Home is where the HEART is…Autism and Figurative Language

Home is a place we like to think of as filled with unconditional love. Some might even say “home is where the heart is,” but I urge you to stop and think before saying that to your student, child, friend or neighbor impacted by an Autism Spectrum Disorder. You see figurative language is a difficult concept for many children and adults who are impacted by ASD, because their talents and abilities, typically, are centered in the realm of concrete and literal styles of thinking. Let’s take a look at a visual example.

Our friends impacted by autism can sometimes see their difficulty with processing figurative language affect their relationships and daily conversations. If we put ourselves into their shoes, we can begin to imagine the roadblocks with conversation fluency when we pick apart the figurative phrases many of us don’t think twice about using. The example above helps to visualize the struggle. The use of idioms, hyperboles, similes and the like can really stunt these children in language fluency and finesse. When we take a deeper look at how we use language in our society, we can better understand the struggle of someone who processes language literally. One example would be one of the most basic elements of our conversations, “how’s it going?” Most of us understand that “it” refers to our day, life, etc. Those who take language literally may get stopped in the moment trying to process what “it” you are referring to, thinking “it is not going anywhere.” All of a sudden, the most basic of conversations are halted, leaving the counterpart disinterested and confused. Small talk, sarcasm, irony and other forms of communication where one thing is said while another is intended can also be very difficult for our friends impacted by ASD. Most research suggests a therapeutic context for learning this language is best suited for the development and understanding of the difference in processing communication. 

As we continue to learn more about the different ways our brains process information, let’s keep in mind the often frequent uses of figurative language that our friends with autism may need an explanation for. Here are some different phrases we might say that may be confusing to those who struggle with processing figurative language: 

  • Couch Potato
  • Tough Cookie
  • Bad Apple
  • When Pigs Fly
  • You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
  • He’s Having a Whale of a Time
  • It’s Time to Hit the Road
  • Busy as a Bee

We could talk about figurative language examples until the cows come home (wink, wink), but trying to understand what interventions and strategies might be most helpful in educating those who are struggling with this very issue should be in the forefront in social intervention for these children. Here are a few good books for teaching and helping children understand idioms:

  • "There's a Frog in my Throat"
  • "Reach for the Stars"
  • "You Are What You Eat"
  • "The Cats Pajamas"

Keep up the good work with your kids, friends and colleagues who process information and learn differently than you!  You are making a difference in someone’s life! 


Published 2016/02/03 by Nicole McClain
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