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The Lowdown on Literal Thinking

The Lowdown on Literal Thinking

Image: Ilse

What does it mean to think literally, and why is it common in autism?

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 to the actual meaning of the words. Literal thinkers tend to focus on the true meaning of words and have a hard time seeing this second, figurative layer 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.

So why is literal thinking 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 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

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' behaviour.

Provide exposure to figurative speech

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 one.

Lend a hand with humour

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 at least take the time to explain the joke so they're not left out.

This article was first published in October 2012.

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