Teaching Idioms to Pupils with ASD

Classroom Strategies for Idioms to Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

Why is something easy ‘a piece of cake’? Understand why idioms are a minefield for these very literal-minded learners. Includes three teaching activities.

An idiom is any phrase that has a non-literal meaning. For example, To kick the bucket most commonly means ‘to die’. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language in depth will know that idioms are alternatively frustrating and fascinating. Why is a hangover in France like having a wooden face?

This confusion is shared by learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when learning their mother tongue – never mind a foreign language. They continually struggle over what they perceive as utterly pointless turns of phrase. How can heavy rain be the same as cats and dogs? Why would a joke be the same as pulling someone’s leg? The list goes on.

What is the best way to teach students on the Autistic Spectrum to decode idioms? Since idioms are, in essence, a foreign language to anyone with ASD, it makes sense to translate them into (for want of a better term) ‘literal’. Try any of the following methods:

1. Match The Idiom With Its Definition

Make 5-10 pairs of cards like these:

  • To tie the knot – To get married
  • To be cool as a cucumber – To be calm and self-confident
  • To have ants in your pants -To be restless, over-active
  • To bite someone’s head off – To get very angry with someone
  • To be as thick as two short planks – To be very stupid

Cut up all the cards. Pupils match the idiom card to the definition card. This will involve guesswork, although many idioms do have a certain logic to them. Ants seem like restless creatures and so might someone who has their underwear full of these little creatures! For extra support, offer a choice of 2 possible meanings for idioms that they are struggling with. Clues you can supply are: ‘Cool as a cucumber is a positive way to be’ and ‘ Abraham Lincoln has kicked the bucket but George Bush hasn’t yet’.

2. True/False Quiz

Simply give a series of idioms and definitions; some true, some false. Pupils decide which is which. For example: ‘to blow your own trumpet’ means ‘to shout at everyone’. True or false?

3. Putting Idioms Into Context

Now that they have seen (and hopefully understood) some idioms, revisit these same phrases in a later lesson by inserting them into an appropriate text. For example:

Anna and Paul love each other and are making it official! They are ………………………………………. on August the first.

Even though the other soldier had a gun and Sevvi was unarmed, he stayed ………………………………… while he talked him into sparing his life.

I’m really sorry I lost my temper. I shouldn’t…………………………………

You might need to provide the answers jumbled up on the board as support.

It is best to teach idioms in small chunks – they make great starters (do-nows). You will be helping to empower your ASD students in a world that can sometimes make little sense to them.