A Literal Life

In our experience of having a child on the autistic spectrum, it is hard work, but not thankless work. There are tremendous rewards as there is with all parenting, but in parenting a child with special needs, these rewards somehow can be richer. For us it can also be rather entertaining as our son is a real character. This is clearly evident in his very literal and concrete thinking in life, a very common symptom in autistic spectrum disorder.

I have heard it said you cannot tell a child with ASD to go and jump in the shower, this figure of speech will be lost on them, they will visualise someone jumping in the shower. These figures of speech and language nuances need to be taught, as something called pragmatics.

This literal thinking can be very sweet and we have some great stories associated with it. One day my son had a cold and was clearing his throat in the car. My response was “Shame boy you have a frog in your throat”, to which I got no immediate response. A few minutes later I heard him going ribbit, ribbit. “What are you doing boy?” His response: “The frog is talking to me.” I giggled to myself and continued driving to school. When we go to school he climbed out of the car and lay down in the car park with his mouth open. I naturally became a bit concerned. ”You cannot lie in the car park, get up!” His response: “ I am waiting for the frog to jump out mom.”

It is one of the stories we love to recall and have a little giggle about. There is however a sad undertone to this story, as those with neuro-typical children would see this as a very clear misunderstanding and explain the figure of speech and their child would learn from this. My son still, to this day, sometimes talks about the frog that lives in his throat when he is sick and it does not scare him, but he literally thinks it is there and the consequences of being too literal are not always so cute.

Recently waiting at the doctor’s room with my two boys for over two hours was a real challenge. Neither of them were behaving particularly well and they became restless with the long wait. My son with autism displayed a level of bad behaviour I fortunately do not normally experience with him. At the end of the consult when I went to pay I had to give him a time out, so I made him stand in the corner whilst I paid and told him not to move. Once I was finished paying he had his pants down and was about to urinate in the corner. Naturally I lost it and thought this was the pinnacle of the bad behaviour only to discover he needed to make a wee and I had told him not to move.

I know many parents will have stories about their children getting into trouble at the expense of others taking advantage of how literal they are. There are also stories of children getting hurt because they cannot understand these figures of speech and I am sure in certain situations, even worse outcomes.

I am not sure what the outcome of being so literal is. I know it presents many challenges in social interactions, and in schooling. I see how confusing it is for my son sometimes when things get lost in translation. As he gets older he is able to ask what we mean. Having a child so literal is naturally very concerning but also at times is too beautiful as with it comes an innocence that his peers have already lost. He still believes in the tooth fairy and cannot even conceive it is not real. This is a strange marriage between the world of fantasy and the concrete and literal. I suppose this has to do with the innocence and naiveté that their parents would concoct a story that is not real.

As always it comes with concerns. We worry about; how to take our child from the literal to the abstract with regards to education? How to better help our child socially and deal with the social nuances that are not based on fact? What happens when our child loses their innocence and is left with only their practical and literal side? How do we close the gap and teach him all the lessons of pragmatics? Does it ever become more innate? This is one of those times when parenting renders me feeling powerless and overwhelmed. I would love to hear from others about their experiences in this regard.

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