If you’ve  ever tried learning a foreign language you will know that idioms or figures of speech can make life a bit difficult. People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often feel like they have arrived in a foreign land, where the language and unwritten rules are confusing and frustrating. They are usually literal or concrete thinkers.

If you take a phrase which has a non-literal meaning, an idiom, such as ‘I’m going to hit the sack’ (meaning I’m going to bed) a person with ASD may look around for the bag you’re about to hit. They are constantly struggling with what they perceive as ridiculous and unnecessary turns of phrase.

It crosses my mind that they must be particularly pinged off with poets and creative writers such as myself, who find it very difficult to live without figurative speech – the use of metaphors, symbols, allusions and other essential tools of the craft. This is just one of many ironies I find myself confronted with as the mother of a boy with ASD.

You may think my title relates to how I feel sometimes about my son when not all goes to plan. In fact it is the reverse. I drive him up the wall with my particular way of speaking and my consistent inaccuracies. Michael has to frequently correct his poor mother, who is a fool for making so many mistakes of such an obvious nature. My most common mistake and one which happens on a daily basis relates to the clock. This is an example of concrete thinking.

I come from a family where expressions such as ‘that’s a bit slap dash but it’ll do’ and ‘near enough is good enough’ and ‘she’ll be right mate’ were commonly thrown around in a haphazard, yet humorous manner. This type of attitude is anathema to someone with ASD. When it came to saying what time it was, we were often found guilty of rounding off our minutes – shock, horror! To Michael’s consternation I still round off my minutes. A typical conversation goes like this:

Tessa says ‘What time is it mummy?’

I say ‘5.30 darling’

Michael responds with exasperation  ‘It’s not 5.30, it’s 5.28’.

Mum’s wrong again – silly woman!  I guess I’ll just have to ‘take it on the chin’ as I sure don’t want to ‘get a chip on my shoulder’.

21 thoughts on “You’re Driving Me Up the Wall – The Autism Files

  1. I’m sorry, this made me laugh. I know it is a serious issue but the beauty and simplicity and honesty and clarity of your prose just brought the whole thing to life in my mind. I guess I am a bit on Michael’s side. Have you read “The Little Prince”? “”So then the seventh planet was the Earth”

  2. Autism often makes me laugh and this extract is supposed to make you laugh – so you’re on the right track Michael is not the only one who is frustrated by the way I talk. I haven’t read ‘The Little Prince’ that you are referring to – but I will (I just googled it). I am glad you are a bit on Michael’s side – that is the point after all. Thank you kind Sir.

  3. I’m still trying to figure out the “It’s too late, she said, as she waved her wooden leg in the air.” one. Poor Michael. I can imagine. Thanks again Gabe, I learn something from you everyday Darl.

    1. Well if you were waving a wooden leg around, I’d say it was a bit too late! I’ll find out one day what that saying means. Poor Michael – what about me – ha,ha! Thanks matey-oh. You always make me go piratey for some reason (maybe it is the wooden leg).

  4. I like that parallel with learning a foreign language. It does feel like that, to hear people talk, knowing the words but not having a clue of what they want to say.

    1. Part of it is a beautiful innocence. Obsessive attention to detail can get you a long way, especially in important jobs like with NASA. Well, that rules me out for a trip to mars. Thanks for stopping by Mark – much appreciated.

  5. This made me smile. You know, I can relate to Michael, too. I’m an odd split between (1) creative and metaphorical and freewheeling and (2) methodical, analytical, and oriented to concrete detail. I joke with hubby about being half Betazoid and half Vulcan (to employ a Star Trek analogy). Cute how Michael corrects you when it’s 5:28, and you round it up to 5:30! 🙂

    1. Spok pretty much sums up what people with aspergers are like. I had to google Betazoid – that’s me! I can be methodical and analytical – if I have to be. Yesterday I told Michael I had a 10 minute meeting with his teacher at 2.45. He said ‘so you will finish at 2.55’. I explained that sometimes meeting can go overtime.

  6. Absolutely love this Gabrielle. As you know I work with many students with ASD to help them cope with the rigors (some might say torment) of school. I had a beautiful moment the other day with one young man (5yo) who when told by his teacher that he had to leave the classroom to have his lunch put his hands on his hips and looked at me and said “Tell them I am serious when I say I am staying here.” So beautifully articulate!

    1. Ha.ha – that sounds just like Michael – a little adult with pedantic speech. English is not a good language for autistic people – I think German is much more appropriate. What were they thinking?

  7. Thanks Gabe. I can understand the need to be precise. Sometimes too much is annoying to others – pedantic is an insult I have endured. I hope all this will come in handy for his future.

  8. I had no idea about this but it completely makes sense. Now I have an image of you reading one of your wonderful poems aloud while Michael says; ‘Say what you really mean, Mum.’ He would probably make a fantastic non-fiction editor. Such a fascinating post.

    1. Yes, it is something I have thought about – how does poetry go with autism (all those metaphors etc.,). I’m sure a person with ASD could make an excellent editor or proof reader. I read that Les Murray the famous Australian poet has aspergers, so maybe autism is not a great impediment to writing or understanding poetry. Correct me anyone if that is wrong.

    1. Ha,ha – that’s exactly it. My grandma used to say ‘I’m going to visit my Aunty’ when she was going to the toilet. I kept thinking there was another person in the house who we never saw.

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