Recently I came across an article on Mental Floss called “Amelia Bedelia Isms” by Stacy Conradt about the quirky children’s book series, Amelia Bedelia. I remember reading them as a kid and laughing along with her slightly misguided adventures, but her mistakes seemed completely justifiable to me. While it may seem as though Ms. Amelia is a little dingy when it comes to verbal instructions there might be an explanation for her interesting way of thinking.
One of the more interesting idiosyncrasies associated with Autism and Aspergers is the way our brains process, or rather don’t process, figurative language and abstract concepts. This causes some of us to take everything literally much like Amelia does, or struggle to understand concepts that can’t be explained using physical means. In addition to taking almost everything literally, I have a hard time remembering and processing a verbal list of items or tasks to complete if they aren’t written down. For example, one morning at church I had a case of misunderstanding hilarious enough to rival Amelia herself. The pastor was pacing the stage in front of the congregation and began his sermon, “Walk with me.” Imagine my surprise when I was the only one to begin to stand up and head for the door wondering where we might be going. Needless to say after a second or two it occurred to me that “walk with me” was an idiom for “let’s imagine for a minute,” but I had never heard it used before. Now I know if I ever hear that phrase that I need to look for context or wait for the person to begin walking away to determine what use of the phrase is being implied, but this isn’t the only phrase that will get me into an awkward situation as the English language is full of similar expressions.
I was particularly interested in a book I bought at the book fair in elementary school called the Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms which had over 600 words, expressions, and phrases! Maybe that led to my interest in writing and pursuing a college degree in English, but no doubt the reason I really was as fascinated by it as a kid was because I struggled to understand idioms with a brain permanently set to literal mode. I read through all those idioms trying to make sense of it all, but while I never really understood why people didn’t just say what they meant I did begin to memorize all 600 of those phrases and develop an interest in the use of figurative language.
The world, I imagine, would be a pretty boring place linguistically if everyone spoke literally even if it made my life easier. Figurative expressions and idioms are the artificial color and sugar added to the cereal of language to make it more appealing. People on the spectrum, however, are often sensitive to those artificial additives both literally and figuratively and need extra care when it comes to learning the context in which phrases or words are used. Imagine for a second you are learning a new language–the instructor teaches simple words and phrases first, then longer sentences and questions, and finally may include slang and other phrases particular to that language. They are the most difficult part of learning a language. Is it any wonder that people who have a hard time communicating are going to struggle with it then?
One thing which may be helpful is exposure to the common phrases and expressions such as baby shower, pulling someone’s leg, or sticking your nose in a book. Other tips include explaining the misunderstanding as it occurs, and obviously using literal language especially when instructing a person on the spectrum to complete a task. Mr. Rodgers, the man who Amelia works for, could benefit from using simpler language or explaining himself rather than correcting her mistakes given her history of mishaps when it comes to literal meaning.
One of the things I find heartwarming in the books, however, is that despite Amelia’s troubles Mr. Rodgers is patient and understanding when it comes to her mistakes. He doesn’t mock her or insult her intelligence but instead tries to guide her and help her see where she misinterpreted his meaning. It is a fairly common issue with people on the spectrum when they are trying to converse with neurotypical people, but not everyone responds like Mr. Rodgers. We aren’t any less intelligent for not picking up on the use of idioms just as neurotypical people aren’t any less intelligent for not being as logical as an Aspie. Amelia Bedelia may not have been written with the intention of educating people of the communication difficulties between Aspies and non-Aspies, but Amelia certainly advocates for us by doing her own thing and not letting her quirks keep her from being a positive role model and charming housekeeper.