Autism and thinking. Second thoughts.

StellaWIs your child’s speech appropriate even though he takes some comments literally? Are you concerned that although his understanding is good he still finds it hard to understand abstract concepts, sarcasm or jokes that have double meanings? Or gets confused when people say things like ‘that film was a good watch’ or ‘the game is a must see’?

If so it may be that the onset of autism has halted, slowed (or even reversed) the usual developmental process: something that has a whole range of problems that can leave his level of understanding out of kilter with his intelligence. Not only do such things interfere with his ability to socialize, communicate and the child’s innate need to explore and play but, in turn, they affect his cognitive skills (like attention, memory and the ability to learn new things easily).

Babies are attuned to their moms’ voice before they are born so,  although they don’t know the meaning of the words they hear, they can recognize her voice.  By about six months old they will have begun to understand simple words but after the 14th month word recognition jumps dramatically.  By the time they are about 18 months old most babies can understand around 50 words and follow simple instructions like, ‘pick up the building blocks.’  At that stage they tend to use less words than they know so they often add gestures to help show you what they want. But their understanding continues to develop and by the age of two and a half years old, they can use around 200 words and even make short sentences.

Even so their understanding is still limited so that they take things literally: something that is especially noticeable in three- and four-year-olds – and continues until the age of six or seven, giving rise to misunderstandings and comic situations, of which I will quote only two:

The small girl who stopped eating because her mother had told her to ‘eat it all up – it will put hairs on your chest.’

The young boy, left in the bath while his mother answered the telephone, who shouted, ‘Mummy, hurry up, I’m going rusty.’

Not all such situations are amusing though for taking things literally can often cause confusion and distress, as with the child who had a tantrum when offered ‘marble’ cake.

Such difficulties in understanding and cognition also makes it very hard for the person to engage in ‘small talk’: something that most of us use automatically when we talk to others – whether we know them or not.

Even so ‘small talk’ generally has a predictable repeating pattern – regardless of who is being spoken to – for it comes at the beginning and sometimes the end of a conversation. Author Judy Edow describes it as a sandwich in which the important words are the filling and the bread is the small talk so that just picturing that sandwich reminds her to start and end her important words with small talk.

Top Tips to help with ‘small talk’:

  • Use games, role play/play acting, social stories, prompts, puppets etc to work on ‘taking turns’.
  • Let him choose a topic – depending on the age of the person concerned – that could include:
    – school activities
    – weekend activities
    – TV shows
    – the weather (especially in the UK!)
    – compliments
  • Give him some useful ‘scripts’ about any of those subjects so that he/she can retrieve and use where appropriate such as:
     ‘Are you looking forward to………….?’
     – ‘Do you like …………….?’
     – ‘Did you go to the ……………….. at the weekend?’
     – ‘Did you watch/enjoy ……………… yesterday?’
  • Include scripts that are appropriate to use with friends/school/work mates and others that can be used with teachers/employers.
  • Teach/model the use of prompts like – ‘Wow! That’s interesting.’, ‘No kidding!’.
  • While people with ASD are often sensitive to others feelings they may have trouble showing it. Once again it will be helpful to model situations and also give them some appropriate phrases that they can use to comfort the other person such as:
    ‘That must hurt.’
     – ‘Can I help?’

Have tips of your own?  Please share them.

Reference: Judy Edow’s blog:

 Autism and the sixth sense   Steady on!

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About Stella Waterhouse

Stella Waterhouse first came across autism in the late 1960s when she met three very different children, all of whom shared the same diagnosis. She began researching autism in 1990 and is a published author of several books including A Positive Approach to Autism which attracted good reviews from such well known autism experts as Donna Williams and Paul Shattock OBE. She has also authored a series of concise but informative books for parents and teachers, and is currently completing her forthcoming series The Autism Code.

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