Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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2.3 Taking things literally

Another noticeable language difference is taking the meaning of words, phrases and sentences literally – for instance a child told ‘pull your socks up’, meaning ‘try harder’, may assume that it is their socks which need attention. When an autistic boy called Michael Barton was at junior school, he devised a strategy to help him decode the non-literal expressions that he found so strange. He would note the expression and draw a picture of it, followed by a sentence explaining what it meant. As a young adult he has published his delightful drawings to help others on the spectrum (Barton, 2012).

Described image
Figure 3 'His head is in the clouds' by Michael Barton.

Activity 1 Misunderstanding what people say

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In this clip a young man explains why taking things literally can make it difficult to understand jokes. Watch the clip and then write a few notes explaining how an ironic or sarcastic comment might lead to a similar misunderstanding (hint: think about the words and the tone of voice when a person says something sarcastic).

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week2_surrey_autism_board_1.mp4
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Discussion

When a person speaks ironically or sarcastically, they may say one thing, but in a tone of voice which indicates that they mean something else. For instance ‘It’s a really nice day today’ when it is actually pouring with rain, or ‘You are so good at English’ when it is a field that the person struggles in. An autistic person listening to such a comment may take it literally, and not notice or understand the non-verbal cues provided by the tone of voice, which indicate that the speaker means something different from what he or she says.

Literal-mindedness can also mean that an autistic person says things which others find rude or hurtful, because they don’t realise that being completely truthful and candid isn't always polite. For instance, telling someone who has just cooked you a meal that you don’t like their food is not usually the best approach if you are invited for dinner. In general, autistic people tend to lack intuitive understanding of the unspoken social rules that apply to different situations, leading to social ‘faux pas’ or blunders. This lack of insight into other people’s thoughts, feelings and points of view is often thought of as a ‘Theory of Mind’ failure, a psychological concept which will be covered in Week 4.

To gain an insight into how an autistic person may quite unintentionally upset others by failing to understand social rules, watch the two video clips below.

Download this video clip.Video player: aut_1_wk02_nas_misunderstanding.mp4
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