Autism and ESL

On the way back from church, Ian piped up from the backseat, “Do you know what ‘Spill the beans’ means?” They he started rattling off other expressions, as he calls them. “Rumor has it.” “Spit it out.” “You’re killing me.” He had about a dozen more.

He had a huge smile on his face as he quizzed us. “Does ‘spit it out’ mean spit on the floor?”

Idiomatic expressions are a common problem for kids on the autistic spectrum. They understand language very literally. When typical kids come across an expression for the first time, they might be puzzled, but they can usually figure out the meaning from the general context of the conversation. They are comfortable with the grey areas of language and the play of words. Even when somebody like my dad says an expression that was popular in the 1955, they effortlessly understand him.

Ian can’t do that. Instead, he memorizes them and files them away in a folder marked “expressions.”

Ian’s speech is an acceptable zone these days. He stutters when he’s trying to say something complicated. He searches for words. When he’s tired, he won’t always use full sentences. But he doesn’t have the mechanical, robotic speech that other autistic kids have.

He’s always listening to conversations around him, even if he appears to be glued to his video game. When he overhears a new word, he’ll repeat it three times. Transmission. Transmission. Transmission. And then we’ll explain the word to him. A transmission is a part of the car, Ian. He never forgets.

He still needs work on more pragmatic language skills, like staying on topic. If other people are talking about a soccer game at dinner time, you can’t suddenly discuss an online Monopoly game. Yes, the unnamed dinner table members are boring me to tears, too, but you have to wait until they’re done before bringing up something much more interesting, like the need to paint the downstairs playroom.

Jonah is memorizing idiomatic expression in his German class. He plugs his words and phrases into Quizlet for memorization. Ian has learned English like an ESL student. I suspect that English wasn’t his first language. I often wonder what his first language was. Was it images? Was it written words? Was it emotions and feelings and senses? I hope that someday he’ll be able to tell me. I hope he’ll spill the beans.

14 thoughts on “Autism and ESL

  1. I realize that Laura has more evidence for comparative study at hand, but in my experience, willingness to politely endure a boring conversation rather than shift abruptly to a more interesting topic is not characteristic of teenagers generally.


  2. Once you get past school, with web and telephone conferences increasingly replacing face-to-face meetings, you don’t need to endure nearly so many boring conversations. You can just comment on blogs during the calls. The only thing to fear is sites that autoplay sound.


    1. Are women really good at this? I admit to being odd, but I never know when it’s OK to switch topics. Is there a web site/video instruction that gives explicit instructions. I’m only semi-joking. I doubt that I could join a camp for social skills training, but I think I could learn from a video.

      PS: I love idioms, especially in other languages. The German ones that basically consist of smashing four words together are particularly fun (i.e. handschuschneeballwerfer).


  3. PS: My family also keeps telling me that topics that are obviously connected in my head are not obvious to others 🙂


  4. We just had the “you must listen to others even if it’s boring” with our youngest child. We included examples of things you could do to pass the time while waiting, such as counting the number of triangles you can find in the wallpaper.

    I think it’s part of the segue from being a child, in which state adults do stop their conversations to deal with your issues, to being an adult, in which state other adults will ignore you at times.


  5. Whenever Ian’s speech teachers tell me about their lessons, I often run through the list of academics that I know that would benefit from those lessons.

    Ian learns how to orient his body towards the speaker, so the speaker know that he is listening. He is learning how to say the correct things, when somebody is talking a lot, to demonstrate interest. So, Ian says a lot of middle aged lady things, like “oh, that’s wonderful.” He has to memorize one fact about everybody in the room, like their favorite things, so that you always have something to ask them.


    1. I’ve been in my current office for a full year. I don’t even know the name for everybody on the hall. It’s only like a dozen people.


    2. That’s very charming, though perhaps a bit quirky. I think he’ll be a big hit with the ladies.


  6. Youngest accompanied me to the university today, camping out in the grad student office next to mine with her laptop and a sandwich. I heard a student peek in and enquire if she was a new student. She responded clearly, appropriately and with a sense of humour. It was pretty fun to overhear and quite a difference from when we first were working with a speech therapist fifteen years ago.


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