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People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Take Things Literally

Failure to understand colloquialisms in ASD

Colloquial language does not entirely match up with formal language. This means that some colloquial phrases can mean something entirely different from their formal meaning. Take the following couple of sentences by way of example:

He was a big butter and egg man who was out of his depth in the smoke until the woman threw him a lifeline. However, she was selling him a pup, proving that you should be wary of Greeks bearing gifts.

Unless you have a reasonable knowledge of both American and British slang, you might be forgiven for deciding that if those sentences mean anything at all, they concern someone working in dairy goods who someone got lost in a lot of smoke until a woman threw a rope to him and dragged him out. However, this woman, whom we assume must have been of Greek extraction, sold him a young dog. You might also suspect that the last phrase was racist about Greek people.

Now, of course, that is not what the sentences mean in colloquial language. A big butter and egg man is a derogatory phrase for someone who is successful in the provinces but hopelessly socially inept and unaware of the correct social protocols of big city living. Out of his depth in the smoke means that he could not cope with living in the city, whilst being thrown a lifeline means that someone gave him help in overcoming his problems. Being sold a pup means that what at first appeared to be a good bargain is, in reality, a fraud, and the warning of Greeks bearing gifts, although originally about the Trojan horse, isn’t really about Greeks at all, but simply warns people to be wary of apparently generous gifts.

Now everyone on this planet will occasionally get caught out by colloquial phrases and either will take them literally or will not understand them or will make a guess at what they mean and get it wrong. For example, I for many a year thought that if someone was gunning for you they were supporting you. This was not the smartest of interpretations at school, as I can grimly recall.

However, there are two groups of people who are significantly affected by colloquialisms. The first are those learning a second language. They generally encounter the problem because they are taught a formal basic version of the language first. They then encounter the colloquial variants once they have mastered the basics. Although there may be short-term embarrassments and misunderstandings, in the long-run these will be overcome simply by learning more phrases.

The second group is people with autism spectrum disorder. Here we encounter problems. It must be said at the outset that not all people with ASD will have a problem with colloquial phrases, but some will, and will find it difficult or impossible to overcome these problems except by rigorous rote learning, and this might be difficult or impossible for many.

Here's an example of the problems faced by someone with ASD. I was told this tale by someone who had the job of placing adults with high-functioning ASD into work. One of her star individuals was a woman who was a highly skilled accountant. She had been working for her new company for a couple of weeks when her line manager came up to her and said that she was so good she felt she could wrap her up in cotton wool and take her home. A couple of hours later firemen were having to take the door off a lavatory cubicle—the woman with ASD had locked herself in there, convinced that her line manager was a crazed lesbian who wanted to kidnap her and involve her in some bizarre fetish involving cotton wool.

This sounds fanciful but I have no reason to believe it did not happen just as described. And a large part of the problem is that colloquial phrases have a literal meaning, and in formal language means something totally different. Okay, there are some phrases where you can more or less guess that something else is meant:

Hamlet without the prince [an event missing what should have been the most important thing or person]

Play Devil’s Advocate [deliberately adopt the opposite viewpoint]

But there are others where the phrase does sound logical just by itself:

Have a hair of the dog that bit you [drink more alcohol to recover from a hangover]

Hand on the torch [pass responsibility onto someone else]

Play by ear [do something unrehearsed]

The trouble is that there are a lot of these phrases in common usage. A few years ago, I wrote the book An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions (still in print if you are truly desperate for something to buy) and I compiled a list of colloquialisms that might be confusing. I do not claim the list is exhaustive and I found well over 5,000 of them. That does not include several hundred more that I have found since and that will go into the next edition (whenever that is). And there are many many more besides those. I have not, for example, included regional phrases like one of my personal favourites from the north-west of England: If you wait for shoes, you’ll wait until clogs come in [meaning that you are too fussy in your choices, what you need will be gone and you will be left with something worse than you would have got if you had acted promptly].

Nor did I include colloquial uses of individual words, which are in the tens of thousands (just think of the uses of gay, sad, mint, for example). Many of us will learn these phrases as a matter of daily interaction with others. But not many people with ASD. Why is this?

I do not claim that there is a single definitive answer to this question, but instead, it is likely to be a mixture of factors. Some will be more important in one person, some in another. The factors are likely to include the following:

(1) Generally, people with ASD have problems with language and communication, full stop. If someone does not use much language then by definition they are also unlikely to be exposed to as much language and so they lack the practice in communicating that would expose them to colloquialisms.

(2) People with ASD are generally happier in formal structured situations. Just the sorts of occasions when informal language is unlikely to be used. So again, they are denied practice.

(3) A lot of colloquial language involves the use of sarcasm. For example, the phrase well that’s just great taken literally means high praise. But when was the last time you heard that phrase used in anything but a sarcastic tone? Again, people with ASD are poor are understanding sarcasm in particular and tone of voice in general.

(4) Neurotypical people are likely to make matters worse by avoiding colloquial language and jokes (another thing people with ASD are bad at understanding) in an effort to improve communication. Although this is well-meaning and at times desirable (the cotton wool example) there are other instances where this is denying people with ASD the chance to learn.

(5) The theory of mind. This merits a lengthy essay in itself. But theory of mind argues that people with ASD lack the ability to recognise that other people think differently. Because someone with ASD might take things literally when they hear a person else say something such as I’m a real ball of fire after a couple of drinks, they think this is literally true because the person with ASD only uses language literally.

Theory of mind might explain why person A misunderstands person B’s colloquialism because person A always uses language literally. But, it does not necessarily explain why person A always thinks literally in the first place. Well, actually, it does. The total explanation is a long one, but in essence, if a person has always lacked the ability to understand that other people think differently, then this could have led to a restricted view of the world and the language used. If you then throw in the fact that people with ASD find themselves in situations where language use is restricted, it becomes clear that it’s unlikely this problem will rectify itself through practice.

How do we solve this problem? I must stress that I am not a clinician, but to me (and indeed to a lot of therapists) the following seems to be sensible recommendations:

(1) We can’t solve this problem for everyone with ASD, or at least, not totally. Some people probably will never learn a particularly rich vocabulary.

(2) However, this is no excuse for giving up. Remember that a lot of people with ASD are in the same IQ range as neurotypical people.

(3) In conversing with someone with ASD, try to keep instructions and praise in literal terms. Use the most simple direct language appropriate to the person. Remember before you do this that a lot of people with ASD do not have a particularly strong problem with colloquial phrases, so try not to be patronising, either.

(4) In everyday talk, don’t avoid using colloquial phrases but make sure that the person with ASD understands and explain what the phrase means.

(5) Train the person with ASD in understanding the importance of tone, and of non-verbal communication in conversation.

But whatever you do, don’t give up. People with ASD can live perfectly happy lives and contribute to society. It is not a condition that dooms someone to [if you will pardon the colloquialism] taking a back seat.

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