastic to her, she thought he was making fun of her for having such an item at the ready. He wasn’t; he was honestly surprised that someone would think to carry bandages around with them and offer them readily. From a teacher’s perspective, Jewel could be seen as overreacting and ungrateful toward the boy. It’s because the teacher and the boy knew, intuitively, that there was no sarcasm in his statement. However, Jewel does not know this intuitively; she must learn it through trial and error.

Each time such misinterpretations and misunderstandings happen, Jewel learns something new and important. And that will help with the next time, because there will always be a next time.



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