When I was a child, every schoolday began with assembly. I’m not sure to what extent other countries have this custom, or even to what extent it still happens in the UK, and it varied slightly at each school I attended, but at the first school I attended, it involved all the children in the school traipsing off to the gym, where we sat on the floor in rows, stood up to sing a hymn, and then had to sit through a speech by the head mistress about our collective misdeeds, or something which was supposed to be inspirational or edifying, or occasionally a chapter from Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf.
I found assembly a bit odd and overwhelming. I would hear fragments of what the head mistress said and zone out for most of it. I remember one day she started by asking us whether we knew the difference between left and right.
I didn’t. I was five years old and found left and right very confusing. Not in simply terms of which was which, but as concepts. I had no idea what the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ were referring to at all. I had learnt about a left hand and a right hand, but then there were other lefts and rights which weren’t about my hands, but about all kinds of other things, and sometimes appeared to be a vague undefined space. I felt very lost, because a lot of other kids were nodding proudly, or they were whispering that they didn’t know which was which – but clearly they knew what these left and right things were supposed to refer to, even if they didn’t know which was which, whereas the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ meant nothing to me other than my hands.
Then the head mistress said something which I found quite terrifying and overwhelming, and which made me zone out right away. She told us that what was left for us was right for her. She, facing us, pointed to her left, and told us that it was our right. I panicked, especially when I saw the other kids laughing and nodding, clearly understanding the illogical thing that the head mistress was telling us. In a sinking sense of lostness, my mind dismissed left and right and zoned out to things that made sense to me.
I write about this now because it occurs to me that it illustrates two particular difficulties that people on the autistic spectrum can have, both of which would come under the category of ‘pragmatic language impairment’, which is one aspect of the autistic spectrum.
The first difficulty is when a word’s meaning depends on context, which is clearly the case with ‘left’ and ‘right’. Children on the autistic spectrum will often learn a very specific meaning to a word, and have difficulty expanding this meaning to other things. In fact, all children, when learning language, will learn specific meanings at first, whether they are on the autistic spectrum or not – they might think that the word ‘dog’ applies only to their dog, for instance – but most children are easily able to expand and refine the meaning to a word in the light of new knowledge, whereas this can be more difficult for children on the autistic spectrum.
I’d had the experience of ‘left’ and ‘right’ being used to describe my hands, and therefore, in my mind, the words were about hands. I knew I was left-handed, and this made sense. However, when people started to use the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ for other things, I became confused and scared. Fear might seem an odd feeling to have about two words, but it was a frequent emotion I had when I saw that the world was making sense to others and not to me, and I had no sense of how it could be possible for it to make sense to me.
The second difficulty is the same sort of problem that a lot of kids on the spectrum have when they get pronouns confused – a difficulty with taking more than one perspective. With pronouns, I managed to grasp them quite early on. I remember asking my mother in confusion why she said ‘I’ for her, but I had to say ‘you’ for her, and why I said ‘I’ for me, and she had to say ‘you’ for me. It seemed very illogical that the word ‘I’ referred to many different people, depending on who was talking, and that both my mother and I were both ‘you’ and ‘I’. But my mother explained it to me and I understood how it worked, even though it seemed illogical. Pronouns were less confusing than left and right because they referred to specific people rather than to some vague space which constantly changed, or a hand or a foot.
Pronouns, and left and right, require taking perspectives – you need to be aware of both your own perspective, and another person’s perspective, and how those two are different. And this is something which the child on the autistic spectrum finds difficult, because of the multitasking required. It can be learnt – or at least, for myself, I learnt it. I understand left and right now. However, I have a clear recollection of the time when I didn’t understand it and how this was scary and overwhelming.
I think the scariest thing was realising that something made complete sense to other people, and so feeling that it should make sense to me, but also knowing that it didn’t make sense, and having no idea why, and no idea how to convey my confusion, and not knowing whether I would ever understand it. It occurs to me now that this is an important thing to bear in mind when working with kids on the autistic spectrum – that the experience of not understanding can be frightening. In retrospect, I think a good way to allay fears would be for a teacher to explain that they know it can be difficult to understand, and that some people find it harder than others, and to invite children to ask any questions and make clear that no question is a stupid question.