Children and adults on the autism spectrum, regardless of their intelligence are very concrete and literal in the way they use and understand language. Some may never utter a word, but given a computer program or iPad app that allows them to type their thoughts, it is evident their language is held prisoner inside their beautiful minds by autism. Sarcasm, idioms, abstract expressions and some forms of humor can go right over a child's head (Ryan would quickly look up and tell me there is nothing over his head). This lack of understanding can lead to frustration, confusion, low self-esteem, behavior problems, social isolation and learning difficulties.
Imagine this scenario, a classroom full of students come running into their room after recess and the teacher tells them it's time to "hit the books". All the neurotypical students will grab their books, open them up and begin reading. The child with autism will put his book on the desk and begin hitting it because that is EXACTLY what the teacher asked him to do. The teacher may reprimand the student for his lack of respect for school property while the other children laugh at him. Out of frustration, confusion and embarassment, the child with autism may lash out physically, cry, completely shut down and draw deeper inward. Regardless of the reaction from that child, one thing is certain, that student will have no idea what he did wrong.
The English language has many espressions that if taken literally can be totally misconstrued. No wonder so many kids like my Ryan are easily confused and distracted. When the words become too much these kids go to a place in their head that gives them comfort. I'm sure Ryan is somewhere chasing Yoshi in Mario World. This lack of understanding may lead some of these kids to be labeled as behavior problems, weirdos, loners, etc. What a sad mistake for such a misunderstood group of really great kids.
This concrete thinking causes kids on the autism spectrum to also have difficulty understanding that some words have more than one meaning. I remember one summer Ryan was splashing around in one of those plastic, kills your grass kiddie pools in the backyard. He was laughing, shouting, scripting, and having a great time. I smooched him on the head and said, "You're having a ball aren't you?" to which he replied, "No, I'm havin' a pool!". There was no ball in sight so you can understand why at a very early age Ryan thought I was ridiculous. Imagine living in a black and white world when almost everyone around you is living in various shades of color.
Just two days before this post, Ryan and I had this conversation:
Me: "It's suppose to snow tomorrow and we might even get an accumulation."
Ryan: "What?! On the day before, the day before spring?!"
Me: "Tell me about it."
Ryan: "Sorry Mom, I can't tell you a thing about it because I have no information on the upcoming winter storm." As I stifle a laugh and he looks at me wondering what he said that was even remotely funny, "I'm serious Mom, I don't know a thing about it so I can't tell you anything. I wonder if it's going to be a blizzard and what name the meterologists will give it."
Some moments like that one make me laugh with his literal interpretation of the world and some moments make me cry. I recall a borderline breakdown moment (for me that is) when Ryan was about 6 years old. The poor little guy was home sick with some nasty virus that he picked up at school. It was one of those scary high fever viruses that you keep waiting for the febrile seizures to begin (at least you do if you are me). He felt so crappy that he wouldn't eat or drink anything, so I was worried he'd become dehydrated and he would end up in the ER with an IV (of course I was). Since Ryan+Needles=hearing loss I was really pushing the fluids. I kept offering all flavors of Gatorade, Kool Aid, juice bags, you name it, but he just felt too yucky. Then I decided since he was such a smart, logical kid I would just explain why staying hydrated would help him feel better faster. Big. Giant. Mistake.
Not long after Ryan jumped in the shower I heard a blood curdling scream. At first I thought it was the typical shampoo in the eye scream, however, when I heard it a second time I knew something was very wrong. I took the steps two at a time, flung open the bathroom door and found my sweet boy shaking from head to toe, crying, hyperventilating and dancing (not in a Gangnam Style way, but in a holding your stuff cause you got to go kind of way). "I don't want to pee, I don't want to pee, I don't want to pee!", he screams. "What are you talking about?", I scream equally loud. Ryan jumps back in the shower, water running, still shouting "I don't want to pee!". At this point I'm scared he is so dehydrated he is hallucinating, having a psychotic episode or Ashton Kutcher and his producers of Punk'd are going to come rushing through my bathroom door. "What is the matter?", I scream in a voice bubbling over with hysteria. Through his near drowning gulps and sobs he wails, "If I pee the bug is going to fly out of me pee pee!" (I'm one of those moms who doesn't believe in teaching the technical terms for private parts until they go off to college). After hearing his words, I was still waiting for Ashton Kutcher. What in the world is he talking about? Unfortunately, there was no Ashton Kutcher. It was my old friends Denial and Clueless with me in that crowded, now turned into a sauna, bathroom.
OMG! Then it finally hit me, literally and figuratively. I said when was the last time you peed? Through his sobs he said "the day before yesterday". Ryan hadn't peed in almost 36 hours because his stupid mother told him he had a "bug" inside his body that needed "flushed out". I snatched him out of the shower and tried to explain, but there was no reaching him at that point. So, I did what any good, AWEnest mother would do, I positioned my boy over the toilet and tickled my completely freaked out son. He continued to scream, "the bug is coming, the bug is coming" while still trying to hold back the dam of pee, but eventually the sobbing and the tickling allowed his bladder to finally win over his brain. Suffice it to say, when a hysterical boy is sobbing and being tickled by his near crazed mother on the verge of her own breakdown, his aim was a little off. One thing was certain, I was no longer worried about him being dehydrated. I'm happy to report that while cleaning up, I didn't spot a single bug anywhere.
Ryan calmed down, jumped in the shower as I went and collapsed on my bed. Through my tears I began laughing uncontrollably. You know that kind of hysteria that borders on madness. The moment was so unbelievable that when I told my girlfriend about it hours later, I explained that it was like I was in some surreal horror movie. Although you should be scared and freaked out, the absurdity of the situation had you choking on your popcorn with laughter. Laughter may have saved me from slowly sinking into madness, but my heart ached for my poor sweet boy who thought a bee, wasp or some type of flying insect was going to hang ten on a wave of Gatorade out of his pee pee (they aren't in college yet). I can't even begin to imagine the power of his brain over such a necessary bodily function.
Yes, my literal concrete thinking boy may never fully grasp the vague and abstract expressions of our language. He may thank the rude kid who says "Nice shorts" dripping with sarcasm, as Ryan enters class in the same silk shorts he wore two days in a row and Ryan will probably never say he's going to "hit the books" when it's time to do homework. Chances are good that my boy may never be a regular at comedy clubs since much of the humor will be "over his head", but that doesn't mean he can't still tell a joke that makes his mother chuckle....
While driving in the car one day, everyone was complaining about the sun being in their eyes...
Me: "Get out of here sun."
Ryan: "I can't get out Mom, I'm in a moving vehicle."
Me: "Ryan, did you just make a joke?"
Ryan: "Yeah, I'm pretty funny with those freakin' homophones."
You probably won't hear too many homophone (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but has a different meaning, for those of you who haven't had grammar class in over 20 years) jokes at The Improv, but to this mom, my son's homophone humor beats any mindless jokes Will Farrell can throw at me. If some day, Ryan decides to take a chance on Open Mic Night and tell a homophone joke or two, you can bet this mother will be waiting in the wings with a Victorian Era language of flowers bouquet for him that will include Amaryllis (pride), Jasmine (unconditional love), an Oak Leaf or two (strength), a couple of Protea (courage) and one single blue Rainflower for "attaining the impossible".