‘Taking things literally’ is a trait or stereotype commonly associated with autism. The diagnostic manuals used by clinicians don’t include specific details on this – but many of the organisations that professionals and families consider to be an authority on autism detail it in their information:
“Autistic people can take things literally, and may not understand open-ended questions.” National Autistic Society UK
“Children and adults with autism have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, they may not understand or appropriately use: …expressions not meant to be taken literally” Autism Speaks USA
I’ve written this blog to share a little of how I experience the world and to offer an alternative perspective the reader may like to consider. It is all too easy for people to accept the “what’s” of autism. Endless organisations tell us the symptoms of autism, or what autism looks like to other people. I like to share the “why’s” and the “how’s”. Tell it from the inside. I have no more authority to speak for all Autistic people than the popular experts do, but I invite you to push aside what you have been told about autism for the next few minutes, and step into my mind….
Metaphors, idioms, and what happens inside my mind:
I can spot a figure of speech immediately. I have learned many of them off by heart. I automatically know that:
- “Raining cats and dogs” means raining heavily
- “Between a rock and a hard place” means having to decide between two equally difficult things
- “They’re a walking encyclopaedia” means someone knows a lot of facts (but I start to giggle to myself at the imagery of a big book with arms and legs, walking down the road!)
- Whereas someone who says they could “Eat a horse” horrifies me, even though I understand that they are more likely to eat a pile of toast than enact the picture I have in my mind of their face covered in blood, whilst discarded equine bones pile up underneath their dining table!
My mind works visually. When I am presented with information, I see an image of it inside my mind. Unsurprisingly, I can imagine objects more easily than abstract ideas. Ideas may have no boundaries or physical shape that my mind can hold on to. I want to know what a thing looks like and how it works.
Processing and understanding new information:
When I am presented with new information, my mind creates a visual image to help me process and understand it. I match that image to other things I know, which helps me understand the information in more depth.
Here is an example that you may recognise from a blog I wrote about masking. In it I describe how I frequently mask my need for clarity. The reason I mask my need for clarity is because I have consistently and repeatedly received negative feedback for asking the “wrong” questions.
I was sat in the board room in a very serious meeting and the person talking used the phrase “the elephant in the room”. Now, I absolutely knew this was not to be taken literally. An alarm went off in my brain that said “idiom/metaphor/figure of speech alert”. So I used my quick thinking brain to whiz through everything I knew about elephants to try and work out the meaning. Elephants are big – are they talking about something that is big? Elephants have big ears and a trunk – no it can’t be to do with that and stop it Emma, do not go off on a mental tangent about the different types of elephant and their respective physiology. Elephants never forget – aha, maybe it’s to do with memory or remembering something. What else do I know about elephants?….And then the question came: “Do you have any thoughts on that Emma?” And I realised that I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, or what the question was, and I couldn’t even grasp at an answer out of thin air. The conversation had moved on and I was lost in the world of Proboscidea. I was probably the only person in the room with the taxonomic knowledge to name the order that elephants, mammoths and mastodons sit in – and I was probably the only person in the room feeling stupid, anxious and lost! And all because I didn’t want to make myself look stupid for not understanding something. I challenge you to spend a day in your workplace or school considering how complex language is if your default setting is to take things literally.https://undercoverautism.org/2020/05/31/masking/
As you can see, I understood this was an idiom – I certainly did not experience that lack of understanding so often assumed in information about autism.
But did I truly take the expression literally? I certainly stated in my earlier blog that my “default setting is to takes thing literally”. I assumed I did because that’s what autistic people supposedly do. These days, I am less certain that “taking things literally” is an accurate description of what is happening for me.
Had I sought clarity by asking for more information about the elephant, I would in all likelihood, have reinforced this idea of literal mindedness. My visual mind was desperately trying to match my elephant image with other elephant info stored in my brain. I wanted more information and it seemed natural to drill down deeper into the world of elephants to find what I needed.
Autism Wellbeing refers to affordances within our paper Sensory Trauma: Autism, sensory differences and the daily experience of fear. This useful infographic gives an example of some sensory experiences a slamming door may afford to two people in the same room. In its simplest form, each of us may perceive or pick up different affordances from the same environment, event or interaction.
So what is going on for me?
I described to my colleague Rorie, how difficult I find interpreting and understanding new ideas, particularly when they contain unfamiliar figures of speech . I need clear information up front – and enough of it to enable me to move forwards in the conversation, or the piece of reading.
The visual image created in my mind when confronted by the “elephant in the room” idiom, demanded my full attention. It was as all-encompassing and as distracting as someone expecting me to continue a conversation or read and understand a written article, but with a gong being beaten loudly next to my head!
I could not simply shift the image to one side and continue. I expressed that it was a “visual thing” and not a “taking things literally thing”.
Rorie and I reflected on affordances, and on the possibility that, when it comes to idioms, I preferentially pick up the visual affordance offered by the idiom rather than the semantic affordance. This feels right to me. My difficulties often arise from sensory processing differences rather than a lack of understanding.
As Rorie said to me, “That is a whole different way of thinking and talking about a dimension of autistic experience typically couched in terms of autistic people having ‘impaired understanding’, ‘taking things literally’ or being ‘oppositional'”
There are many widely accepted mainstream ideas associated with autism that may be better understood from a sensory processing perspective rather than an “impaired understanding” perspective. I shall explore some of these ideas in future blogs.