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Idioms: Why “putting your back into it” when cleaning out horses, is not such a great idea…!

I think the title of this blog is a self-explanatory example of a particular situation we encountered one day recently at a friends’ stables… Yes, she meant, “shovel with strength”, and yes, my son then lay in the horse muck on his back! It was a face-palm moment for me and a confusing time for her to say the least. That is, until I explained how autistic individuals, like my son, process language in a different way- not ‘the wrong way’, just differently.

We learnt quite quickly in our house that sarcasm and idioms, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’, were to either be avoided or accompanied by an explanation.

My son now often asks whenever he hears a confusing statement in a TV programme, “Is that the ‘not-mean-it’ sentence again?”. Usually, we then spend the next 20 minutes or so researching the origins and exact meaning of the phrase. This helps commit this idiom to memory and therefore aids his processing next time he comes across it.

Some great examples of misunderstanding over the years will stick with me forever, I’m sure, and I must admit that I forget sometimes, causing either hilarious or upsetting consequences, which reminds me why it is so important for me to think before I speak (not necessarily a virtue that comes naturally to me!).

I remember once at my mother’s house when my son was around 5 years old. It was Christmas time, and my son entered the house from the garden, leaving the doors open and a draught into the lounge. My mum called out, “Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?” Now I had heard that phrase throughout my childhood (clearly not great at shutting doors myself!) but my son has only ever lived in a 1st floor flat, and we had therefore never had cause to say it before. I saw the confusion on his face as I shut the door behind him, but honestly thought nothing more of it. Until bedtime, which is generally the time all children like to relive their entire day and download every last nugget of information onto you (instead of going to sleep of course!).

I then heard, “Am I Jesus?”. Confused is an understatement I can tell you and it took a very long conversation before I finally understood- being Christmas time, he had been learning about the birth of Jesus and how he is believed to have been born in a stable, or barn in some versions. Therefore, when he heard my mum ask him if he was born in a barn and noticed that no-one said, “No Nanny, he was born in the hospital”, my beautiful son had assumed it must be true, and the only other person he had heard of having such a birth was Jesus. Therefore, he had spent the next 11 hours questioning whether he was, in fact, the son of God and therefore also destined to die on a cross. At this point, my confusion turned to such an overwhelming feeling of love and empathy for him that I cried, holding him tight in my arms and reassuring him of the truth. I couldn’t believe that such a tiny, throwaway comment had caused such distress for my little man, and it hurt me.

Do I therefore wish I could stop him from ever encountering anything that makes him feel like that ever again? Yes, of course! But realistically, that’s not going to happen. He finds researching the factual origins of phrases reassuring and comforting, and that’s a skill he can now take forward independently because he will come across things that confuse him or that may require more processing than his neurotypical sister. I am contented in knowing that I have helped him develop a regulating aid he can apply to other situations too, whilst understanding and educating others around the language processing differences of my son and other Autistic individuals 😊