When Jewel was little, I did a lot of talking (Who am I kidding? I do a lot of talking now). Back then I would take her on long walks on the beach path, me yakking away behind her as I pushed her in the jogging stroller.
As people are wont to do, I had come up with nicknames in my head for some of the regulars I saw out there… there was “stooped-over jogger lady,” “tan biker lady,” “kite shop dude,” etc. Years later I met a woman who said she used to see me a lot back then, and she was glad to finally put a name to “stroller mom who talks a lot.”
Words and language are my things, as an editor and writer by trade and purveyor of sarcasm and wit since birth. By nature and nurture, today Jewel is most often described as “hyperverbal.” While nonverbal is one end of the autism spectrum, the range goes all the way up to hyperverbal, in which certain autistics like Jewel have highly developed vocabularies and tend to talk incessantly and quickly, as if their mouths are trying to keep pace with their brains.
When Jewel was diagnosed autistic, I did a lot of reading, as all parents in that situation do, to help me understand what to expect and how to guide her going forward. One of the key criteria in diagnosing autism (which is done through assessing behavior; there is no blood or other such test) is “literal thinking.” People like Jewel take things literally and have difficulty with figurative language, such as idioms, sarcasm and jokes.
This was one of those “a-ha!” moments for me, as in, “A-ha! That’s why she’s always looking at me like I’m nuts!” because a phrase like that might make Jewel look at me in search of actual almonds, cashews and peanuts.
So in ways large and small I went about teaching Jewel how to understand and use figurative language, something her neurotypical peers learned to do instinctively.
How do you teach about figurative language to autistic literal thinkers? Here are a few of my tips:
*Use exaggerations as jokes. This helps autistic kids learn that unrealistic or unexpected things often make people laugh, such as in cartoons with the flattened Wile. E. Coyote. For example, I made up a simple story about a goat going to the grocery store and buying up canned goods, and hilarity ensuing as the goat ate the cans and threw away the food. This oft-retold and expanded-on story helped Jewel understand fiction and distorted reality can be funny, and not everything she will learn about can happen in a literal sense.
*Teach how to kid around with someone or be self-deprecating in a gentle, nonjudgmental way without teasing or being mean. This one pays off for life, but it’s probably the most difficult. Sarcasm is a go-to move for me, but I had to learn to really tone it down around Jewel because it confused her too much. I learned that if I was going to say something like, “Oh yeah, you really HATE football” to my husband, I had to be aware to tip off Jewel that I was kidding around with him and I actually meant the exact opposite. So I’d add a wink or some other visual “tell” to help her realize what I was doing. The key thing is to avoid jokingly criticizing the autistic person, who won’t understand why you’ve suddenly turned on her and her My Little Pony obsession. It’s an important skill to learn how to be funny without hurting someone, and it takes a lot of trial and error for autistics.
*Explain about idioms and their meanings/derivations. Most social thinking curriculums spend a lot of time on idioms, because of the confusion they can cause literal thinkers. A kindergarten teacher can tell students something will happen “when pigs fly,” and kids like Jewel might run to the window looking for airborne swine. It helped Jewel when I would explain the meanings behind them, such as telling her about “big wigs” and how politicians and other power brokers in Europe wore wigs a couple of hundred years ago, and it became a matter of the bigger the better.
*Use a lot of analogies to explain what’s going on. This is a go-to move for me. I have told Jewel many times that having her experience new things is “like stretching the rubber band.” It’s become routine for us to discuss whether it’s time to stretch it a little further or pull back, and we talk about me trying to pull it back rapidly when things aren’t working out and what might cause it to actually snap. It’s the easiest way to get her to understand hard concepts. I just read another analogy recently from another mom of an autistic child in which she talks about her child in school in terms of square pegs and round holes. She said most of the time it’s the school trying to make that square peg (her child) round, and it’s her job sometimes to push out on the edges of the round hole (the school) to make it more square. Oh yeah, I’m going to use that, next time I’m yakking away in a school meeting.