Aspergers and accurate words

School!  It can be a testing place at the best of times!

For people who need to use ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’ words to describe things as those of us with Aspergers do, it can be baffling.  After all, one becomes used to the vocabulary and expectations at home – but at school, the rules are different.  And people just do not communicate clearly.  In the words of the immortal Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Let me give you an example.

Schools are filled with many kind and caring people who truly have the best intentions towards our kids.  They are dedicated.  At times, they will even enter ‘uncomfortable’ situations, if they think the ultimate result will help one of ‘their’ kids.  I admire that.

One year, at the beginning of winter – just as it was time to start wearing hats and mits etc. – I got a phone call from one of my kids’ teachers.  Even though I am pretty thick at picking up on such clues, I could tell she was very uncomfortable.  She spoke in a little soft voice and picked her words very carefully.

The school, as it turns out, gets some free ‘stuff’ from the milk people, through the milk program.  Yes.  And it there are some families, which – at some times, and through no fault of their own – needed a little help, they could give these things as ‘prizes’ to their kids.  Since it is a ‘prize’, there is no stigma…

I was really beginning to wonder what this was about.  We were not in any financial difficulties – at least, I thought I would notice if we were.  So I made a non-commital sound, to show I was listening…

The teacher, kindly and gently, continued.  The promotional items they had included hats.  Since the weather was getting kind of cool, it was important that kids should wear hats.  And, today, during recess, my son had told her that he does not own a hat, and that he does not think we’re planning to buy him one.  So, if it would not cause offense, they could give him a hat from the milk programme…

Whatever reaction she was expecting, laughter was not it.  But, I just could not help myself!  I burst our laughing.  You see, my son was absolutely correct!!!  Yet, I owed the teacher an explanation…

The previous weekend, we had indeed gone shopping for a new winter hat.  My son became intrigued by these ‘hat and neckwarmer in one’ contraptions.  It looked just like a winter hat that was attached to the ‘neck’ part of a turtleneck.  It had a nice round opening for the whole face, but covered more skin than a ‘hat’ would.  That is what he chose to get instead of a regular hat.

And what did he wear the previous winter (to be used as a spare)?  A tuque!  If many people think that ‘tuque’ and ‘hat’ are the same, they should be corrected:  if they were the same, they would not have different names!!!

So, with puppy-dog eyes, solemnly and truthfully, my son told his teacher that he does not onw a hat!  And when she asked if we were just slow at getting ready for the winter, he truthfully said that we were not planning to get him one…instead of simply saying he forgot his new headwarmer.

The teacher was amused and greatly relieved! I suspect the story was used as a source of amusement at the teacher’s lounge. 

But this is a very real example of how people with Aspergers do not understand what they are being asked, unless the accurate word is used.  The terms used must be specific, precise and accurate, because Aspies do not ‘make leaps of faith’ or read things into stuff.  If we don’t know, we don’t know – we are not likely to jump to unsupportable conclusions.  The teacher would likely have received a different answer had she asked him if he owned something to wear on his head to keep it warm.

Another example of ‘crossed communications’ occurred when my other son was very, very young – certainly under 2 years old.  He absolutely loved watching ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, and absorbed much of his early vocabulary from that show.

One time, my mom was over, and was in the livingroom with my son.  When I came into the room, she was frustrated:  “I told him to stop picking his nose, but he just stares back at me as if I just fell off the moon!  What is wrong with him?!?!?”

I told her he just did not understand what she meant.  He already had a nose, so how could he pick another one?

Turnning to him, I said:  “Stop touching your mucuous membranes.”

He took his finger out of his nose, looked at me and said:  “Ah, spread germs!”  And went to wash his hands…

These may be funny incidents, but they do illustrate the difficulties Aspies have trying to understand people who use language sloppily.  Just imagine how impenetrable the meaning of many test questions is to them!!!  No wonder they often score very poorly on school tests – many questions do not really ask what they think they ask…

(This is ALWAYS the hardest part of writing a post:  how to end it!  I could go on talking about this endlessly…)

Aspies can, and do, learn to search the speech patterns of others for ‘similar concepts’ – this way, many Aspies learn to ‘decipher’ common speech.  And when we do, we are often so delighted, we drive others mad by playing with it!  Yet, this is not an easy skill to acquire, and it would not be realistic to expect young kids to ‘pick it up’.  This will lead to frustration – not just of the child, but also of educators, parents and others who interact with Aspie kids.

And, Aspie kids usually experience very high levels of frustration, even if they do not communicate this (or display the ‘typical’ signs of frustration, until it builds up into uncontrollable anger).  Making all these people aware of the need for accurate, precise and non-ambiguous use of language (and what that actually is – in the mind of an Aspie) would go a long way towards making life easier for everyone involved. 

If we could only teach the rest of the world to communicate accurately!

3 Responses to “Aspergers and accurate words”

  1. Hugh7 Says:

    Reminds me of the time a few years ago I brought a meeting to a halt because the speaker kept talking about “critical mass” with reference to staffing levels. I only understood the expression with reference to nuclear physics (when a radioactive substance reaches critical mass a chain reaction causes an explosion). The expression was so entrenched with him that he had trouble defining it so I could understand him. Turns out he meant “enough staff” (to do all the work, presumably).

    Xanthippa says:

    Well, I suppose….

    ….if you had an average ‘mass per person’ to work with, and an average person-hours to be performed within a specified time-frame, you could calculate the ‘critical mass’ of employees that would be required to perform the work.

    Nothing as accurate as the critical mass in the proper sense of the word, but…

  2. 1389 (@1389) Says:

    Seems as though teaching the concept of “inductive reasoning” might help here, in the sense of trying to take a larger or more “functional” view of what the other person is saying.

    For instance, if the teacher wants everyone to have a hat, you then try to figure out why the teacher thinks you will need to have a hat. Oh, yeah, winter is coming, freezing temperatures, teacher doesn’t want your head to get too cold. How are you going to keep your head warm? You’ll put on that scarf/hat combo. That will keep your head warm. As far as the teacher is concerned, any warm head covering qualifies as a “hat.”

    Of course, this is just a guess on my part. I have been acquainted with many people on the autism spectrum at various times in my life. My own neurological issues are entirely different – matter of fact, I’m a brain surgery survivor and I work in retail sales, not something most aspies would want to tackle!


    The Aspie would reason that if the teacher had meant ‘warm head covering’, then the teacher would have said ‘warm head covering’. By using the more exclusive term, the teacher was obviously referring speciffically to a sub-class of ‘warm head coverings’ called ‘hats’!

    This is especially true of Asie children.

    The fact that it was a teacher who said is a complication: following the chain of reasoning you have outlined would undermine the credibiliy of that teacher in an Aspie student’s mind. After all, teachers are supposed to be smart enough to say what they actually mean! In the future, the Aspie student would never really trust anything else that teacher said (in or out of the classroom) because he/she would always be questioning if the teacher means what she/he is saying or if it is yet another instance of oversimplification to the point of error.

    I myself remember that if I ever caught a teacher (or a textbook) in an error, I was unable to trust anything else they said – ever.

    I am sorry to read you have had difficulties – I do hope you are doing well despite them.

    As for retail: I loved working retail! So did my Aspie hubby. Though, that is a long time ago…

  3. Angela Cason Says:

    My son could not answer an essay prompt that asked him to describe a “unique family holiday.” “We have the same holidays as everyone else!” he objected. Explaining to him that some people are just not as careful with language got us nowhere. Thanks for the post and for the others. Helps to know this is not uncommon.

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