• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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The Literal-Minded ASD Child; Taking What You Say Literally

literal mindedBeing mindful of the words you use when speaking to your ASD child can be exhausting, but so can the meltdown that follows misinterpretations. Understanding how their highly literal minds process the words is crucial.

Why Do ASD Children Misinterpret Language?

The “normal”, “neuro-typical” child without an autism spectrum disorder will initiatively interpret the non-verbal meanings behind your words. However; the ASD child does not possess this intuition. These children have highly literal brains; they do not learn by intuition but by rote memory. They think about each word you use, and each word you say. Besides, taking each word completely literally, they will not recognize non-verbal cues within your speech, intonations, or your body language. These children will likely evaluate what you say completely and wholly by the words themselves. For those without autism spectrum disorders this may seem counter-intuitive but understand how the literal mind works will go a long way in your being able to understand and communicate with your child with autism.

What Do You Mean By Taking Words Literally?

Words are often not only taken literally, but many times in a way you may not expect. When your child comes indoors complaining it is cold on a Sunday in November, you may automatically assume he understands that it is November and he should wear a coat in the winter weather. However, the child who thinks that Sundays must always consist of sunny days will not institutively make the leap that Sunday happens all year long—both in the winter and the summer months. This child assumed that Sun-Days must be sunny, and if it is sunny, then it must be warm. Then there is the child who insists on eating French fries every Friday. This could be due to a rigid adherence to routines, which is also prevalent in autism spectrum disorders, or it could be because that particular child misinterpreted the meaning of Friday. As one adult with autism explained, when she was younger, she thought that Friday meant “fry” day and that was the day she always ate French fries. Some of these examples do have a humorous effect, however, understanding why your ASD child does the things they do may be more about how they interpret the literal word than you think.

Does the ASD child’s mind become less literal as they get older?

The short answer is—no. Those with autism spectrum disorders think differently than others; their brains are “wired-differently.” However, it may appear that adults or older children with autism have less literal minds. The reason for this appearance is that they have more exposure to language and learn through rote memorization, meaning they memorize figures of speech and phrase. These older children and adults learn that Sunday is the name of the day of week, rather than a day that must be sunny.

Although, the literal-mindedness may appear lessened with age, the tendency to take all words literally is ingrained—hard-wired in the brain. Even as adults, those with autism spectrum disorders, can easily become tripped-up or entangled in phrases of speech or what appears to be illogical metaphors. They may stumble in social situations where there is much chit-chat, sarcasm, or rhetorical questions. Responses to rhetorical questions, or misinterpreting sarcasm can lead to awkward social situations even for the adult who has learned to navigate the land-mind of non-literal language.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.