metaphors, euphemisms, puns, hyperbole, sarcasm, exaggeration and implied
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?
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.
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 -
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 -
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.
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 it 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
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?
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'
-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
-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 -
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.