L is for Literal



I started to write that L is for Love but that’s a given.

We all love our children—neurotypical, autistic, anywhere in between. Instead, I want to share a brief glimpse into life with a teenager on the spectrum with you.

People with autism communicate differently. Sometimes, they use the wrong words. Sometimes, they are overly emotional or expressive. Sometimes, they have a flat affect showing no emotion at all. Many people on the spectrum struggle with prosody.

Prosody is the rhythm, rate, energy, and intonation of speech. Our voices rise to show we are asking a question. They drop to produce a statement. Pauses in speech act as a verbal comma. These pauses can make the difference between asking someone for oatmeal cookies and honey, or oatmeal, cookies, and honey. Stressing one word over another can change the meaning of a sentence.

With B, everything is literal. Recently overtaken by an obsession to own a bearded dragon, B pulled out all the stops to convince his parents he should have one. Sometimes his literal mind makes him sound like a smart-mouth, even when he’s not trying to be one. A recent exchange between B and his mom went like this:

B: What about next time Aunt A comes over or the next time I stay with her, she can buy me a bearded dragon and I can pay her back? I don’t think she’s afraid of lizards.

Mom: We had a talk about this the other day, son. When you lit the ball on fire, remember? I suggest you drop it. B: I didn’t light the ball on fire. It’s not flammable. It just burnt.

This is just one example. Another example involved a school book he wrote in and had to pay for because the book was ruined. B’s defense? “It’s not ruined. You can still read it.” Technically, he was right.

How do you deal with these communication breakdowns? How do you know if B is just having a communication issue or if he is being a smart alec? He is a teenager—authority issues, hormones, and all.

My first recommendation is breathe. Take a deep breath, release it slowly, and practice extreme patience. Slow down and take the time to understand what the teenager is trying to say. Many have processing issues that make it difficult for them to understand what you are saying and respond properly.

Don’t bother trying to fight fire with fire. Sarcasm may slide right over their head. With difficulties reading facial expressions and body language, most on the spectrum, like B, are quite literal. Jokes fall flat. They do not recognize sarcasm.

Try not to ask too many questions. Many autistic teenagers, like most neurotypical teens, resent being asked what they consider inane questions like ‘How was school?’ or ‘What did you learn today?’ Want to get them to talk to you? Instead, ask about a subject close to their hearts. Ask about something they are passionate about.

Don’t rely on social hierarchy. Responses like ‘Because I said so’ or ‘I’m your parent’ usually fail. Instead, bring facts to back up your statements. Remind them of your well-established house rules. Provide them with evidence to support your rationalizations. Show them why or why not. This works well with teenagers not on the spectrum as well.

The most important thing is to attempt to communicate with him or her. Accept him as he is, autism and all. Don’t try to force him into an accepted mold or pattern. A child or teenager on the spectrum often is not ignoring you. He knows you are there. He’s waiting for you to enter his world.

GLENDA THOMPSON, aka Grandma Bear, resides in Charlotte where she is hard at work on the first novel in a series about Texas Rangers with dark secrets. She is also writing a series on Autism for the Pleasanton Express. These are a combination of research and personal experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *