Saturday, November 23, 2013

Literal Language and Misinterpretations with Kids with Special Needs.... Understanding Language Comprehension/Auditory Processing Difficulties

                                                       "You're in the dog house."

I would tell my daughter she is in the "doghouse". This is what she would think. I did not say that she is in TROUBLE.

For my kids with special needs the English Language and its abstract meanings of words can be confusing.  Think about all the different interpretations that we just understand that "throw" my kids.
That last part of that sentence would cause my kids to stop and look at me with confused expressions. No,  I would not "throw my kids" as they would think I just said.  But we understand it as an expression.

Language Comprehension/Auditory Processing Difficulties

Characteristics: Children with Asperger's Syndrome, FAS, some with Noonan Syndrome and other developmental disabilities generally interpret auditory information literally and concretely. They can have difficulty understanding figurative language, jokes/riddles, multiple meaning words, teasing and implied meanings.

Children are literal thinkers, meaning that they interpret words at face value. ... Children need correct information given in concrete language. For kids/teens/adults with Autism, FASD's and other special needs they remain a literal thinker just like younger children. It will not be apparent until mid childhood when they do not move on to understanding more complex auditory and abstract meanings of speech.

So many things can be a set up for confusion or even disaster. They will follow the instruction to the literal meaning and sometimes that may have repercussions or consequences and it will end in a blown up rage because they did what we said.

The first time I noticed anything with our adopted sib set was I told  them we were going to "RUN ERRANDS". They did what I told them, they ran in the grocery store, they ran in the mall, they ran in the parking lot. I asked them to walk and one of them told me I told them that I told them we were going to RUN ERRANDS make up my mind?  It took me a few minutes to understand that I did say "run errands" and had to correct my instructions.

I knew what I had done because Miss Becca with her Noonan Syndrome can be very literal and I had to teach her the double meanings of many phrases.  I told them to run and they followed my instructions.  From then on it was we are going to the store to buy groceries, to the mall to ....  and we walk in those places.

A mother said to her child, "Stop back-talking to me". The child said, "I'm sorry Mom, I'll talk to your front."  A prime example of literal and concrete interpretation.

If said to a teacher said the same phrase to stop back talking and responded with the talk to your front statement, the teacher would think the teen was a smart A.... and consequence him with a detention. The teen would escalate because they would not understand that they offended a person in authority.

A friend today gave me the topic of the post when I was talking to her on the phone. She was with a little one who has FASD for the day.  They were at a craft fair and the little girl asked my friend when was the "Craft Show"?  They had already been through almost the entire auditorium.  My friend was taken a back and I explained her confusion.  She was thinking she was going to a show, like a play, movie, etc. I told her to explain that "the people who make the crafts are showing their things and selling them".  It now made sense.  Later I talked to my friend and she had explained it to her  adult daughter who couldn't get it, but then she explained that they think differently than we do.  A CRAFT SHOW would be a show about crafts. She figured out that she probably should have said a CRAFT Sale, and I said that she would probably even do better with  " adding an explanation of a place where they sell crafts and things that people make". 

Recently my older daughter S... with Fetal Alcohol was told that she needed to take her meds for 30 days with only missing 3 doses a week and she wouldn't need a guardian.  She made the 30 days and then thought she didn't need to take them anymore.  She understood what they told her but they forgot to add the information that she needed to continue to take her medications and she had to continue to show she could do it in order to have an intervention.  In her way of thinking she did exactly what they told her. Then they went back on their word.

When one of mine was in the teens. I said  she had a stomach bug. She thought there were actually bugs in her stomach and she freaked out. Explaining that only caused further anxiety. I finally just said her stomach was sick and she finally stopped panicking.

When working with kids with FASD's, autism, and other neurocognitive disorders it is very common for some of them to be very CONCRETE in their interpretations of what we say.  Talking simply and thinking about what we say can save confusion and mixed messages.

***I will add that kids who will often present with  delays in processing information auditorilly. Even though they may be able to comprehend the auditory information given, it may take them additional time to process this information prior to responding. They may also have difficulty following multi-step auditory directions.

I often tell Becca or Dee as part of something I said that I was just joking or being facetious, or sarcastic to make sure they connect what I was saying.  They understand that I was not being serious. Eventually they learned many of the double meanings or when we were joking and laughed even when they did not understand. Implied meanings really make them struggle because they are hard to explain because the rules and circumstances are more fluid and not consistant. My kids with FASD got the teasing much better than Becca with her autism and Noonan Syndrome.

So when I see my kids stare at me with those confused eyes, I wait to see if they get the little light bulb look at they just processed the information or they still are confused. I then rethink what I just said and explain it more simply and then I see that they finally figured out what I was meaning.


  • Auditory information/prompting should be kept to a minimum.  It is often too overwhelming for some children/adults. Visual cues should be used to assist the child to more readily comprehend directions, questions, rules, figurative language, etc. 
  • Give the child enough time to respond, in order to allow for possible auditory processing difficulties.  Wait before repeating/rephrasing the question/directive.  Double check for understanding from the child's perspective.
  • The adults in the child's environment should be aware of the child's concrete/literal interpretation of figurative language. We should help by providing concrete explanations.  We need to increase the child's comprehension of figurative language skills, such as idioms, multi-meaning words, jokes, teasing, etc., through the use of simplied explanations. 

    When working with children/adults with FASD, autism and other processing issues. Speak slower giving them time to process, simply and concretely.  Watch for looks of confusion and misunderstanding and check for understanding with asking a question. Then explain again using more literal/concrete terms.
Use visual supports which helps them have the ability to independently complete tasks/activities and as always we need to show more and talk less with our kids/adults with auditory processing disorders.

One thing I have found highly effective with working with my teens and adults with auditory processing difficulties is to use their always present cell phone as a tool to help them be more independent. I talk less, I text more and thus they are highly successful and Mom is not nagging from prompting, prompting or explaning. They see it, they can do it, they can reference it if they forget and they can ask questions that simplify my responses.  It also cuts the processing time way down and it is done much faster.


I found this book, inspired by a boy with autism,  "Unintentional Humor is a laugh-out-loud book that highlights the ambiguity of the English language when experienced by a literal mind. Literal interpretations of common expressions such as Surfing the web, You're in the dog house."

"The twenty-three pages of definitions make Unintentional Humor an effective teaching tool for both home and school. Unintentional Humor is being developed into school curriculum, learning materials, and a series of additional books."

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