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Raining - LiterallyOne of the big problems of parenting self-help books, particularly those which focus on raising children with special needs, is over simplification. Sure, I get that these books are trying to reach a mass audience who struggle with some of these “new” concepts but even so, there’s a big difference between using trite information for examples and using real world information which shows that a given feature has an impact.

One of my pet peeves is the way in which these books describe “taking things literally”, a trait common to Asperger’s, Autism among other isms.  The example used in the books is almost invariably;

“It’s raining cats and dogs outside”

To which our child with autism will react by running outside to see if they can spot any feline or canine companions in descent. This is a cute example. It doesn’t hurt anyone and at worst, everyone is going to have a laugh at the child’s expense.

In reality, this doesn’t happen often because either the phrase is first heard in the comfort of home, free from the eyes of bullies – or it is recognized as a scientific impossibility and is readily detected by the child on the spectrum as being a “trite phrase”.

More importantly though, this over-used example convinces parents that taking things literally is simply “cute” behavior which is peculiar to the child but warrants no special attention – and that’s where the problems start.

Here’s a somewhat different example, which really happened.

A few months ago my family took a trip to Hawaii. For various reasons, we left a few weeks before the school holidays (summer vacation) and returned just as they were about to start. The kids had one or two days of school to attend and then the holidays began.

After the summer holiday, when all of the kids returned to school, the usual writing tasks were set.  My eldest son, who is often quite lazy with writing tasks apparently got into quite a bit of trouble. Of course, given the problems we face with communication (he doesn’t give us his homework diary to sign – and it’s usually so nasty fishing anything out of his school bag that we try not to go there).  We had no knowledge of the problem relating to his writing tasks.

It wasn’t until very recently when my wife attended a school meeting that the teachers brought the problem to her attention. They asked, “did K go to the beach or do swimming in Hawaii?” My wife answered “yes, of course we did, we went to the beach and to the Pearl Harbor memorial and to many other places as well”.

The teachers replied to my wife that our son said he did nothing. They had asked him to write what he did during the school holidays and he wrote nothing. They agreed with my wife, he hates writing and will do anything to get out of it. My wife responded “We’ll see about that. Wait until I get home!“.

On arriving home, my wife questioned my son about the issue.  As my wife asked our son why he didn’t write about Hawaii, a puzzled look came over his face. Finally he asked tentatively, “did we go to Hawaii during the school holidays?” She was about to respond with a loud “yes!” when she suddenly realized…

We actually didn’t. We went before the holidays. Furthermore, she had said to the boys, “don’t expect to be doing anything during the school holidays because we’ve just done an expensive trip to Hawaii”.

Clearly, during the school holidays, we had indeed, done “nothing”.

It dawned on her that our son had been in trouble on all sides for taking things literally. He wasn’t trying to get out of work, he was simply being honest and was being punished for it.

A few hasty explanations later and we had happy teachers and a happy boy.

This more detailed example is one that parenting self-help books should be using to best exemplify the concept of taking things literally.  Taking things literally isn’t just something to be laughed at.   It has real-world impact and in the wrong situations, such as those involving the police, there could be violent or legal repercussions.