How to Better Connect When Your ASD Child Thinks Literally
When I was in fourth grade, we were given a writing assignment which required us to write step-by-step instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The entire class of nine and ten year old kids fell silent, and the vigorous sound of pencils scratching across paper filled the air.
As fourth graders, each of us believed ourselves to be pros when it came to mastering the fine art of creating the perfect PB&J, and we were all anxious to put our knowledge down on paper.
When everyone finished writing, the class gathered around a table and our teacher brought over all of the supplies needed to make this classically delicious lunch essential.
After waiting a moment for the excited murmur of hungry children to settle, she explained to us that she would read each of our papers aloud while each writer had to make a sandwich following his or her own written instructions.
The first of my excited classmates approached the table and handed the teacher her paper. “Step one, get some bread” the teacher read.
My classmate reached for the package of bread and started to open it, but was interrupted immediately by the teacher. “The instructions don’t tell you to open the package, they just say to get the bread.”
The girl looked puzzled, but waited for the next step. “Step two, get the peanut butter and the jelly and put it on the bread.”
The girl reached for the peanut butter and started to open the jar only to be interrupted again. “It doesn’t say open the jar. It says, ‘get the peanut butter and the jelly and put it on the bread’.
I guess you’ll just have to stack the jars on top of the bread package.” We all laughed and the girl did as instructed, still quite confused by the situation.
The teacher then explained to us that when you write step-by-step instructions, you have to include every possible detail and assume that the reader has never made a sandwich before. Each of us got the opportunity to “make our sandwiches,” and each of us failed miserably.
I clearly remember thinking I might have been descriptive enough in my writing that my sandwich would actually become a sandwich, and I clearly remember the moment when I realized that I forgot to mention that you need a knife to spread the peanut butter on the bread (somewhere there’s probably still a photograph floating around of me reaching my hand into the jar of peanut butter).
While our teacher was successful in teaching us a memorable lesson about descriptive writing, she probably had no idea that years later my clear memory of her lesson would assist me in better communicating with my autistic son.
It is very common for children with autism to think extremely literally. They often have issues understanding common phrases and figures of speech such as, “hold your horses” or “it’s raining cats and dogs.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my son why there is trash all over the floor only to have him stare at me as if he was thinking, “Because I left it there, duh!”
What my son didn’t realize was that I meant, “Would you please pick your trash up off the floor?” and what I did realize was that is exactly what I should have said to him instead. Sometimes we get frustrated with our children when they don’t read between the lines, forgetting that sometimes they simply are not able to.
Sometimes we don’t realize that we are implying what we want them to do instead of directly stating what it is that we expect. What follows is anger and frustration toward our confused child, followed by anger and frustration from said confused child. In my mind I hear, “Why didn’t he pick up his trash,” what I say is, “Are you going to do what I asked?” In his mind he hears, “She asked me why there was trash on the floor? Was I supposed to do something?
Why is she so angry at me?” His response is anything from a quiet and confused cry to a full blown melt down. The confusion goes round and round until I give up and pick the trash up myself, then cry in my bathroom after he goes to bed because I can’t understand why I can’t communicate with my son.
When you first learn that your child has autism, you really don’t know what to do or how to feel. You suddenly think all kinds of things about what your child can’t do and may never be able to do. You go through just about every emotion before you realize that your child is still the same child you’ve loved since you discovered there was a living being growing inside of you.
Your child is no different today — post diagnosis — than he was yesterday before your world came crashing down on you. All that matters next is that you learn how to help your child succeed despite the challenges he or she may have. It took me a long time before the light bulb came on in my head and I was able to tie my fourth grade writing lesson into my methods of parenting.
Suddenly it all became clear that I was expecting my son to put peanut butter on bread, but I had forgotten to tell him that he needed a knife and that he could not just stick his hand into the peanut butter jar. When I ask my son to do something and am met with a blank stare, I think back over everything I said to him. Did I give him literal step-by-step instructions? Did I clearly explain to him what it was that I was expecting him to do?
Sometimes it just takes a quick restatement of my request and my son complies beautifully. You don’t realize how much of what we say in casual conversation can’t be taken literally until you really start to break it down. No wonder our kids are frustrated, we’re speaking in all sorts of funny phrases that don’t make any sense to them.
Once I made the connection, I’ve noticed that there is a lot less frustration in our household. Of course I don’t always remember. Recently I hung a basketball hoop over a trash can in hopes that my son would actually enjoy throwing his trash away (yes, this is an ongoing battle in my household).
One day we were cleaning and I asked him to “put his trash through the hoop.” After he did, I looked over only to find the trash can had been moved about two feet to the left and my son’s trash was lying on the floor directly beneath the hoop which he had thrown his trash through. I couldn’t be mad; he did exactly what I asked him to do.
I did laugh hysterically for about ten minutes after. Nobody is perfect, and miscommunication between you and your child will happen. Frustration will happen. Trash all over the floor will happen. What will also happen is an increase in effective communication the more you put yourself in your child’s head and realize what it is that you literally just said.
Overcoming these obstacles is what is important, and your child will be far less frustrated if you slow down to make sure he or she understands. Whenever you are talking with your child, just stop to think about whether or not you forgot to mention the knife, and you will find that communicating can actually be just as simple as making a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
By day, Kim Nguyen is the Assistant Manager of a hotel in Orlando, Florida, but when she is not at work she is spending time with her seven-year-old son and her nine-year-old stepson who are both on the autism spectrum. Prior to her son’s birth, Kim had no experience with autistic children and has spent the last several years learning how to effectively parent a child with autism, simply by trial and error. Knowing firsthand the struggle involved in finding resources, she would like to share her own stories in hopes that her experiences will offer support and reassurance to other parents facing some of the same difficulties she has met in her own household.
This article was featured in Issue 44 – Strategies for Daily Life with Autism