Recently, a documentary filmmaker interviewing me about my daughter on the autism spectrum asked me why Samantha used idiomatic expressions so often.  “Why do you think she enjoys them so much?” the filmmaker asked.  The quick answer is because it’s part of Samantha’s desire to charm people.  Anyone who saw Keep the Change will remember my daughter’s playful use of idioms: “it’s not your cup of tea,” “doesn’t float your boat,” and “rubs you the wrong way.” If people fell in love with Samantha’s character in the movie and enjoyed her use of idioms, why NOT experiment in real life with an ever-expanding array of these catch phrases?

However, beyond wanting to amuse people, Samantha relies on idioms to support and adapt to her verbal challenges including word retrieval. Since language –especially abstract ideas—are difficult for Samantha to process and understand, she has found an easy way to express herself without having to retrieve specific individual words, or delve into the subtleties of emotion to convey her meaning effectively. On Google, idiomatic expressions are described as “groups of words with an established meaning of individual words. Sometimes an expression, or idiom, can make a ‘picture’ in our minds.” I’m quite sure that Samantha discovered these “pictures” in her mind and realized that sayings were life savers in her communication struggles. Starting in high school when she studied Romeo and Juliet, my daughter worked on figurative language every Wednesday. (See my recent blog “Can Autistic Actors Perform Shakespeare?”

Here’s a list of some of her favorites:

Okey dokey artichokey.                     Piece of cake.

The early bird gets the worm             Patience is a virtue.

You’re pulling my chain.                     We’re all in the same boat.

Once in a blue moon.                         Making mountains out of molehills.

Mix and match.                                   It’s a work in progress.

Happy campers.                                  Later alligator.

Easy-peasy.                                         Cutie patooties

Ready spaghettis.                               Don’t spill the beans.

Let’s get the show on the road.          The early bird gets the worm.

Keep me posted.                                 Bummer.

Busy bee.                                            Moving and Grooving.

None of your beeswax.                       Over the Moon.

Fortunately, Samantha’s “favorite phrases list” continues to grow (a mixed blessing). She also has an excellent memory. Sometimes, I find myself inadvertently adding a new saying in an effort to simplify a complicated explanation. For example, she recently asked me why EPIC’s director had told cast members not to interject after she informed everyone that an actress was withdrawing from Midsummer Nights’ Dream, and the role of Puck would need to be recast. Of course, Samantha (and other cast members) was disappointed AND curious.

“What’s wrong with interjecting?” Samantha asked me. “I said that it was a bummer, and others also commented.”

“Nothing wrong with your reactions, but the director needs to move forward and teach the class,” I explained. “The class can’t get sidetracked and use their precious time on a casting issue.”

I wish the discussion would have ended there, but of course Samantha was determined to pursue the topic further.  She felt disappointed and unsatisfied when both the actress and director refused to elaborate beyond “personal reasons” for the withdrawal.  When Samantha received an email saying that further questions would go unanswered, she turned to me.

“What’s wrong with being curious?” she asked.  “I thought curiosity was a good thing. How can I learn if I don’t ask questions?”

I might have told her that curiosity (sometimes) kills the cat, but decided to save that discussion for another day. “You’ve already been given as much of an answer as anyone is going to get,” I offered in a matter of fact tone. “‘Personal reasons’ means none of your beeswax and end of discussion.”

Unfortunately, Samantha was stuck on the idea that interjections should be permitted. She also thought her curiosity should always be satisfied.  Frustrated, she asked me to offer up reasons why the actress might be quitting the show.

I always try to be honest with my daughter and I have promised to explain what most people don’t have the desire or patience to explain. Therefore I was backed into a corner.  I had to answer but I also wanted to make it to my dance class.

“Maybe the actress was offered a high paying job on a TV show, a film or even in a commercial,” I speculated. “Or perhaps a family member is ill.  Whatever the reason, it doesn’t affect you personally, so why open a can of worms?” I uttered a new idiomatic phrase before I could stop myself.

“What do you mean by ‘open a can of worms?”

At least, I’d shifted her curiosity in a new direction. “If you say you don’t want to ‘open a can of worms,’ it means you don’t want to get into a discussion that could create more problems. In this case, other cast members might get the idea that it’s acceptable to withdraw from their roles.  No director wants to take that chance or end up in a debate over what’s an acceptable excuse for withdrawing.”

Satisfied with my answer (for the moment), I was able to end the discussion and go to my dance class.  I know there will be more questions about what it means to open a can of worms. Perhaps when Samantha fully understands, she will add that phrase to her list of favorites.

If my daughter can actually learn when to avoid opening a can of worms, our lives could run a little more smoothly.  Just maybe. . . .

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