What does it mean to think literally,
and why is it common in autism?
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.
So why is literal thinking common with autism, and how can you help prevent these types of misunderstandings?
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 judgement 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 garbage?"
There are lots of literal meanings to that question... Are you able to throw it in the garbage? Are you allowed to? Is is possible? But 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? Throw 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 question again?
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
Provide exposure to figurative speech
Be careful with the words you choose
Help out with humour