We may consider ourselves to be excellent communicators, having a good grasp of language, able to make our opinions clearly known but do we always mean what we say? Most people frequently use phrases which make absolutely no literal sense, in fact few conversations are ever conducted using purely literal utterances. This can create a great deal of confusion for children on the autistic spectrum who tend to take words at face value. It can be confusing too for relatives and teaching staff who may suddenly find that a bright autistic child is simply not complying with their “clear” instruction.
When you were at primary school do you remember your PE lessons? Did the teacher ever say things like, “get into a circle”, “go on all fours” or “watch your feet”? Imagine that you processed language literally – what on earth would these instructions mean? How would you try and respond? It would be confusing wouldn’t it.
When Edward was in year 5 his teacher told the whole class to “make a circle”. The teaching assistant observed him hesitantly raising each of his arms to shoulder height as he joined his hands together in front of him forming his own little individual circle; whilst looking really puzzled and confused. I actually think he did pretty well – he was probably wondering whether to go and get a piece of paper and a pencil and draw one.
Sports are a minefield for comments that make absolutely no literal sense. This may be one of several barriers which can make sports less accessible to autistic individuals. Take football as an example; what would these phrases mean to someone who liked information to be given literally.
“I’m open” (open for what, were you closed?, how can a person be open? what do you mean??)
“man on” (on what?)
“get your head in the game” (my head is on my neck!)
“check your shoulder” (it’s fine thanks)
“touch tight marking” (I have no idea what you have just said to me)
“you’ve got him/her in your pocket” (I don’t like pockets, I have no pockets and a person couldn’t fit in one even if I did have a pocket – you are clearly stupid.)
“his legs have gone” (they haven’t gone – they are still attached to his body – why are you lying to me?)
“put your foot through the ball” (that would defy the laws of physics – what a ridiculous thing to say)
“get rid” (get rid of what?)
“stay on the ball” (I thought I was supposed to kick it?)
I have my more sports enthusiastic friends to thank for the examples given above and this is only a very small selection of the ones offered. Jamie Redknapp, the football pundit once said “he is literally on fire” describing someone’s excellent performance. It’s either a humorous bit of hyperbole or a flagrant abuse of the English language depending on your point of view. Most people understood what he meant when he said it but I bet a lot of his more literally minded listeners were very irritated by his statement.
Edward has never been into team sports, infact he thinks they are complete waste of his time; he has no desire to run around with other people unified in the purpose of getting a ball in a particular goal/hoop/net. He does occasionally kick a ball around with friends if there is nothing else going on, but I have never seen him pick up a ball and ask if anyone wants a knock around. If he ever did do that, I swear I would have to conclude that he had been body snatched by an alien neurotypical football fan.
All kids have to play sport at school even if they don’t do it as an extra curricular activity. It really helps kids who understand language literally to be taught all these strange sporty commands in the same way that you would teach a foreign language. It is unfair to expect them to simply pick these phrases up through exposure on the pitch, especially if they have coordination problems to battle with too.
We knew that exercise was really important for Edward’s health and general fitness, especially in light of his fantastic appetite. Team sports were always going to be a problem for him, so we ended up focusing on other activities; mainly walking, swimming and trampolining. One of the best purchases we have made is our large trampoline and safety net. We’ve had the trampoline for six years now and it still gets used pretty much daily, although not by me. Other mothers will understand why and that’s all I am prepared to say on the subject!
If you ever find yourself in conversation with someone who is on the autistic spectrum and you notice that they haven’t responded as you expected it’s possible that you haven’t communicated as clearly as you thought you had.
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