Colorful Language - Cautious Vocabulary

January 12, 2011

By Dan Coulter

I like colorful language.  Vivid word images can really help communicate a point.  But there’s a down side, and it’s one that those of us with Asperger Syndrome need to take to heart.

In the wake of the horrific shootings of Congresswoman Gabrille Giffords and people standing close to her in Tucson, Arizona, we’re having a national debate about language. Did inflammatory language contribute to this tragedy?  I don’t know.  

I do know it’s been a part of our history since this country was founded.  And it can have disastrous consequences.

Vice President Aaron Burr killed former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel fought over an insult.

Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone make fun of the incendiary language used by our founding fathers in their play “1776.”  They have historical character Steven Hopkins showing Ben Franklin a card he’s had printed that members of the constitutional convention can sign their names to and give to each other.  It reads, “Dear Sir, you are without any doubt, a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned no-good son-of-a-*****.”  (The asterisks are mine.)  

A young man with Asperger Syndrome I know recently included these words in a letter of criticism to one of his congressional representatives.  He thought it was okay because he was quoting an entertaining and moving play.  Ouch.

Many people with Asperger Syndrome tend to see things in black and white, as good or bad. This can influence them to be very passionate and use exaggerated language that could be interpreted as threats.  Hyperbole might be a particular issue for a student who is frustrated at being bullied, but it can spill over into anything a person feels strongly about.

The debate over the tragedy in Tucson is a reminder that we need to continually explain to our children that while colorful language can be effective, it needs to be tempered by a cautious vocabulary.  A young person with Asperger Syndrome may need help understanding how intentions that are crystal clear to him can be misinterpreted by others. 

Let’s get out in front of language problems by setting a good example in the things our kids hear us say. And by routinely calling their attention to examples of positive language that moves and motivates others.  To effective words and phrases that will help them express themselves clearly.

Let’s help our kids avoid the conundrum captured by Robert McCloskey, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We’ve all been there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD, “Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills.”  You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2011  Dan Coulter     All Rights Reserved    Used By Permission

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