All children learn how to speak by copying, but of course, along side that they pick up accents, phrases and of course those unwanted expletives!
Some children with autism have echolalia, where by they repeat words or phrases automatically and without any awareness of their actions.
Others with autism have a fantastic memory for words and phrases and are very good at mimicking accents and phrases and simply love the feel of talking in such a way.
And then there are the children with and without autism who know very well that some words and phrases get great reactions when they say them, so say them all the more!
The latter one is Aiden! Admittedly, Aiden does copy phrases from films and those around him, in fact most of his conversation is copied but more often than not, especially in his younger days, he loved a shock reaction.
When you’re 4 or 5 and very cute, adults find the odd expletive coming from a little one highly amusing but as we know with autism, these social misdemeanours are not something that our children automatically outgrow.
So how do you deal with inappropriate words and phrases?
Of course every child is different and has different reason for using these words – equally they react differently to every situation, so there’s no one size fits all solution. The most important part of these situations is that you understand their reason for using this language before you begin to work on a strategy to combat this behaviour.
If it’s echolalia then there is absolutely no point in addressing this with your child because they will be unaware of what they are doing. This is something that you as parents will need to address, in terms of what they are watching and listening to.
If you have children who love words and how they sound, then again, it’s about screening what they have access to, there’s nothing more sensory and enjoyable that a angry American with a broad accent screaming “You f**king son of a bitch!” They only have to hear it once and they’ll be repeating that in the middle of the supermarket! Having said that, a child with the love of such words, is also likely to have the ability to learn when such words are appropriate to use, although this won’t happen instantly and will take time to establish. Be prepared for those embarrassing moments for several years but don’t let autism be an excuse. If it is not appropriate they need to know from an early age.
However, often children on the autistic spectrum have a bank of words and phrases that they use as a coping strategy when in crisis. When a child is anxious and needs to escape a situation, telling someone to Piss off or I’m going to rip your F**king head off, works really well at getting that person away! If this is the case, that is not a good time to start punishing for bad language. This is a time to ignore the inappropriate behaviour. The priority here is to get them back to a calm state and make them feel safe.
Sometimes children use these words to express their anger or upset and again this is not a good time to challenge their choice of words.
But if you know your child is using swear words simply for a reaction then you need to address this. But how?
Looking back, dealing with Aiden when he was younger was much easier than now at 19. If he swore as a child it was inappropriate, easy, that’s black and white.
But now he’s 19 it’s not that straight forward. Adults do swear and that’s accepted. Aiden is legally allowed to watch 18 films which frequently include swear words. Hearing swearing becomes unavoidable, so what’s the rule?
Well for us, my rule has always been: in my house or in my ear shot you do not swear.
When Aiden was younger he would test those boundaries, but thankfully not that often. That doesn’t mean he didn’t say inappropriate things because my God, he absolutely did, and still does! He would and does say really awful and hurtful things, but he rarely swore unless he was in crisis/meltdown mode.
I put this down to my non PC approach, which I am not advocating, but maybe it just might have worked.
One day, when Aiden was about 5, he was in the bath and he was refusing to get out. He loves water. Anyway he swore directly at me. I replied in a rash and shocked state with a phrase my parents had always said to me! “If you say that again, you’ll get soap in your mouth!” The soap was in my view and the words just came out before I had a moment to think! Well sure enough, Aiden said it again. Now what? First rule of childcare, always ensured you carry out any threats you make. So I had no choice! Apparently squirty soap tastes discussing and from there on in, one reminder of the squirty soap bath incident was enough to keep those unwanted swear words at bay. Well, out of my earshot at least, that was until he hit those teenager years. Then he began to test those boundaries again.
As a teenager Aiden used such language at school and college in a social context which proved to me that he was in control of his choice of words. So when he tried using them at home my tactic was to ignore. Not ignore the swearing because he would not understand that and would have thought I was condoning it, so instead, I would ignore him! Let me explain.
Aiden always gets a warning so he knows what he’s done wrong, and is told what the consequence will be if he chooses to do it again. That way there’s no surprises and it’s his choice.
Here’s what I say:
“Aiden, if you say that swear word or any other swear word again, I will not be speaking to you for the next 19 minutes (or however old he was, in minutes), because I do not like my children using that language in front of me.”
Aiden, generally is very needy, even more so when he was younger, he followed me round like my shadow, often never stopped talking and needed my reassurance for most tasks, so for me to be disinterested and not answer his million and one questions was torture for him. Obviously this won’t work for all but it definitely worked for Aiden.
Whatever consequence you use ensure it is instant and over and done with quickly so they understand swearing = a consequence.
Make it a rule and stick with it. My advice would be to start as early as your children learn to speak that way you have a long time to practice.
And remember, what a child with autism does at two years old, they will continue to do at 12 and 22, unless you teach them otherwise. So if it’s not appropriate address it quickly.