‘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