Many people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a very literal understanding of language.

“Can you just stir this for a minute?” I said to my son. I was making risotto and needed to carry on stirring but also had the next thing to do. He took the spoon and carried on stirring.

All of a sudden he walked off, he had dropped the spoon in and gone!
I’m ashamed to say I was a bit cross as I was already stressing about dinner and reacted to the spoon now being part of it.

My son burst out crying “but I did what you said!” He had! He had stirred the dinner for exactly one minute. He even counted sixty seconds in his head to make sure he got it right. He wanted to please me and do as he was told and then I was cross and he couldn’t understand it.

I felt awful and I should of realised but it really is hard sometimes to stop and think how it could be interpreted before we give instructions.

My son, the same as a lot of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), has a very literal understanding of language. He is verbal and also very academically bright, so people often don’t realise he has any issues at all with speech and understanding. Sometimes he can be perceived as disobedient and at school over the years it has got him into trouble.

When my son was little, if I had said it was raining cats and dogs he would of run to the window to look for the animals!

As the years have gone by my son has learnt what a lot of expressions mean so it has got easier for him to understand when people say strange things.

He does still make me stop and think now and again though. I walked to the shop with him the other day and he suddenly stopped. He had seen a billboard and he read it out loud. It was an advert for TUI and the words said “we cross the T’s and dot the I’s and put U in the middle”. My son thought it was very strange and couldn’t understand why it said that.  I had to carefully explain the whole advert including the saying about crossing T’s and dotting I’s before we carried on to the shop.

Similarly, the other day someone said to him “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. He sat there for a minute and then said “oh I get it, if you lived in a house made of glass and threw a stone you might break your house…but really it should say they shouldn’t throw anything”! When I tried to explain the real meaning of the expression he thought it was ridiculous that people didn’t just say what they meant.

The English language is so complicated and a lot of what we say doesn’t actually make sense if you look at it from a literal point of view. We use many sayings, sarcasm and strange humour that could easily confuse or offend someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

We all need to take a step back sometimes and be more aware of how we speak to people with autism. So as not to cause confusion or upset we need to take the time to make sure people understand what we have asked of them. We need to explain clearly what we mean or what is expected.

Next time I ask my son to stir something I will say “please could you stir this for me until I finish what I am doing and take the spoon back off you”!

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Published by Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits

I have two kids and love to show them the world. We dont let autism limit us in our adventures! I write about our adventures and include tips on how suitable activities were for children with autism. I also write more autism specific posts.

3 thoughts on “Many people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a very literal understanding of language.

  1. This can be hard as a parent to remember that our kids with ASD have literal thinking brains. Since starting high school, my son has finally started getting used to different expressions but sometimes I do still have to remind him that it is only an expression. I also have to remind myself that it takes him a bit to get the expression because he is literal. It’s a good reminder to us to mind what we say, I think because we are so used to talking a certain way that we forget that our kids think differently about words and expressions.

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