Idioms are phrases we use to describe situations where the meaning of the phrase cannot be deduced from the words in it. For example, phrases like “It’s raining cats & dogs” or “At the drop of a hat” are idiomatic, because their meaning is not literal. For most of us, idioms are something we pick up naturally as we go through life, but for others, it can be a struggle to understand these seemingly random strings of words. Autism is just one example of a condition that can make this a difficult task.
People with autism can be highly intelligent in many different areas, but often struggle to understand abstract concepts, or anything other than the literal meaning of words. Speech and Language Therapy aims to overcome this issue by teaching these idioms in a different way. Deconstructing the idioms is a major aspect of this process, as it helps the patient to figure out how different words can mean different things when they are put together. The first step in this is to ensure the child understands that even single words can have different meanings. These differences may be so obvious to us that we do not even consider that the child may be misinterpreting the word. So while we may know that the word bark in “his bark is worse than his bite” is referring to the bark of a dog, an autistic child who has never heard this idiom could be picturing tree bark. This would send the rest of the explanation down the wrong path and make it much harder for the therapist and the patient to come together, which is why it is so important to break this process down into the fundamental elements.
This of course means that it is best to start off with shorter idioms made up of easier words. When working with children, it is also best to try and inject some humour. This is especially beneficial when working with autistic children not only because of the increased social interaction that comes with therapy, but also because it strengthens their understanding of humour and makes future social interaction easier. Animals are always a good way to introduce humour to children, so phrases such as “The elephant in the room” and “When pigs fly” are good choices. Many Speech and Language therapists will also use flashcards with cartoons on them. This helps the child to understand and remember the idiom better, and offers an opportunity for humour.
Having the child explain the meaning of an idiom is a great way to help them learn and to ensure that they are making progress. But as autism has such a wide spectrum, and is not the only condition that can require idiom training, the approach taken to patients will vary greatly. Some students may react more positively to being presented with a number of possible meanings for the idiom, and selecting the one that they think is correct. This may seem counterintuitive for Speech and Language therapy, but a lot of the therapy also involves communication in general. By working with the child, a therapist can help establish a relationship, improve social interaction, and work towards increased vocalisation from the patient.
A large part of teaching idioms is simply leading by example. Speech and Language therapists will often make a list of idioms that the child should aim to learn, and so using these at home can greatly increase the child’s understanding of when they are appropriate and what they can mean. It is important for the family to work closely with the therapist, as this sort of material needs to be taught actively in order to achieve the best results.