Most of us use language without giving it too much thought. It’s simply the mechanism by which we convey our needs and thoughts to other people.
But do you ever find that despite giving a clear explanation to someone you later discover that it’s been interpreted completely differently to how you intended? There are lots of reasons why this can happen but one reason is the problem we have with ambiguity.
At the risk of making you feel like you are in a school English lesson consider the sentence:
I saw a girl on a hill with some binoculars.
You can probably visualise the scene this conjures up, but can you be sure that you have visualised the scene accurately? What could these words really mean? All of the interpretations below are perfectly possible.
- There’s a girl on a hill, and I’m watching her with my binoculars.
- There’s a girl on a hill, who I’m seeing, and she has some binoculars.
- There’s a girl, and she’s on a hill that also has some binoculars on it.
- I’m on a hill, and I saw a girl using some binoculars.
- There’s a girl on a hill, and I’m sawing her with some binoculars. (OK this is a bit ridiculous but you will hopefully get my point)
We actually use ambiguous langauge a lot but usually only one of the possible alternative meanings is a realistic one. We expect people to use commonly held assumptions and go with the most likely choice.
We deduce the most likely meaning through contextual clues, our prior understanding regarding what the other person might be thinking about and through picking up on subtle changes in tone of voice, facial expression and body language.
Most of us don’t even notice the ambiguity because we don’t have to make any real effort when it comes to reading body language, facial expression and contextual clues and we automatically opt for the most likely interpretation. However if you have autism you may find that your focus for gaining understanding falls more heavily on the words used rather than all the non verbal aspects of a message and you may also miss lots of the contextual clues which means that you are confronted with ambiguity quite a lot of the time. This can make apparently simple things become quite complicated. Here’s a few examples from Edwards life:
- In year 3 a teacher had asked Edward to write his name on the back of his work. As his work was on two separate sheets he turned them both over and wrote ‘Edw’ on one sheet and ‘rad’ on the other. Job done. He genuinely thought he had done exactly what the teacher wanted. Thankfully his teacher understood that he wasn’t being deliberately obtuse, he’d simply interpreted her instruction in a particular way.
- A few years ago I had an appointment with a nurse and the child care arrangements I had made for Edward fell through so I took him along with me. During the appointment the nurse asked me about my family and I explained that I had four children. She glanced across at 9-year-old Edward and asked, ” Are you the oldest?”. Edward didn’t realise she was speaking to him as he had his head in a book so it took a while to get his attention before she could repeat her question which completely stumped Edward who replied, “Am I the oldest of what?”. I said, “The nurse wants to know if you are the oldest person in the family”. I still remember Edward looking at me and the nurse as if we were both incredibly stupid as he slowly and clearly articulated, “No…. my sister and my mum and dad are all older than me.”. I’m still amazed I didn’t get the giggles. The nurse simply muttered under her breath, “I wish I’d never asked”, and we got on with the check up.
- Edward grew rapidly throughout his 11th year and for a while he was a lot bigger than most of his friends. Elle, a family friend called round one day to collect her son who’d been playing at our house after school; as she was searching for his shoes she picked up one of Edwards huge ones which completely dwarfed the tiny shoes of her boy. Whilst holding the shoe she commented to Edward, “When are they going to stop growing?”. Edward looked at this clearly intelligent woman with surprise and said, “Elle, you do know that shoes don’t actually grow, dont you!” To be honest I think he had worked out what she meant but he always sees the literal meaning of the words first and then has to work out consciously whether that’s what the person meant or whether he needs to work out an alternative and more credible meaning. Nowadays this means he can be intentionally very funny and he does make me laugh a lot.
If a child answers your question in a way that seems a bit off the wall or if they respond to an instruction in a way that appears ridiculous it’s worth stopping to check that you haven’t been accidentally ambiguous, especially so if that child has autism.
If you liked this post you might want to read this one too – He’s literally on fire.