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Help autistic children to delight in language

Ambiguity can be confusing, but don't change how you speak. We must prepare these students for communication out in the world

Ambiguity can be confusing, but don't change how you speak. We must prepare these students for communication out in the world

Set yourself the following challenge: speak engagingly to a group of students and hold their attention long enough for them to pick up the key learning points, but without using euphemisms, figures of speech, exaggeration, idioms, irony and definitely not sarcasm. Now deliver this lesson naturally, without hesitation and in a form that will help the pupils to model appropriate conversational behaviour.

This seemingly impossible task will be familiar to teachers who have students with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and who are attempting to meet a preset communication standard by using only the clearest and most specific language.

We should not willingly give in to this approach. Allowing the classroom to become an ambiguity-free environment does students with ASD a disservice. When they are released from the laboratory setting of the classroom to the outside world, they will be unprepared for the rich, complex and confusing language that they encounter.

And anyway, even those teachers who do try to play by the "rules" often forget to do so, such is the abundance of imagery and double meanings in the English language. I have worked for some years with teenagers with autism, yet I was still surprised recently when I asked a student how we knew a character in a book was cold and he replied, "Because he had fallen in the river." The answer I was expecting was, "Because he had beaten up his sister."

So how can we ensure that students with ASD understand what we are saying without having to constantly self-edit? Here's how I do it.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Teachers shouldn't alter their classroom vocabulary for students with ASD, but they should translate before pupils have time to ask or feel confused, much as Shakespeare does in Macbeth: "The multitudinous seas incarnadineMaking the green one red."

Know your student

I have yet to find two children with ASD who behave in the same way (I suppose the clue is in the word "spectrum"). And, unsurprisingly, each has a different approach to communication. Some have the "classic" autistic trait of being happiest with clear and unambiguous language, while others enjoy the playfulness of words, almost like students of English as a foreign language. When one of my colleagues was absent, one student found it amusing that Mrs Naughton was "not in". Similarly, Mrs Cunningham, who worked in the kitchen, became "Mrs Cutting-ham".

The surest way to discover how to communicate best with students is not to rely too heavily on their records, but instead to experiment in the classroom to discover what types of communication work in practice.

Model good verbal behaviour

In my experience, students with ASD tend to try to build a relationship with the teacher because the teacher's behaviour is the most predictable in the classroom - at least, it should be. We know that we should model good communicative styles but, instead of mentally self-editing our conversation before we open our mouths, we should use the terms that come naturally to us and then explain any ambiguities.

Use the social glue of humour

I'm sure we have all experienced being at a disadvantage because we did not understand the language of a particular setting. I once worked as a kitchen porter in a busy restaurant for a team of impatient chefs. When one demanded I get a "leg of liver", I rushed off to the cold store room and frantically searched for said cut of meat. They also sent me hunting for "chicken lips". This form of communication was about bonding through humour, with a soupon of humiliation thrown in. Of course, I quickly learned to tell the difference between real requests and jokes. Although I am not advocating humiliation as a teaching method, it is possible to teach through humour.

A student with Asperger's syndrome used to come to my school one day a week and would arrive while I was eating lunch. He always asked me where his lunch was and every week I would tell him I was eating it. Initially he asked in all seriousness why I was eating his lunch; eventually he began to joke "Stop eating my lunch!" without any prompt from me.

If we take imprecise language out of context then we may be removing humour too, but humour is an important element of the social glue that helps people to feel connected to each other and allows relationships to flourish.

Don't ignore the lowest form of wit

All children struggle with the concept of sarcasm, which is unsurprising since it involves saying the opposite of what we mean for humorous effect. For many, learning to understand sarcasm is almost a rite of passage, illuminating some of the mysteries of the adult world. Sarcasm is part of everyday language, and although I would never direct a sarcastic comment at a student, it is useful for children with ASD to be able to recognise sarcasm.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow

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