Idioms, Autism and Lessons Learned

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One of the things I discovered early on with my autistic daughter was a communication roadblock when I used phrases that we all say without thinking about them – because we inherently know what they mean.  Yes, I’m talking about idioms: a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not understood from those of the individual words. Like the phrase getting a second wind – something I’m all too familiar with as it relates to my kids and our established bedtime.

woman sitting on couch communicating
Photo by SHVETS production on

Idioms and Figurative Language

They are ingrained in our everyday language.  I often wonder if my kiddo’s communication delays were enhanced by my use of idioms.  Now that she is a bit older and has verbal capabilities, she will flat out ask what something means. (Her self-advocacy impresses me all the time.)  When she was small, I wonder how much I said that was confusing.  She, at that time, was unable to express it or ask questions.

Impaired social communication and language skills are usually among the hallmark signs of autism spectrum disorder.  That is certainly the case for my kiddo.  She has difficulty with both spoken words as well as reading.  (Now, if you read a book to her, she will understand and engage 100%.)

No Shit, Sherlock

So, a funny dinnertime story is at the crux of this post.  Picture it:  my husband and I are in the kitchen cleaning up, when he said something painfully obvious (I can’t even recall what now).  And, me being me, (not realizing kiddo was right behind me) quipped back, “No shit, Sherlock!”

A baby looking confused (by the use of idioms)
Confused look, commonly known as ‘screw face’

I barely got the words out of my mouth when the barrage of questions began coupled with what I call screw face:
What?  No shit, Sherlock?  What does that mean?
What’s a Sherlock?
Why would dad need a Sherlock?
Like a Sherlock [surelock/ziplock] bag?
I don’t get it!

Oops, I did it again. 

At this moment it’s a combination of exasperation and amusement.  Rather than give her the stink eye for saying ‘shit,’ I want to laugh out loud.  I am also painfully aware that my words mean something, or in this case, don’t mean anything at all.  Sigh. 

So, if you’re like me (and speak without thinking), here are some common idioms and figurative language that could elicit a similar response:

  • It’s raining cats and dogs
  • Bad apple
  • Bee in my bonnet
  • I’ve got a short memory
  • Actions speak louder than words
  • Put your money where your mouth is
  • Running against time (or the clock)
  • Running against the wind
  • I’m all ears
  • Costs an arm and a leg
  • That hits close to home
  • Couch potato
  • I have my heart set on…
  • Time to hit the sack (or hay)
  • Let the cat out of the bag
  • Turn the (house, room) upside-down
  • Get off my back
  • Hold your horses
  • Slow your Roll
  • Cool as a cucumber

The list goes on and on.  In fact, here’s a link to an extensive list.  I decided to print it out and for one week, checked off any I said.  I was super surprised at how often I use them. 

My strategy continues: be more mindful of the words I use, but also teach as many of these common phrases as possible because she won’t always be in the controlled environment of our home.  It’s a slow, steady process, but there are many that she’s learned over time.

Figurative language can be learned

Although research tells us that autistic individuals do have more difficulty understanding idioms, it also says that intervention and specific teaching does, indeed help. 

In the end, the K.I.S.S. principle wins – keeping language simple will win the day (and avoid a no shit, Sherlock moment in your home).

Related Links

6 Ways to Improve Communication
PROMPT Speech Therapy

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  1. I can so relate! This concept came up in D’s IEP meeting this year. He had met his previous speech goals but the therapist realized he was lacking in understanding idioms, What was nice for me is that I didn’t have to say anything. The therapist picked up on it and added to his speech goals. What is funny for us is that now that ones he does understand he points out, “I’m not saying that to be serious. I am just trying to be funny.” It has been a fun work in progress!

  2. Are you familiar with the children’s book series Amelia Bedelia? Amelia takes all idioms literally and funny things happen because she misunderstands what’s being said to her. I wonder if the series could be used as a learning tool for your girl. It could be a really nonjudgmental way to identify and discuss idioms in a relaxed environment.

  3. Poor Ben… I just realized that not only are we heavily sarcastic and speak in movie quotes, we use idioms all the time too🤦🏼‍♀️ I think he’s understanding it better because he sometimes throws out a movie line or script that makes us stop and look at each other with our mouths open. “Did he just say that?”
    He has processing delays too, so using simple clear words can be extra important, especially when he’s tired.

  4. My focus is using and sayings as well. I am suprised just how far they spread. In Australia ours mostly originate from UK America or Australia. I have found some that go way back over a thousand years. Fascinating. Hope you find some workable strategies for your daughter 😊

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