School Glitches

Many of my friends with autism are a bit lost during the first few weeks in a new school. Sometimes we assume that all students are soaking in the flood of information – school traditions, procedures, rules, and routines – presented to youngsters in an assembly on the first day of school.

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I remember one young lady who did not understand the implications of a “Traditions Rally” on the first day of high school. In keeping with one of the long-standing school traditions, everyone walked around the school seal on the floor in the lobby in memory of fallen soldiers from their high school. Needless to say, everyone was horrified the next morning when they saw this young freshman standing in the middle of the school seal the next day, holding her back pack, and looking up at the sky light in the dome high above the seal.

This attentive young lady was an honor student with normal receptive language and an excellent memory. But she was missing the executive function required to translate the information about the memorial seal from a hypothetical discussion to an expected behavior. Fortunately, she didn’t pick up on the disapproval of her peers, and a teacher quietly helped her understand that she needed to stand outside the decorated area on the floor, but that could have easily turned into a disaster.

Some elementary schools use a “traffic light” system to monitor noise in the lunchrooms. When the light is green, people are free to talk to their neighbors. A yellow light is a warning to talk softly, and a red light is a signal for complete silence. Because many youngsters with autism think in concrete terms, their literal interpretation of the traffic light makes it difficult to generalize the rules from car traffic to the noise level in the cafeteria.

A young teen was embarrassed when she stood up in gym class. The coach had said, “All the boys, pay attention. You need to stand up.” The female student focused on the coach’s words when he said, “pay attention” and “stand up,” so she missed that key phrase, “all the boys.”

Miscommunication results when we assume youngsters know the meaning of symbolic words. For example, some of my young friends with autism have taken the phrase “moment of silence” literally during the morning announcements, leading to problems with talking during that very long “moment.”

One of my pre-teen friends with autism took the principal’s instructions very literally when she said, “Everyone will sit with their homeroom during lunch.” So, after getting his lunch tray, the young student walked to his homeroom to eat! ☺

We hope you will share your experiences about communication glitches at school, home, or work. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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