Home > Disability Rights, Special Needs Childcare > We Need to Talk About Appropriate Language

We Need to Talk About Appropriate Language

This paragraph was originally at the end of the post, but I think I should start with it instead. The purpose of this essay isn’t to “dump on” ABA people, teachers, or anyone else who has a disabled child in their lives. I’ve made dozens of mistakes I know about, and even more that I don’t, and I suspect I will continue to make mistakes. That’s why I want to remind you all to think critically about what you do and say and how you do and say it. Think about the words you use and the messages you give without words. Try to imagine the perspective of your students or clients or children, and if you can’t imagine it, read more stuff written by adults with disabilities.


It was a minor thing that got me thinking about language. I was watching a middle-school level nutrition lesson for a profoundly autistic boy, and overall it was a good lesson. But it contained the following line: “I am lactose intolerant, so I should stay away from dairy.” Although I  understand figures of speech very easily, I also often notice when the logical meaning of words is not the same as the intended meaning. So I thought, “No, he doesn’t need to ‘stay away from’ dairy, he needs to not eat it.”  There’s a difference. This isn’t a food he has a contact allergy to; it’s just something that will upset his digestion.

I’m sure this strikes most people as a ridiculously small thing to fuss over. But so often, even non-autistic children misunderstand what adults tell them. Most of us can remember being unreasonably afraid of something– or hoping for something impossible — because an adult said something we misinterpreted, took too literally, or didn’t realize was a joke. Sometimes we hold these misconceptions for years. For an autistic child, who tends to take language very literally, this probably happens far more often. Even the phrase I just used — to “take language” a certain way — can be confusing, as it uses the verb “take” in a sense that only exists in idioms (I am indebted to Judy Endow’s book “Make Lemonade” for this particular example, although in her case she was confused by the phrase “take care”). Often, the context corrects the confusion, and academic misunderstandings are rarely critical. But when a child is learning about their own healthcare, the language must be as accurate and precise as possible.


I’m also not sure how I feel about lessons given in the first person. When a client or student reads a social story designed to give instructions, it makes sense to think this way, as in: “I will put on my shoes before going outside,” or “When I have a question for the teacher, I raise my hand and wait until the teacher says my name.” Non-autistic people also use these kind of internal instructions. Examples include internal “pep talks,” meditation mantras, and self-reminders during a busy day (e.g. reciting “I have to go to the bank and then buy cat food”).

But it often feels weird to me when teachers or therapists write and read these sorts of instructions. Perhaps some of my objection comes from the fact that these writings often make statements about the client/student’s feelings or thoughts in a way that an outside observer cannot possibly know. Or they try to tell the student/client how to feel.

I ran into trouble with this recently. A preteen client was having difficulty waiting in line for the slide at the playground. If other children were ahead of him, he would often shove them roughly aside, and then had to be removed from the situation. Having witnessed this several times, I developed some thoughts about why this particular circumstance was so hard for him.

First, the playground we always went to was usually quiet, so there was rarely a need to wait for the slide. He didn’t expect the waiting, so he didn’t handle it well. The other problem was a conflict with another social rule he knew: saying “excuse me” when he needed to walk past someone.  This skill had been very heavily reinforced at home, where he otherwise tended to crash into people while running around the house. Generally, when he said “excuse me,” someone would step aside and let him pass. At the slide, however, he would say “excuse me” to the child in front of him, but they would not let him pass, and he would become upset. I suspect that he was angry: as far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing, and it was the other kids who weren’t following the rules.

I brought these points up to his ABA team and suggested that he needed a social script about waiting for the slide (and then had to explain that a “social script” wasn’t necessarily a verbal script but could also mean an internal set of rules for handling a situation). I was happy to see, next time I arrived, that they had put together a little social story for him. I half-listened to them read it to him before one playground trip, and planned to read it to him myself next time. When I did, however, I discovered a few problems. The script went something like this:

“My name is Joshua. I love to go to the playground and go down the slide. The slide is my favorite thing at the playground. Sometimes I have to wait for my turn at the slide. Sometimes there are other kids waiting ahead of me, and they won’t let me pass them. That is ok. It’s important to wait for my turn even if I am excited. I will wait for my turn nicely. Here are some things I can do while I wait:

I can have quiet hands

I can count to 100

I can leave the line and come back later

When I wait nicely, my mommy and daddy will be so happy. I like making mommy and daddy happy. The other kids will be happy, and I will be happy, too! I am a big boy who knows how to wait for the slide!”

Yeesh. “Quiet hands” is the first problem, but I won’t dwell on it, as others have critiqued it far better than I can (and at least in this family I’ve only ever heard it as a response to hitting or pushing people). The counting idea is an excellent one. But when I got to the last paragraph, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the first sentence. What is this, “Brave New World”? It’s one thing to point out that waiting nicely pleases people; it’s another thing entirely to tell someone how they feel about this. And “I’m a big boy” — Seriously?? He may have a moderate-to-severe cognitive disability, but he’s still almost 13, not almost 3. This kind of language is downright insulting.

When his BI (ABA person) first read it to him, I didn’t pay much attention to the words, but was bothered by the sing-songy overly cheerful voice she used– again, appropriate only for an infant or very young child. I should mention that, on the whole, I love his ABA team. They are flexible, patient, focused largely on practical skills, and generally sensible. He adores them, adores his sessions, and is learning skills that make his life easier and more independent. They are also very fond of the term “age appropriate.” They want him to have “age appropriate” self-care skills, do “age appropriate” chores around the home, and be able to participate in “age appropriate” social activities (he is a very social person, and loves to be included in games and outings, so I’m not against this goal, although I do point out that he also has the right to play in a more “babyish” way when he wants to). They even talk about getting the rest of the family to treat him more like someone his age!

So, with all this focus on age appropriate everything, how about using age appropriate language and tone of voice with him? I use simple sentences and a limited vocabulary, and sometimes I use funny voices for his amusement, but I sure hope I never talk to him like he’s in preschool. So I go off-script and finish his social story with “When you wait nicely, we’ll all be proud of you, and you can be proud of yourself.” And I say it just like I’m talking to any other person.

I have no way of knowing whether this particular client is sensitive to these nuances of language and tone. For all I know, he may be perfectly ok with it. But I’ve heard from enough adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities to know that some disabled kids will definitely notice being talked down to. And that means it’s not ok to do it to anyone.

  1. September 8, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I can think of one example of confusing language from my childhood; my dad telling me to put things back “exactly where I found them”. When I heard this as a kid, I though it meant that I had to put those things back in such a way that if you took out a millimeter measuring stick and measured the exact distance between the thing and the things next to it, it would be in the exact same position in relation to the objects around it that it was when I took it in the first place. In other words, even a robot with high-precision accuracy measurements would look at the shelf the object was on and would not be able to tell that the object had ever been moved, because when I heard EXACTLY (emphasized, that is), I thought it meant exactly-exactly, when what my dad really meant was “put the object back in its place”. I was a kid; I had no idea grown-up memories weren’t good enough to remember the location of objects down to the millimeter and thought that I was supposed to develop that skill; besides, I was “behind” on a lot of skills other kids did easily, like smelling (I’m hypo sensitive to smell), jumping high, and standing on one foot – of course, several other kids I saw took gymnastics classes and other such things from youth, not to mention I was small for my age, born in the autumn, before the cutoff date, so I was always one of the youngest in my class, and I was probably biologically younger than my chronological age by several months to boot, a gap that only grew wider with age (I only started thinking and acting like a real adolescent in my late teens, and I come from a long-lived family). Not to mention, I was unaware that physical abilities like Luke Skywalker’s were very uncommon, even for adults (in retrospect, it’s pretty obvious given how many people he defeats, and besides Darth Vader calls some of his skills “impressive”, but still). This only contributed to me thinking that of course when grown-ups said put objects back exactly where you found them they mean put them back in the absolute exact spot you found them so I can’t tell it had been moved if I didn’t know better. Naturally, that made me terrified to pick up any objects that came with such a stipulation; of course, they were usually really important objects and it never occurred to me that the point was to make sure the object wasn’t lost rather than to ensure that it never moves from the precise spot it’s in. Even the Army doesn’t actually require that level of precision, and that’s saying something, because they require a lot of it – it’s lucky I never considered the army, because I would be constantly worried about failing inspection if one of the many things that is required to be organized is even a millimeter (or half a millimeter) off, or if the angle is wrong by like so much as half a degree, or a third of one.

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