Prior to my son Alex’s diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) he had great difficulty connecting with his peers socially. For one thing, he did not understand slang expressions or idioms, which made casual conversation confusing and awkward. Alex thinks in very concrete terms and expressions like “it’s raining cats and dogs” made absolutely no sense to him. He would look outside to see it raining – but no cats and dogs falling from the sky – and he was left confused and lost in the conversation. Of course, Alex is bright and can learn what slang expressions and idioms mean for future reference but he considers them ridiculous and sees no reason to use them himself. However, before his diagnosis I was unaware of this as a communication obstacle. Sadly for Alex I use lots of idioms when I talk – expressions like: “feeling under the weather”; “once in a blue moon”; “he was pulling my leg”; “let’s hit the sack” – and I could go on but you get the picture. So, unfortunately, Alex often suffered – both at home as well as at school. And I learned slowly and on the fly (Yep, that’s another idiom that Alex wouldn’t understand – sigh.)
Take this story for example. When Alex was in Third Grade he reported to me that a classmate had kicked him in the shin. I asked Alex to tell me what happened. Alex said, “I do not know. Joel just kicked me.” (and, yes, Alex’s speech was formal – he did not use contractions)
I asked him to tell me what happened prior to the kick. Alex said, “Nothing happened.” Hmmmm……I asked if Joel had said anything to him prior to the kick.
Alex replied, “Joel asked ‘what is up?’ ”
“And what did you say to Joel?” I asked.
Alex responded: “I said ‘ceiling tiles and lights’. And then Joel kicked me.” Hmmm. I pondered for a second or two and then asked,
“Alex, did Joel say ‘Whassup?’ ” to which Alex flatly replied,
Hmmm…..“Alex, Joel was not asking ‘what is up’ as a question that needed an answer. ‘Whassup?’ is an expression of greeting like hello or good morning.”
Alex was incredulous. “Why did he not just say that?” I had no response for that. Indeed it is difficult to explain slang or why it is that people choose to use it. Joel figured Alex was being a smart ass – which is no excuse for the kick but at least I understood what had happened. However, trying to explain THAT to Alex was impossible. He just stared at me like I was the one who didn’t understand. And he was right.
That story was just one example. There are many others but you can see that how Alex saw the world was quite different from his peers. These differences made it difficult for him to establish friendships with other children his age. It isolated him and made him a target for bullies. Without a proper understanding of what was going on with Alex it was very hard to help him navigate social situations. To say that school and, indeed, life in general was challenging for Alex is an understatement.
After Alex was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a teenager he joined a Social Skills Group for Teens with Autism. The kids were able to navigate social outings together, figure out how to manage discomfort in public and social situations, talk about their difficulties and concerns, and learn more socially appropriate behavior. They were in a safe place where their peers and the facilitators supported and encouraged them rather than ridiculing and criticizing. It was a good experience for the participants. Many of this group went on to college after high school graduation. Some years later the folks at TEACCH (Treatment & Education for Autistic and related Communications Handicapped Children – the organization that had diagnosed Alex) contacted some of the group members and asked them to participate on a Q&A panel at a TEACCH Conference. Each of the young people would answer questions posed by professionals and parents about their experiences, thoughts, and recommendations regarding high school as well as college.
When Alex received the invitation initially he did not want to participate. I could certainly understand how intimidating this would be for someone so anxious and reserved. However, I reminded him that there were others who might be struggling as he had and that his perspective could be helpful. I was surprised and pleased that after some consideration he agreed to be part of the panel.
Of course, his dad and I were there in the room on the day of the panel as these extraordinary young people shared their woes and triumphs. They were a delight to the crowd. I was impressed by their progress and their courage. One of the questions posed to them was: “What was the hardest thing about high school?”
Alex responded: “Being there.”
The very next question was: “What was the most helpful thing about high school?”
Alex responded: “Being there.”
As his mother, I had to blink away the tears as I realized what a remarkable insight he had gained about this very difficult time in his life. My heart felt as if it would burst with love and pride for him.
After the panel session had concluded my husband and I offered to leave the conference and go somewhere for a quiet lunch. Alex was eager to escape the crowd and excited that he could choose the restaurant. After our meal my husband and I relaxed with after dinner drinks. We both told Alex how proud we were that he had been so brave to participate on the panel and what a good job he had done. Alex made no reply but quite suddenly slumped onto the tabletop, his head and arms draped across the table. I asked, “Alex, what’s wrong? Are you tired?”
Alex continued to lie on the tabletop for a moment. Then he sat up and declared, “I have exceeded my quota for social interaction.”
His meaning couldn’t have been more clear. His dad and I left our drinks and took Alex directly home to rest. I have considered having that quotation printed on signs to sit on desktops and hang on door handles for people to use when they are “done”. I think every single one of us knows how it feels when we have exceeded our quota for social interaction.