idioms, metaphors, euphemisms, puns, hyperbole, sarcasm, exaggeration and implied assumptions ...
Everything we say has two layers of meaning - what the words actually
mean (literal) and what we want them to mean (figurative). That’s where
the term ‘figure of speech’ comes from - an intended meaning that’s
different from the actual meaning of the words. Literal thinkers tend to
focus on the true meaning of words and have a hard time seeing the other, figurative layer(s) of meaning.
Our everyday language is littered with idioms, metaphors, euphemisms,
puns, hyperbole, sarcasm, exaggeration and implied assumptions -
figurative phrases that can be difficult for a literal mind to
interpret. These misunderstandings are often the cause of a lot of
unnecessary and painful frustration, hurt feelings and meltdowns.
Literal thinking is common with autism, and how can you help
prevent these types of misunderstandings?
The ins and outs of literal thinking -
Being a language detective -
When a non-literal thinker hears figurative speech for the first time,
they consider the literal meaning of the words and make a quick judgment
about whether it matches the intended meaning - by the context in which
it was said, the way it was said or by asking the speaker what they
meant. The second layer of meaning gets stored in memory to be recalled
the next time they hear the phrase, and eventually bypasses the literal
meaning of the words altogether.
People who have difficulty picking up verbal and nonverbal clues will
have a harder time figuring out what someone means when they talk - the
slight change of inflection with sarcasm, for example. So they might
take it literally when you say ‘I could not be more excited’ because
there’s no clue for them that you don’t mean exactly that. And even when
they do suspect there might be a different meaning, social comprehension
and communication difficulties can make it hard to seek clarification
about what you actually meant.
-Running out of time -
Auditory processing delays can mean it takes a little longer to process
spoken words and work out their literal meaning. Sometimes there's not
enough time left over to consider any possible figurative meanings
because the speaker has already moved on to something else or walked
away. Lending support to this is the fact that autistic kids often find
it easier to pick up figurative meanings in written text.
-Thinking in pictures -
Visual thinking can be a strength in autism, and people who think this
way often like to transform words into pictures and form mental images
of the word itself or its literal meaning. Switching over to the
figurative meaning of those words means changing that image - a
transition in thought which can be extremely difficult or tiring if you
also tend towards rigid thinking patterns and executive function
disruptions. A lot of euphemisms conjure up particularly vivid visual
images (‘like a bat out of hell’) so it’s not surprising that it can
take considerable effort to disengage from that imagery to look for a
broader meaning to the words.
-It's all in the details -
Each word and its literal meaning is one part in conveying the whole
(figurative) meaning of a message. A tendency to focus on details can
make it difficult to step back and see the bigger picture, by putting
all those parts together to work out the meaning of a phrase and then
deciding whether that meaning makes any sense - which is what searching
for a second, figurative meaning is all about.
How about an example?
Let’s say someone came up to you and said "Can you throw this in the
There are lots of literal meanings to that question... Are you able to
throw it in the garbage? Are you allowed to? Is it possible?
there's really only one figurative meaning - please put this in the
garbage. When you hear a question like that for the first time, the
thought process that you go through to work out the figurative meaning
looks something like this...
Hey, who said that... Is he talking to me? What did he say? What do
those words mean? Is that what he meant by the words? Hmm. It didn’t
sound like a question... And he’s not waiting for an answer... I think
that’s what people say when they want you to throw something in the
garbage... Maybe I should check...
-If you're a kid who has trouble shifting attention, it will take a few
moments to notice that someone is talking. And a few moments more to
realize that oh, they're talking to you. As you try to switch focus,
your brain is playing catch up to process the words and sort through all
the literal meanings. And that’s where you might really get stuck. If
you're focused on details, your thought process as you sort through the
literal meanings might look something like this:
What do you want me to throw? How heavy is it? How far is the trash
can? Is that even my job? Will I get in trouble for throwing it?
is a good looking word... but it has a W in it, that doesn’t look
right... it looks like row... I don’t like boats... what was the
-That’s a lot of extra thinking time and effort. Plus just as you’re
getting to the answer people start yelling at you for standing around
and not helping. Figuring it all out becomes too hard, and you're left
with just that initial literal meaning.
So how can you help?
-Realize that it can be stressful -
Some kids can find figurative speech really upsetting, because it's
confusing or creates unsettling visual imagery. They often get laughed
at for misunderstandings, and might equate figurative meanings with
lying. Not to mention all those times when their literal interpretation
of instructions and rules is misinterpreted as noncompliance or 'bad'
-Provide exposure to figurative speech - Home work:
If your kids are literal thinkers, help them to build up their library
of figurative meanings. Use lots of opportunities to point out when
words have second meanings, and explain the phrase ‘figure of speech’
when they're old enough to understand. Teach lots and lots of common
euphemisms (pull your socks up, keep your shirt on, laughed my head off)
so they'll be less likely to get confused when they come across them.
-Be careful with the words you choose -
Always check for understanding when using figurative speech, don't just
assume that they get your intended meaning. Try to use concrete language
where possible and say exactly what you mean
(‘put the Wii remote on
the shelf ’ instead of just ‘tidy up’). Allow extra processing time, and
get into the habit of seeing the literal meaning of the things you say
to avoid confusion before it happens.
-Provide supports -
Help your kids to be language detectives and reach the right
conclusions when sorting through possible meanings of the things they
hear. Give them lots of context, and use exaggerated verbal inflections
to make it clear when you’re asking a question (or start by saying ‘This
is a question...’). Practice looking at all the possible meanings of a
phrase with them, pointing out clues you can use to figure out the right
-Lend a hand with humor -
Don't laugh at misunderstandings, and never use sarcasm. It can be
stressful when you're the only one who doesn't get a joke, so avoid
comedy that uses double meanings, deadpan delivery or rhyming slang - or, take the time to explain the joke so they're not left out.