Autism AMA: Literal

Back in April, I offered to participate in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) for my fellow teachers, and I responded to their questions as time allowed. Over the next few days, I’d like to share some of those questions and answers with you.

Jessica Asks:

When you were a student, did you struggle with interpreting directions in a literal sense that sometimes was not the intent behind the teacher’s directions?  If so, what was effective and what was not effective in helping you to understand and move on?

I was blessed to have some primary teachers who were always very clear in their directions, so this was a non-issue until middle school. In late elementary, I was an avid reader of Peanuts, the comic strip by Charles Schultz, and had several of his collections. In those comics, there was a running joke that Peppermint Patty would behave in a sarcastic or facetious way, and Marcie would respond: “Sarcasm does not become you, sir.” Of course, I had no idea what was funny about this, so I independently researched what sarcasm was, and I credit those comic strips with allowing me to catch onto the nature of sarcasm before it had a chance to be too problematic.

That said, I did (and still do) run into situations where I took things the wrong way. I can remember being in the mall once at about seven or eight, and I was yammering on ad naseum about the next round of G.I. Joe toys Mattel was going to release when my dad said: “I don’t want to hear another thing about G.I. Joes.” He meant to stop for that moment, but I’m not sure I ever talked to him about G.I. Joes again. I interpreted the statement as indefinite. There were other times that secondary teachers would tease me good-naturedly or make some joke that I took seriously, and I felt very hurt at the time. 

Once, my wife was describing her father’s quitting drinking, and she said: “He quit cold turkey.” I was quite confused how the consumption of deli meats might lead to alcoholism. New idioms almost always catch me unprepared, and I’ve found the most effective way for me to own their meanings is to research where they came from. Why do we say things like “quit cold turkey”, “six of one, half dozen of the other”, “the whole shebang”, and weird stuff like that to express certain ideas? If I can discover origins for these phrases and how they came to be used idiomatically, then they will seldom catch me a second time.

I still get caught today. I was inviting my team over for dinner one weekend last month when one of my colleagues asked: “Now you said we could bring furry kids too, right?” I knew she had a cat, so I responded. “Well, sure, you can bring a pet if you want. Just remember that we have a dog and a toddler—“ At which point she interrupted me to tell me she was joking, and we had a good laugh. I’m sure it was in the tone of her voice, but that was completely lost on me. I seriously thought she wanted to bring her cat over.

With instructions in your classroom, it’s important to avoid idioms or other such phrases. It’s also important to avoid indefinite modifiers, like “no more”, “never”, or “anymore”, unless you really mean it. If you see a friend doing something off task after you give directions, review the words in your head – not your intention, the actual words you said. Maybe they really are following your directions to the letter. (See that: I just used an idiom.) Repeating the directions verbatim seldom helps; you’re just saying the same thing again. Consequences are even worse because, in the friend’s mind, he or she is doing nothing wrong. The best thing to do is step back and reword your request. In no way express frustration or the idea that your little friend is doing something wrong. Just gently redirect with the directions phrased differently.

The direction might have been: “It’s time to put away books,” meaning you want your students to put their guided reading books back into their seat sacks, but you have a friend you goes over to the reading corner and begins reorganizing ALL of the classroom books. Can you see why? Now, he’s out of his seat; he’s in the wrong area; the rest of the class is ready to move on; he may give every appearance that he’s not listening because he’s so intent on doing his best to put away the books right where he knows they should go despite the fact that others in the room have put books back in the wrong baskets in the past. (And believe me, he or she knows exactly where the mismatched books are.) Try: “Oh, Jason. Thanks for working so hard in our reading corner. Now can you go and put your own book in your seat sack, so we can go to lunch?” Then you’re in a position to redirect instead of frustrate, and everyone will be happier.