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.