Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

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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I still can find it a bit tricky. Like at work recently, one of my colleagues told a joke to me, which was, "When is a door not a door?" which is a very-- when we've got people with autism like myself, we take that very literally like, when is a door not a door? And I just said, as the answer. when it's not a door. And the answer is when it's ajar. When I was told that, I was thinking, what? I don't understand this.
And I think the problem with people in the autistic spectrum is we want to be perfect, but we can't be. And I think that one of the problems with that, that leads to depression. When you can't do something, it bothers you. And when you can't understand something like that joke that I've just mentioned, it bothers you.
And then you get into the circle. You just feel low and you feel hopeless and it brings on anxiety, et cetera. And I think the best thing that has helped me is just doing it bit by bit, just getting more exposure to things like that.
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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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(Daniel arrives at reception desk)

Can you tell me how to get to restoration unit 3C?. I have to report to Geoffrey Fox. Can you tell me how to get to restoration unit 3C? I have to report to Geoffrey Fox (repeats question)

(muffled background noise)

My name's Daniel Davidson. What's yours? (repeats)
If you just follow me through here. I'm sure you've been here before as a visitor but nothing prepares you for the true size of it. I mean I've been working here for 3 years and I still get lost so I wouldn't worry, it's only your first day so if you find yourself wandering around and not exactly sure where you're going there are phones on every level so you can always buzz reception and I'll let you know where to go...

(Daniel peers at name tag)

Excuse me, what do you think you're doing?
Trying to get your name.
Yeah, sure you were. Pervert.

CAPTION: A person with autism may find it hard to understand social etiquette.

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Download this video clip.Video player: aut_1_wk02_nas_socially_awkward.mp4
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Hey Daniel, do you want to take seat?

(Daniel sits down)

Conversation about relationship break-up between other 3 people at table

Don't worry about it; he was an idiot anyway.

Plenty more fish in the sea.

I don't understand it, I just don't understand it.

There's nothing to understand, he's just playing games. He wants you running round after him.

There's something wrong with me.

Just count it as his loss.

Why would he say he loved me and why would he dump me?

Because he's a man.

Why has another one dumped me?

Maybe he thought you were ugly.

(awkward looks)

CAPTIONS: A person with autism may take you literally. They don't mean to be rude.

End transcript
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