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My Struggle With Verbal Instruction


If you ever feel a sense of panic when given verbal instructions, you’re not alone. Whenever I’m asked, “Will you please get whatever from the closet on the middle shelf to the right of whatever,” my immediate reaction is like a robot twirling around saying, “Panic alert!”

I started working as a substitute teacher’s aide two years ago. I often find myself frustrated when given verbal instructions by teachers or other aides, and I didn’t know why until I was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS).

This diagnosis prompted me to wonder if my long-held habit of asking someone to repeat what has been said to me, particularly instructions, is related to my syndrome. Since my diagnosis, I have been doing research on AS and learned verbal instruction can be one of the things people with AS might find challenging. I don’t think it is so much of a lack of hearing that I ask for a repeat, but a need to be given more seconds to process what I am hearing.

An example of my trouble with verbal instruction was when I was subbing for a kindergarten class. While doing circle time, the teacher asked me to “get the phone.” I interpreted that to mean to go over to her landline phone at her desk and answer it. I was bewildered since I hadn’t heard the phone ring, but I thought, “Oh, well, my hearing isn’t what it used to be.” All I got was a dial tone.

I looked back at the teacher, who pointed at her cell phone. I took that to mean it was her cell phone that needed answering. Again, I was puzzled since it wasn’t ringing either. I should have acted on my bewilderment and asked for clarity, but I was in panic mode. I picked it up and heard nothing. 

That’s when the teacher told me her instruction of “getting the phone” was to simply go over to her cell phone, pick it up and hand it to her. Now if she had said, “Hand me the cell phone,” I would have understood what she wanted.

I was humiliated! I wondered what the teacher, 30 years shy of me, must have thought. She probably would have received her cell phone sooner if she had asked one of them to “get the phone” since the children are probably more familiar with cell phones than landline phones.

My diagnosis has explained so much of how I think, feel and act. Now when I think of that moment in the kinder class, I don’t feel so bad.

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