How to teach idioms to kids with autism

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
June 18, 2023

PinWe all hear and read many words and phrases in our daily lives. Whilst lots of phrases can mean precisely what their words say, there are lots which require different approaches altogether.  This is particularly true with phrases such as ‘Shedding light on’, and ‘A ray of sunshine’. These types of phrases are what we call idioms

What are idioms?

In short, Idioms are forms of figurative speech whose meanings can’t be taken literally from their words. Trying to work out their true meanings may require one to be more flexible and creative in their thinking.  Read on to find out more about what helped me, and how you can help your child or students to work out idioms. The approaches might work, they might not. But I believe it may be worth reading through them, just in case.

Some idioms and other figurative forms of language, like metaphors are easier to work out. Others will be more difficult.  I admit to still finding some hard to figure out, but the one thing I learned to do was, to stop taking them literally.

Creative teaching methods

PinFor those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), idioms can be particularly problematic. One reason for those of you with an autistic spectrum disorder, you may take precise and concrete views of language. I’ve been there myself when I was young. This left me open to misinterpreting and having difficulty understanding things, particularly idioms and other figurative language.  This can also present problems for teachers.

A good example was me once wondering about the cost of a rather luxurious looking car. My dad told me that it would cost “an arm and a leg”, which I now know to be lots of money.  At the time his response left me confused, since I thought to myself, “How can something actually cost an arm and leg?” 

I only knew that things cost money, nothing else. For me here, using simple language like ‘lots of money’, can make things a lot easier.

During junior school, one of my teachers happened to be greatly into drama and plays.  They had innovative, fun, and creative methods of teaching that inspired new attitudes in me towards learning and understanding things better.  Thinking back inspired me to come up with creative ideas below which, I believe, can make understanding and teaching idioms easier.

One idea, which turns out to be my favourite, was where I thought up cases of short dialogue between imaginary characters. 

If you see yourself more of a visual learner(I see myself as one), you could visualise a character jumping up in a short story. The character may be delighted at the outcome of a particular event. 

Such is the joy of the character that they can be imagined jumping with great force so high it may appear that they're jumping over the moon in the background.  

And next, imagine the baby who can’t walk, except maybe crawl. Eventually they may try to stand, but sometimes still need help, but less of it as they get older. When the child is able to stand and walk unaided, they have learned to stand on their own two feet. They aren’t dependent on other people to help them walk.

One idiom, ‘Crack a book’, means to open and read a book. If you’re on the autistic spectrum, you think you have to physically hit the book and try to crack it. If you think about it here, trying to do this risks damaging and ruining the book. And if you did that to a book in a bookshop, a salesperson in the bookshop wouldn’t be best pleased, since they’re selling them to the general public.

Another idiom, ‘They need a kick up the backside’, can be seen as a forceful message to motivate someone to do something, not physically kick them up the backside. Whichever way you look at it, it’s not a very nice thing to do to someone.

Idioms in context

How often have you looked outside and seen it raining heavily? No doubt we’ve all been in that situation many times. And during any of those times, one might have said to you, “Look outside, it’s raining cats and dogs.”

In the context here, you should be able to work out that it means it is raining heavily or pouring down with rain. Observation can be very powerful here. 

And furthermore, when it does rain heavily, it makes more noise. And I’m sure you’re aware that cats and dogs are a lot heavier than the raindrops themselves. Think about it now, if it did really rain cats and dogs, there would be plenty of noise from them falling down.

One can have a go at some multiple choice questions in relation to working out idioms in context here.

Summary

As we’ve already seen, figurative language like idioms can create difficulties for those with autistic behavioural traits. Language development and speech delays can be evident too. 

With some creativity and ingenuity, we can come up with ways to make it easier for those on the autism spectrum to understand idioms. These can, in turn, lead to increased cognitive flexibility. One may then find they have an increased desire and ability to learn, understand and engage more, along with challenging themselves more in the wider world. And when you engage more with the wider world, you’ll find your language ability gradually improves. Don’t expect it to be an overnight job. I’m just talking from experience here.

Over to you!

If you're a parent, in teaching capacity, and you’ve tried teaching your children or students with an autistic spectrum disorder, you’re most welcome to share your tips, questions and experiences in the comments section below. 

If you’re on the autism spectrum, you’re welcome to share your own experiences, questions, and tips too.  Everybody is different and unique. This may lead to a wider variety of tips, experiences and help available to others.

If you found this post useful please mention it in the comments section, and consider sharing it using the social media buttons or email if you wish. 


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