Rude Words

Posted: March 15th, 2009 under communication, life on the spectrum, parenting, socialization.
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When our son was just beginning to be verbal, and able to say words with a consonant on each end,  one of his therapists suggested we introduce him to rhyming words as a way of training his ear and his speech…extending the consonants he could say,  and so on.

This certainly helped, and he began to try out combinations himself (which was good) except for one little problem.   If you start rhyming one-syllable words in English…starting from harmless familiar words like for instance “bit” and “pit” and “sit”….you end up with words that are considered inappropriate for small children to say.   The child may never have heard those words, the ones that rhyme with “sit” and “bird” and so on, and have no idea what they mean…but if your larger-than-average, older-than-average-when-learning-to-talk autistic child says them,  social disapproval rains down all over the scene.   And autistic kids don’t need any more social disapproval than they get already.

So the day came when our bright-eyed little guy very proudly (and it was an accomplishment–he had just managed the /sh/ sound the week before)  went through his “–it” words and added “sh*t.”

What to do?   He wasn’t using rude words on purpose, in anger or to shock–he didn’t know it was a rude word.    He was doing good, serious work in learning language.    So punishment was clearly not an option.  On the other hand, letting him out in public happily repeating it over and over (as he did with each new word)  wasn’t good either.   He’d be perceived as a naughty or rude child, and that would hinder his acceptance.

Luckily (sometimes I did the right thing without knowing it) I had already worked on the concepts of “rude” and “polite” and he had (finally) grasped the rudiments of these concepts–that there were social laws as well as natural laws (things fall is natural.  If you drop something, it will fall.  Not dropping a glass of milk on purpose is a social law–people will be mad at you if you break social laws.)   So I told him that yes, sh*t did rhyme with sit and bit, but that it was a rude word–wasn’t that funny?  And people didn’t like it if you said it.    So please, let’s not use it even if it’s a nice rhyme.

This worked for sh*t and t*rd and other rude words for awhile, but then the lure of the forbidden began to grow a year or so later.   Periodically one would burst out–not in the social context in which most people cuss, but just because he’d think of it, and perseverate, and need to say it.

Now what?   I decided on a technique Karen Pryor teaches, putting an undesired behavior on cue,  and then not giving the cue  (or, giving the cue in a place where the behavior is OK.)    I explained that we would have “rude word time”  at home.   I set the oven timer for 5 minutes, and for that time he was to say the rude words, but only the rude words.

So there he was in the hall, happily, gleefully, saying his rude words over and over and over.  I went into another room, to keep from laughing out loud and thus reinforcing the behavior.    When the bell dinged, rude word time was over–but if he felt he needed more time, I’d reset the timer.    He could also ask for rude word time whenever he needed it.

That first week, he wanted rude word time about every two hours.  Then it began to tail off to maybe 2-3 times a day…though on high-stress days (if we’d had to go to the mall, for instance) he’d ask for more.    It is, after all, boring to sit alone in a room reciting “Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t, sh*t, p*ss, p*ss, p*ss…” over and over.   The thrill of the forbidden wears off after you’ve said it 100 times and there’s no reaction.

The first time we took him to a hotel overnight,  I explained that he could have rude word time, but he had to whisper–the people in the next room wouldn’t want to hear the rude words.  So he bounced on the bed whispering the rude words.  This was also good practice in modulating his voice, something he found very hard for years.  I hadn’t thought of that until I realized that he could whisper or murmur rude words long before he could do that with other words (I suspect auditory feedback problems but that’s another post someday.)   His success in this also turned out to be an important “model” for other social challenges where he needed to adapt behavior to different situations.

When he was about seven or eight,  we were in a cafe when two truckers at a nearby table started in with the rude words.    He looked at me in shock and announced loud and clear,  “Mommy!  Man use rude words in public!”  The truckers glowered at us, and I gave them the mother tiger glower back (don’t you DARE snarl at my kid!) , but then  talked quietly and without cussing for the rest of their meal.    By the time they were through, it was clear they’d heard enough to know he wasn’t your average kid that age, so they smiled at us as they left.

On the whole, I think our approach to the rude word dilemma worked as smoothly as anything else I ever did with him.   As he grew older, we discussed when words are rude in context–that there aren’t any “bad” words, only words used badly–so by the time he went into public school, in high school, the counselor and teachers were amazed that they never had to worry about his language–he never used rude words at school.  (Unlike some classmates!)


  • Comment by Beth — March 15, 2009 @ 1:43 pm


    Thank you so much for this post! Critter is just starting to get into rhyming words. He hasn’t slipped into any bad words – yet – because he’s mainly chanting rhyming words from songs or TV shows. I have a feeling we’ll deal with those rude words in the coming months, and I’ll try this strategy for handling them.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 15, 2009 @ 5:25 pm


    I hope it works for you, too. Let me know. If he’s rhyming, they’ll show up–quite innocently…I was amazed; it hadn’t occurred to me. The way Michael was, if I corrected him when he was learning something new, he’d just quit on it, totally (like that washing the piano episode…would not use a sponge again for over a year.)

    There’s a wonderful book of verse for kids (“New Kid on the Block” but I can’t find it so I can’t give you the author) that Michael loved because of the silly rhymes–and the rhymes really exercised his vocal skills, too. I’m sure every kid has his own favorite, but he loved the dragon’s birthday one, and the one with all the silly ice cream flavors, and the bouncing mouse.

  • Comment by sari — March 16, 2009 @ 6:01 pm


    Did you distinguish between using (c)rude language in the presence of age peers as opposed to adults (parents, teachers, etc)?

    My kids also liked *New Kids*. It’s by Jack Prelutsky. Shel Silverstein was another favorite.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 16, 2009 @ 9:25 pm


    Situation-specific use…no, for two reasons. First, after he left preschool, he wasn’t in public school. With sufficient care, it was possible to organize his social experiences so that he had time with peers but in situations where he wasn’t around kids using rude language. Second, he wasn’t, when this started, able to distinguish age groups well at all, nor could he handle two-condition matrices (find the round yellow spot, vs. the square yellow, the round red and square red.)

    So the only situation-specific guideline was that rude words could only be used on cue, though the cue could be requested. When he was cognitively able to work with multiple condition choices, I worked toward a “different rules in different houses” approach (but our rules were, it’s rude for kids to cuss, period.) This was tested in high school and we had a talk about the school rules, the way other people broke them, whether he should break them because someone else did, etc.

    He has cussed occasionally now, usually while working on a frustrating job, like building a fence…which is OK with me (since I have USMC phrases in my head which do come out my mouth sometimes.) He’s an adult, and cussing when a board slips before you can get it fastened, and hits your hand or something is, in my books, normal. (Not in everyone’s–different rules for different houses.)

    Thanks for the info on the book: Prelutsky. I thought I’d never forget that name, but I did.

  • Comment by Carol Fitzgerald — July 25, 2009 @ 5:19 pm


    I wish I had known more about autism when my son was young–so much I can learn, even now when he is 46.

    Thank you Elizabeth. I read Speed of Dark and it was like an awakening–

    If there are more similar books (not eager to read clinical at this time, although capable of it) let me know.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — July 26, 2009 @ 7:39 pm


    I don’t know of any other fiction books dealing with adult autistic persons (there may be some; I just don’t know.) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime has an autistic protagonist, but he’s a teenager in a dysfunctional family. Did you ever read Clara Claiborne Park’s books about her daughter? Not clinical, but very sensitive and set in the family context. Exiting Nirvana is the one about her daughter as an adult.

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