I was having a chat with my 12 year old son last night about organising his homework and doing the best he possibly could for each project. This of course led to a conversation about spelling, grammar and punctuation.
As I was trying to stress the importance of striving for accuracy in his written essays (despite his protestations that teachers don’t mark down for bad spelling) he turned to me and dropped the ultimate bombshell:
Face it Mum. In the next couple of years, emojis are going to take over from words anyway. Get over it.
He delivered this killer line with all he confidence of a 12 year old (who last week told me I don’t miss him being little, I miss being smarter than him).
I prepared for battle.
I was only too happy to enter into a debate with him. I enjoy the banter and knew this would be the most animated discussion we’d had in weeks. And partly because we share something in common: neither of us likes to admit we are wrong.
But while I was strongly defending the English language and old-fashioned words, secretly I was thinking about how my views are affected by my role as a parent carer.
My younger son is 9. He has Autism and learning difficulties. I feel blessed that he is verbal and learning to read and write, but the painful truth is that his abilities still fall way below National Curriculum levels.
That means his reading and writing skills are those of a much younger child. I don’t even compare him to his peers; my focus for him is on independence and communication.
For people with Autism, visual symbols, images and social stories play a big part in communicating everyday situations and feelings that the rest of us take for granted. For some people, words alone don’t cut it.
One of the first things the professionals teach a novice Autism parent (often before diagnosis has even been made) is to reduce their language.
Desperate for our children to talk, listen and comprehend; it’s tempting to bombard them with language in an attempt to get them up-to-speed. We think we’ve failed them. That we haven’t taught them enough. That we switched the TV on for too long, or failed to use the flashcards that Aunty bought them for their first birthday. So it goes against everything we believe when we’re told to use fewer words, not more.
So an instruction such as: “Come and get your coat and shoes on, we’re going to be late” becomes, “Coat. Shoes” in order that the meaning isn’t lost in all the waffle (fellow copywriters will be familiar with this strategy too).
It’s hard to take this on board at first; it doesn’t come naturally. And this alien feeling is exacerbated when we’re introduced to the world of visuals.
Visuals play a huge part in communicating with children with ASD and opening up their ability to communicate. They may not be able to verbalise, “I want a drink” but the ability to hand you an image or symbol gives them the freedom to be able to say what they want, or need. And the digital world is opening up endless communication possibilities for them.
When it comes to expressing emotions, life gets trickier. High levels of anxiety are an underlying issue for many people with ASD. So by the time their emotions are taking over, their anxiety levels have often kicked in too much for them to be able to articulate how they are feeling. They’re already close to a meltdown situation, and throwing more words at them just makes things worse.
It strikes me that higher-functioning adults with ASD trying (and often expected) to make a go at an independent life and career could benefit greatly from emojis becoming an integral part of our language. For them, a visual clue in written communications might make the difference between inclusion and exclusion, success or failure.
The same goes for kids taking exams and communicating with their peers. In fact, emojis probably bring children with ASD and their NT peers closer together; a common language they both understand.
As a lifelong lover of words, and Freelance Copywriter, I should be fighting to the death to stop the emoji creeping into our language. But living with ASD has a habit of making you look at life differently; the neurotypical views you’ve lived your life by start to seem narrow and simplistic.
Communication is the ultimate goal.
So maybe my 12 year old has a point. Language is evolving, and that includes symbols as well as words. Maybe those of us blessed with a command of language need to lose our prejudices and allow them in?
Alison is a Freelance Copywriter in Milton Keynes offering a range of services for small and large organisations in MK and across the UK. For further information visit www.mkwordstudio.co.uk