Did you ever stop and wonder how some of our most colorful phrases made their way into our daily language? “Wake up and smell the coffee?” “Get with the program!” “Be there or be square”. “Go with the flow”. “Hang in there!”
We use these phrases as a sort of idiosyncratic shortcut, a swath of color weaved through our daily language, a shortcut to express ourselves creatively. Phrases pick up meaning in society seemingly by osmosis, overnight everyone is using the same phrase, and we intuitively know what it means and in which context to say it.
“That and a dime will get you on the bus” no longer has direct meaning since buses haven’t cost a dime for at least 40 years but we somehow understand the context.
Some Children are Concrete Processors
But what about our atypical kids? As parents of atypicals, you know that atypical kids, no matter what their specific diagnosis, will process slang expressions differently. What might seem like a fun way to announce it’s time to clean up or take out the garbage, “heave ho, hop to it, guys!” or, in school a teacher may call out: ‘class, it’s time to wrap it up!” can overwhelm or confuse a child who processes information in a slower paced and more concrete manner. Many expressions that we use can be very confusing for some children.
A concrete processor is a person who understands language in a black and white manner. They respond best to direct and clear instructions. “Do you see that torn paper on the floor? Please pick it up now. Thank you for being helpful!”
Concrete processors are young processors. We would never use sarcasm or slang to talk to a very young child but as a child grows, we expect him to pick up the lexicon. But many atypicals have difficulty with this particular aspect of social speech.
Unfortunately, most concrete processors, whether they have a diagnosis of Aspergers, autism, auditory processing disorder, non-verbal learning disorder, ADHD or other types of learning or processing issues, are often in situations where the language is not clear enough. Even in schools where teachers are informed that a particular child has difficulty processing language may not understand what to do with that information.
Take Julia for example. 10 year old Julia came home from school confused and overwhelmed. Diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, her impatient teacher had evidently decided she was too slow that day. Her teacher snapped out her favorite one liner, “wake up and smell the coffee!”. Julia later said to her mom in tears, ‘what was she talking about? I wasn’t sleeping and I don’t drink coffee!”
This is not an isolated incident. I often emphasize to parents and teachers how to eliminate sarcasm and use direct language to help a child understand what they are asking.
Ron, a 9 year old child with Aspergers, was a child who needed some interventions. I met with his teacher to explain how to direct his young student into more pro-social behaviors. I told the teacher, “be direct, give an example, practice with him”.
The next day, here is what the teacher advised Ron:
The interesting thing is, Ron thought he was being nice! He couldn’t translate that not making eye contact, picking his nose and standing too close to other kids was considered ‘not nice’. No one told him that! He couldn’t infer that “be nice” meant all of those things.
Even neurotypical children stumble over abstract language. How often do we project expectations on our children using language that is vague or sarcastic? I have found that when that happens, chances are, we are not focusing on what specific behaviors we expect from our children, only that we are tired, impatient and would like a little break. So we shout, “ give me a break!” or “move it or lose it!” “chillax!” which seems perfectly reasonable from our perspective.
But I have seen enough bewildered children’s faces to know that what seems perfectly reasonable in adult-speak has no traction in their mini-me world.
Here are some real world translations from parent to child:
When you say, “Give me a break” it really means:
“I am exhausted. I have worked so hard all day taking care of you. I am about to lose it if I do not get a few minutes of peace and quiet!”
What you could say:
“It would be so nice if you could play quietly for 5 minutes so I could take this phone call. Here, I will set a timer. Do you think you could be my best boy and do this for 5 minutes? What will you play with? Play dough? What a great idea! Thank you so much. I love you.”
When the teacher snaps “Wake up and smell the coffee” it really means:
“I like things done quickly. In fact, I pride myself on how fast I can get my students to work. You, Julia, are slow. It frustrates me. I know you have a disorder but I am choosing to ignore that fact because you are messing up my program.”
What the teacher could say:
“Hey Julia, it seems that you need a little extra time to get that desk cleaned off. Would you like some help?”
When the principal says to the student in his office “just be nice” it really means:
“I honestly have no clue how to instruct you to be more pro-social. I wish you would be nice and kids would like you better. Don’t make strange noises. Don’t stand too close and breathe on people.”
What he could say:
“Hey Ron, it looks like you are looking for a friend today. Some days are like that. Would you like to help Ms. Smith in the library?”
It’s helpful and fun to teach atypical kids how to use and understand slang expressions and they will enjoy them too, in the right context. But do remember that they require direct teaching. So the next time you want to tell your child ‘Take a chill pill’ make sure they know what to do with that. Because, they just might answer, “I don’t take pills and should I put it in the refrigerator?”