We are celebrating Halloween with an excellent blog post about autism and literal thinking. Thank you to our guest blogger, Sonia Gannon, Lead Teacher at Drumbeat Outreach in Lewisham, London.
Happy Halloween from the AET Team!
I See Dead People
I strive every day to gain a better understanding of how my autistic son’s experience of the world is different from mine. When he was diagnosed at three, one of the things that the clinicians told me was that he interprets language very literally so I was not to use expressions like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ or ‘his eyes popped out in surprise’. His literal interpretation would make these expressions very scary so I needed to be explicit and unambiguous in my language. Check. But it is John who really gives me an insight into his unique perspective with revelations that are exquisitely personal and often joyful to me.
So as many of you may already know the title of my piece, “I see dead people” is a line from a film called The Sixth Sense about a boy who experiences visitations from ‘the other side’ and communicates with spirits. I use this title because it reminds me of the story I am going to tell but it is also a personal quirk in our family that we often speak in film quotes. My autistic son has a wonderful memory for film quotes and love of film is a pleasure he can indulge in with his younger brother, another film buff. It has been very interesting to me to see the joy both young adults are sharing in re-watching old favourites from their childhood and teenage years during lockdown. Mum and Dad go to bed and our young men commune in their love of film. Some notable titles include double bill Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Blue Velvet, Jaws, Boogie Nights, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, The Departed….. The eclectic list grows.
Getting back to ‘dead people’. When my boys were little we often went for walks in one of London’s magnificent seven Victorian cemeteries. They enjoyed the gothic gloom of the monolithic monuments, the dilapidated beatific stone angels, the avenue of limes and the overgrown Victorian planting, concealing so many of the smaller headstones. They weaved in and out of graves in their Mr Incredible costumes, climbed the sideways growing ‘climbing tree’ and raced to see the view of the London Eye and St Paul’s Cathedral take shape through the framing of trees. These walks were often very quiet, perhaps passing one or two other groups of walkers in the hour. Once a year we would go to the cemetery open day where there would be upwards of one hundred people, stalls selling local produce, experts dressed in bow ties and tweed suits examining found insects with little people, and horticulturalists sharing their knowledge of plants. One year I remember the owls from the Harry Potter movies making an appearance. There were many visitors, including groups of people dressed in elaborate Victorian black mourning attire, some in full gothic make-up.
The boys always seemed to enjoy the Open Day but it wasn’t until many years later that John gave me an insight into his literal understanding of the experience. He assumed that Open Day described the yearly event of graves opening and the dead people rising up, coming out for the day to walk around the cemetery with the living. He assumed, quite naturally, that all of those people in full skirted satin black gowns and top hats with lace veils and pale make-up were the dead people. He wasn’t scared, he just went with the flow. After all they would get back into the graves at the end of the day until next year.
Now I understand about literal thinking, well at least a little bit more and maybe just about how it is for John or how it was for John when he was six! It’s an ongoing lesson; you can learn about autism from text books, clinicians and teachers but really we learn about autism from our autistic idiosyncratic individuals and our worlds are the richer for it.
So meet me at the cemetery gates, anyone……..
Learn about literal thinking and ways to support autistic children and young people. Visit the AET Training Programme page to find the most suitable training course for you.