What you say and what they hear may not be the same thing

I’ve noticed for quite some time how my children often repeat what they hear in a movie or television show but what they say isn’t an exactly copy.

For example, in the Cars movie, one character says “What? did I forget to wipe my mud flaps?” to which Cameron immediately parrots “I think I wipe my butt wraps”.

Another instance is in a Mario Brothers game where Mario cries “help’a me!” and Cameron laughs and says “trampoline!”

There are many many examples I could give. This has been a common thing for him all of his speaking life but I never saw much point in blogging about until a mom on Twitter (@Calormom) commented that her son never answered the question “How was school today?”

Unfortunately, I don’t talk to very many parents that get an answer to the school question. Not very many children with Autism ever answer it.

This mom said that she had asked a teacher from the school and the teacher said that it’s likely that her son doesn’t understand her, or the question or just doesn’t want to answer.

This got her thinking and rather sad that her son doesn’t understand her. Understandable… I felt the same when Cameron would never tell me about his day too.


Did he say what he heard?

Keeping in mind his strange inability to say what he had just heard from the television, I got to wondering what he might be hearing when I am talking to him. If I talk at regular speed about mud flaps… is he hearing “butt wraps” ??

Here is what I did when I realized that he wasn’t properly interpreting what it was that I was saying.

  1. Consciously slow down your talking.
    In the day and age of instant messaging, texting and so forth, we have even begun to talk faster without realizing it. Many of us really aren’t that good at it either. We slur things together, we abbreviate words we shouldn’t and we mumble stuff out more often than we realize.
  2. This brings me to speaking more clearly.
    I’ve had a few family members tell me how “funny” or “strange” I sound sometimes… which is sad because I’m sounding the way that an English speaking person is supposed to sound. However, our language has become so perverted these days, in the words we use and the way we say them, that people look at you strange for speaking properly and clearly.
    So be it, let them laugh… your child will understand you better… that is what is important.
  3. Try rephrasing the question.
    Children only have a limited vocabulary as it is, so don’t expect them to understand every word you say… and certainly combinations of words might throw them off as well even if they know what the words mean individually. If you ask what they did in class, but they only know of the place they go to as school… they might not have an answer for you.
  4. Talking about school, use words/phrases that the school uses.
    My son’s class has story time, but they don’t call it story time. They call it circle time. If I ask him what they did for story time, he will have no idea what I’m talking about. If he’s feeling confident, he may tell me that he didn’t have story time… even though he did have circle time.. but most likely, especially having Autism, that confidence will not be there and he’ll just have no answer for me at all.
  5. Emotions are an easier memory to recall than facts.
    My son has come a long way so now he can recall facts much better than when we first started but consider this… he can tell me every detail about what happened in a story or movie at school, but can’t tell me what the title was or who was in it.
    The reason he can do that is that he’s mostly recalling his emotions… how exciting the story was, how sad it was, how happy he felt… and those emotions have trapped the story within them.
    When Cameron first began talking, I would ask what story his teacher read, or what movie he saw and be met with a blank look..  he didn’t feel comfortable telling me that he didn’t know. However, if I asked if they had a good story for circle time, he’d answer yes or no. From there, I could prod for more information because I had him talking.
  6. Like all things, start slow.
    “How was your day?” is far too broad and confusing. Start with something like “did you do numbers today?” or “did you eat your lunch?”
    Yes or No questions are a great place to start and as I said, use words/phrases the child already knows. The less confused they are, the more likely they’ll talk. In time they’ll become accustomed to the questions and the type of information that you’re looking for. That’s when your child will start to catch on that “how was your day?” is just another way of asking all of those questions at once… but they have to work their way up to that point.

Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t understand you… they haven’t understood you for their entire lives, but they’re learning. This is no different. Also, it happens with all children, just maybe not to the same extent as a child with Autism.

You just have to keep all of these things in your mind, remember not to get frustrated when you don’t get an answer and to understand what may be going through your child’s mind.

Your child loves you and does want to tell you… they just need a little help from you.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of http://www.stuartduncan.name. My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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7 Responses to What you say and what they hear may not be the same thing

  1. andy'smom January 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Well said! Completely agree:)

  2. John January 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    For lower functioning or non verbal kids 3 word phrases work very well. I have been getting my point across to my son for many years using 3 words, yes you can use more but like you pointed out you want to slow down and make sure that there are gaps between the phrases.

  3. Matt January 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    Great post, Stuart. I was the same way as a kid. If I didn’t like the phrasing of the question, that gave me an excuse not to answer. These are all good suggestions to bridge the communication gap.

  4. Shelby January 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    This is so true. My son was just like this. I would ask about his day and he would say it was fine. I never was able to get details. Then one day I started thinking about breaking the questions down into simpler questions.

    What did you eat for lunch?
    Did you have fun in PE today?
    Who did you play with on the playgroud?
    Did you go to the library?

    I found that breaking the questions down gave him the ability to answer. I would also wait for the answer and if he didn’t give me an answer then I would re-phrase the question and I have to give him a LOT of time to answer. I still have a very hard time getting information out of him but it is a work in progress.

  5. Gina @ Special Happens January 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    So true. I’ve found that we (accidentally) started doing many of these things when we weren’t getting answers to our questions. Being very specific about what we’re asking, speaking slower and giving him enough time to process what we’re saying, find his answer and get it out takes patience. With more patience, came more success, more positive interactions and more chances that we can continue this kind of ‘conversation’ in the future…well, sometimes anyway.

  6. mylindaelliott January 19, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    This is such a good post. I realized early on that one of the few things my child would answer was “What did you eat for lunch?” Now that she is a yong adult she has a cell phone. For some reason it is a little easier for her to talk on the cell phone. Maybe less sensory interference from having to look at a person and talk? Anyway thanks for the information.

  7. Angel G May 20, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    I had problems getting the answer to the “how was school” question until I realized that my eight year old needed about 15 minutes of alone, private time first. He needs that alone time to decompress and refocus. Then he’s ready to talk and share.

    My seven year old is the opposite. He NEEDS to talk in order to decompress from his day. He needs to tell me everything that happened that day – in detail.

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