Are you a parent or teacher of any children with Asperger's or an autism spectrum disorder, and think there may be differences in the way they take in and process language?
You can listen to my experiences growing up and try and use them for inspiring and thinking up ideas of your own to better support them.
And just for your information, I've never worked in a teaching or medical capacity.
Points covered include:
Thanks for listening. You can find me on my website stephensevolution.com, or on twitter here. You can sign up to receive news of new episodes when they're released here.
Artwork produced by Elena Designe
Music composed by Nela Ruiz
Hi there, and welcome to episode 3 of the Stephen’s Evolution podcast. I’m Stephen McHugh, your host. I have Asperger's, a form of autism, which I was diagnosed with at the age of 7. In this episode, I’m going to talk about the support measures that were used to help me improve my language and communication skills when I was young and growing up, in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening.
This will be the first in a series of episodes where I will be talking in more depth about what helped me during my education. Be sure to check out the earlier episodes regarding recognising the signs of Asperger's not only in the family, but in the school environment as well.
Towards the footer on the homepage on my website you can find a link there to a page, to where you can sign up to receive news of newly released episodes. The information contained in this episode is for informational purposes only, and not to be used as a substitute for professional medical or teaching advice. In addition, it may remind you of your own struggles with autism, or those of a loved one. You can listen to it at a rate, and at times which you feel are suitable for you.
Because I interpreted language using somewhat different mechanisms compared to others, it left me prone to misunderstanding and misinterpreting things. I would take precise views of more complicated forms of language, most notably idioms. A good example here can be, ‘to take one’s breath away’, where I’d think about it literally, as in one actually having their breath taken away. I now know that this phrase can mean to be astonished at something.
As well as having difficulties with inferences, I found it difficult to explain things in my own words. More often than not, I rushed too much by taking the cue from the first key word I read or heard in a question asked. It was here where I needed to perhaps slow down, and consider carefully the whole questions or sentences in their entirety.
My vocabulary was rather limited too. I did not really understand that nouns were to do with naming things, nor did I appreciate that adjectives were words to do with describing people and objects of everyday life, such as what are they like, and look like. Consequently, my language, reading and comprehension test marks were lower than one would expect for a child of my age.
Whenever I read a book I would read through it without appreciating the need to think carefully about what I was reading. Reading through big blocks of continuous prose, for me, was a great achievement. However, I mostly had a poor understanding of whatever it was I had read.
When it came to phonics I became confused when I saw words that would sound the same, but be spelt differently from one another. Judging by its sound, I thought it would be logical to think that women was spelt ‘wimin’, when it’s spelt ‘women’. Communication between one of my junior class teachers and home included recommendations of phonics and related words to work on. Me and my mum would work on these together.
In her time, she’d been a primary school teacher herself, and was very child orientated. I’d have my own test in the format of a quiz based on a favourite quiz show of mine then, along with the recommendations of suitable books for me to read from my class teacher.
From then onwards there’d been a marked improvement in my spelling, writing and reading. Books which I was interested in reading, there was one that I remember about some cats called Smoke and Fluff. This had a lot in terms of illustration to back up what was being described. The Mr Men series similarly drew my attention too, in particular Mr Clever. What I liked about Mr Clever was that he was one of the Mr Men who had clever and innovative things in his house.
I found myself connecting with stories more whenever there were related cartoons and TV series to them. Looking back, this was largely thanks to the imagery, action, associated music and animations. With the Snowman, I imagined myself flying high, defying gravity, visiting new worlds where I’d be making new friends, all whilst listening to the song, or while watching the associated television programme.
I also remember a series of books which I think had blue covers. I can’t remember what they were called. But what I do know is that they answered questions backed up with illustrations such as why does it get dark at night and how far away are the stars. I’d recognise them if somebody was to show me them again. Other facts included showing the development of life, the possible future over thousands of millions of years, and the life cycle of stars.
Chuckles and Ricky books were interesting to me too, especially the ways in which simple explanations stood up on the pages, in a 3-D kind of way.
One way my mum got me into reading, was to introduce me to a book, a few weeks before one bonfire night. After reading it, I imagined myself excitedly experiencing the wonderful, colourful sparkling views and sound effects closer up. When bonfire night came round that year, having fireworks in my back garden was unique, in a way that only I, my family, and a few relatives could be present at.
Other activities she came up with included our own treasure hunts, for chocolate bars. Notes inside boxes lead to other boxes in other locations, with other notes. Eventually they’d lead to the chocolate bars themselves. I would feel a sense of adventure doing this, imagining myself visiting new places, excited at what I may discover. I also took a liking to nursery rhymes, especially the colourful illustrations, and the rhyming of words.
At home, along with numbers, letters, words and colours stuck up on the wall, there were also posters relating to nature based subjects. The posters showed animals, alongside our little aquarium, with fish swimming inside the aquarium itself. These inspired me to become more immersed in the living world.
And before long, I’d read books related to living creatures. These include Eye view-library books by Angela Sheehan. They colourfully describe the lives of the bumblebee, frog, butterfly, hedgehog, and squirrel. I also liked to read books that had quizzes in them on subjects that interested me. It would be the quizzes themselves that would inspire me to try and improve my general knowledge. In later years, I liked to try and learn obscure facts that were of interest to me. Astronomy featured very highly on this list. I would try to learn facts like, the nearest star to the sun.
Telling stories that feature one’s favourite things and interests can help one to get a child involved in reading more. I remember this flying ring known as the Aerobie ring. I was attracted to it by the fact that it could fly great distances, more than a thousand feet in length.
One day, my mum would make up a story featuring an Aerobie ring. In the story, I would test its capabilities, by throwing it really hard from my garden. It would go far over the fence, over the fields, and I would be disappointed and sad, thinking it was lost and gone forever. But then later on in it, against all the odds, a flock of birds flew over the house. By strange coincidence, they dropped an object, which turned out to be my missing Aerobie ring.
I had a fascination with extreme dimensions, including tall things and long things. I liked to build tall Lego houses with long gardens. I would imagine having Lego friends to go on adventures with, within the surrounding areas. On the roof of each house I would build, there would be what were supposed to be large telescopes, and I would imagine them having large magnifications. There I would visualise distant objects close up, including deep space objects.
My mum would write stories for me that were linked to my Lego houses and gardens. I would contribute ideas of my own to them. I would imagine adventures with Lego friends, showing them all the wonderful things I would imagine having in my house. I plan to publish these on my website in times to come, just to give you an idea of how you can use one’s interests to get them into reading.
For speaking activities, one activity stands out in my mind quite vividly. It was during the spring in junior 3, which is year 5 here in the UK schooling system. It was decided for each of us to give talks on things that were very interesting to us on selected days. My talk was about telescopes, which went well, especially as I could recall plenty of facts about telescopes. What was judged to be good about my talk, were the powers of retention related to it.
Faced by the prospect of doing a talk in front of lots of people can seem daunting enough. This made me feel an even greater sense of achievement here. In preparation for it, I was supported by my mother, who helped me to locate relevant and important sources of information. She would get me to rehearse it, by actually pretending I was doing it in front of my peers at school. This helped me to feel more confident about doing it.
Another class activity in junior 3 involved writing down on a small sheet of paper, something to be talked about. It may have been something that interested you greatly. The pieces of paper were placed in a hat, and were taken out at random, one at a time. One of us would be called out to say what information we knew was linked to that particular word or topic.
Thinking back to this, I feel, inspired me to develop my general knowledge further. Thinking back to the individual talks given by each of us in class, we were invited to ask them questions based on what they’d just talked about. This can help train someone to become more interested in what other people have to say, rather than you wanting to talk about whatever it is you’re wanting to talk about.
In order to help me to improve my writing skills, my mum introduced me to pictures and illustrations. Here, she’d encourage me to describe what was going on in them in my own words. In addition, I saw these moments as opportunities to do my own creative writing in relation to my interests and experiences.
At the time of writing these stories, I was only 7 and 8 years old. I’m going to read them to you now.
A person in a park, when a thunderstorm came.
Once upon a time, there was a person in a park, and suddenly he saw lightning. And then he heard thunder, which was very loud indeed.
The next one I’m going to read is linked to my interest in the sky and space.
One night I was looking through my telescope at the moon, and I saw all the craters on the moon. And I was looking at the planets through my telescope.
The next one is linked to my interest in nature, and fascination with how birds can defy gravity.
If I had wings I could fly, and play games with the birds, and enjoy flying with them. I would play and fly with the birds everyday, and land in people’s gardens around the country. I will have fun with the birds all day long. I will be the birds’ friend. I will look after baby birds too. We will have lots and lots of fun, flying in the air.
As I continued to progress through junior school, my creative writing improved to the extent that it was less confusing and more logical and descriptive. In addition, there were times when I tried to visualise pictures being created by written texts in books or stories being read to me, or that I’d be reading.
One writing activity which stands out was during junior 3 (Year 5), when we all had the chance to communicate by letter to pupils at a school in Singapore. To us, they were known as pen friends. This would give us the chance to share facts about ourselves regarding our lives, after they gave us an insight into theirs. To me, it was an opportunity to find out if we shared any common interests with our chosen friends, and feel like we were part of each other's lives.
In junior 3(Year 5), our teacher at the time, was greatly into drama and plays. They had fun, innovative, and creative teaching methods that inspired new attitudes and ways in me towards learning and understanding things better. I still feel this inspiration to an extent nowadays. I will give you a fun way that inspired me to find ways to help autistic children and people understand idioms better over time.
The example I’m going to talk about is over the moon, which means overjoyed. Here, you can imagine a character delighted at the outcome of a particular event, that they jump up and down for joy. You can imagine such is their joy that they may jump with great force off the ground so high it may appear that they’re jumping above the moon, which may be in the background.
In junior 4 (Year 6) here in the UK, this is the final year in primary education before we go on to secondary education. During this year, we were introduced to homophones, which are words that sound the same, but are spelt differently. Here, it was as if a new door in the language world was opened up to me, certainly in terms of helping me to appreciate phonics more. It helped me to accept the fact there are cases where words are spelt differently but sound the same.
And that’s all for now. Thank you for listening if you’ve made it this far. I hope you found the content informative. Why not consider sharing this episode with others, who you may feel could benefit from it. And why not consider reviewing, or giving this podcast a rating on a platform of your choice, like on Apple, Spotify, Podchaser, or Podcast Addict.
And if you find this episode has resonated with you in some way, why not let me know about it. You can find a link to me on Twitter at the footer of my website. Or you can let me know if you choose to write a review of this episode.
If you're autistic, why not share with me any measures that were used to support you, that may have helped you to improve your language and communication skills. And if you’re a teacher or a parent of any autistic children why not share any ways you’ve successfully used to help them improve their language and communication skills.
Goodbye for now, and I’ll talk to you all again soon on the next episode, when I shall be talking about what helped me to understand mathematical concepts more easily.