‘You don’t have to take everything so literally,’ I’ve often been told. But having an innately literal understanding of language can be part of being autistic.

1. Literalness can be subtle.

People who know I’m Autistic sometimes expect me to have difficulty understanding metaphors and figures of speech. Some Autistic people do find these hard to understand, but I don’t. (Every Autistic person is autistic in different ways.) The things I take literally are more subtle and less noticeable.

In a talk at the start of my second year at university, the lecturer said we needed to ‘step it up a notch’. I knew this had nothing to do with notches, and interpreted it as, we should work harder than we did in the first year. But I’d worked as hard as I could in the first year. It wasn’t possible for me to do more. I was upset because I was convinced I was going to get bad marks. But apparently the lecturer only said it to try to motivate the students who didn’t work hard last year, and didn’t mean all the students had to work harder. I also worry intensely when lecturers tell the students what to read and I know I won’t have time to read it all. But I’ve been told that they don’t actually expect students to read everything and only give long lists of ‘essential’ reading to motivate the students who don’t read to read at least something.

Wendy Lawson 1 wrote about another way literalness can be subtle and difficult to notice. An Autistic person is doing something she’s not allowed to do. ‘You can’t do that,’ says an authority figure, meaning you’re not allowed to do that and I want you to stop. The Autistic person hears, you are not able to do that, which she knows is obviously not true. ‘No,’ she says, and carries on, and gets into trouble.

2. Learning to take things less literally can be confusing.

I can understand rationally that something is not meant to be understood literally, but at the same time have an intuitive and emotional response to what is literally means. I can think about the fact that a lecturer is probably exaggerating the amount of work I have to do, while my stomach clenches with fear and dread that I’ll never get it done in time. Understanding something in two different ways at the same time is very confusing. Even if someone explains what a non-literal statement is supposed to mean, and a part of my brain understands them, it won’t stop the literal part of my brain doing its thing.

3. A literal understanding of language is not the cause of misunderstandings or a symptom of a disorder.

The National Autistic Society reckons literalness is part of the ‘triad of impairments’. But this makes no more sense to me than saying allistic people have an impaired ability to say what they mean because they make vague, confusing, nonsensical statements. Misunderstandings over non-literal language happen because Autistic and allistic people communicate in different ways and our communication styles are often incompatible with each other.

Of course, since Autistic people are a neurological minority we’re the ones who get confused the most, and we’re the ones who end up doing most of the work trying to communicate better with people who do it differently from us. It’s one of the ways we’re disabled. But allistic people need to think more about how we understand what they say.

1 In Understanding and Working With the Spectrum of Autism


2 thoughts on “Literally

  1. Oh, yes. Another post of yours where I go – yes, this is me.

    Like you, I understand metaphors and analogies perfectly well. In fact, part of the way I think is based on analogy. (If you’re interested, see my post on Modes of Thought Followup!) But also like you, I tend to fall prey to the more subtle forms of literalness.

    At times, I have a hard time realizing when someone is joking, if they make a remark whose literal meaning tends to make sense in context. (This is particularly bad around my father, who has a very deadpan way of joking – possibly in part because he’s likely on the spectrum as well.) So when I react as though they meant what they said, I get the unpleasant reaction of, “I’m joking!” or “It’s just a joke!” or “Jeez, don’t take things so seriously.” Since my father’s done some research on autism – both for me and for himself – and I’ve explained how I react to that, he’s been a lot better about it. But that doesn’t apply to everyone.

    And yes, your second point is also very well taken. Not only because of anxiety-inducing reactions (though that’s definitely one thing that does happen to me as well) but because of processing power. The first thing I think when I hear something that falls into that category of: they might not be speaking literally, but the literal meaning makes sense in context: is “Are they being literal or not?” Which then involves trying to analyze the person’s body language and prosody – intonation, speed of talking, clarity of talking, etc. – to try to figure that out. Huge processing power needed there, particularly as that can be a difficulty of mine/for autistics. Then there’s the fact that the person has probably kept on speaking, unless it was a question or remark they expect us to respond verbally to – in which case you’ve also got to devote processing power to listening to what else they’re saying, and putting it in context, and… well, I get tired and frustrated just thinking about it. (And tense. Very tense.)

    As for your third point – yes, I agree with you there as well. Literal-mindedness is a disability when you’re looking at the social model of disability. (Yes, I’m reading your posts backwards.) It is not an inherent impairment. In fact, I find that I can read emotional context from emails from people that I know, in part because of word choice – whereas most people I know (including my father) stare at me in confusion when they hear that. But because written communication is completely dependent on word choice (unlike verbal or face-to-face communication), my literal-mindedness can be an advantage there. (And I think I’ve lost my train of thought. Oh well. Nice long response anyway! ;))

    🙂 tagAught

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point about processing power – I think it’s like NT people process social things using a specialised brain process and we do it using our ‘general brain power’ that we’re also trying to use for other things at the same time. (I hope that makes sense.)

      I also find it harder to spot non-literal language when it would make literal sense in that context.

      Thank you for such a long comment! I’m sorry I took so long to reply.


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