The Lowdown On Literal Thinking

Literal thinking is a common autistic trait, but what does it mean? What problems can it cause, and how can you help?

Many balls of crumpled paper and light bulb among them

Everything we say has two layers of meaning:

  • Literal – what the words actually mean
  • Figurative – what we want them to mean

That’s where the term ‘figure of speech’ comes from, a phrase where the intended meaning is different to the actual meaning of the words. For example, the literal meaning of hop in the bath is to hop while in the bath but the figurative meaning is get into the bath.

Literal thinkers focus on the actual meaning of words and phrases, and have a difficult time identifying or understanding the second, figurative layer of meaning. This can obviously be a big barrier to communication.

The problem is that we tend to use a lot of figurative speech in our everyday language. This can be really difficult for a literal mind to interpret which causes stress, confusion, misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

  • idioms
  • euphemisms
  • sarcasm
  • metaphors
  • puns
  • hyperbole

We are often unaware just how frequently we use these types of speech or how much we rely on others to understand the figurative meaning of what we say.

Why do some people focus on the literal meaning?

Being a language detective

When we hear a figurative phrase for the first time, we consider the literal meaning of the words and make a quick judgement about whether it matches the likely intended meaning. We do this by considering the context in which it was said, the way it was said or by asking the speaker what they meant.

Both meanings of the phrase are then stored in our memory so the next time we hear the phrase, we can recall the figurative meaning more quickly and even eventually bypass the literal meaning altogether.

People who have difficulty picking up communication signals (verbal and nonverbal) will have a harder time figuring out what someone means when they talk – the slight change of inflection with sarcasm, for example. So they might take it literally when you say I could not be more excited because without picking up on the vocal change there’s no clue for them that you don’t mean exactly that. It’s also one of the reasons that we often make misunderstandings in text.

For people who find social communication and nuance difficult, these can be barriers to seeking clarification about what the speaker meant (even if they suspect there’s a different meaning to the literal interpretation of the words).

Autistic people also sometimes have trouble connecting the outcome of an event or behaviour with the thing that triggered it (i.e. cause and effect). There are lots of reasons why this happens (and it probably needs to be a whole article on its own), but this makes it hard for them to know whether they interpreted a phrase correctly and to then store that correct meaning so they can refer to it again later.

Running out of time

Auditory processing delays can mean it takes longer for some people to process the words they hear and work out their literal meaning. Sometimes there’s not enough time left over to consider possible figurative meanings because the speaker has already moved on to something else or walked away. Lending support to this is the evidence that people with autism often find it easier to pick up figurative meanings in written text.

Visual thinking

Thinking visually can be a strength for some autistic people, who easily transform words into pictures and form mental images of the word itself or its literal meaning. Switching over to the figurative meaning of those words means changing that image – a transition in thought which can be really difficult or exhausting, especially for those who tend towards rigid thinking patterns and executive function disruptions.

A lot of euphemisms can conjure up particularly vivid visual images too (e.g. I could eat a horse), so it’s not surprising that it might take a considerable amount of effort to disengage from that strong imagery to look for a broader meaning to the words.

A focus on details

In a phrase or sentence, each word and its literal meaning makes up just one part of the whole (figurative) meaning of a message. We need to take all those individual parts and put them together to work out the full meaning. A tendency to focus on details can make it difficult to do that, to step back and see the overall meaning of the phrase.

It also makes it much harder to take that meaning and combine it with other clues to decide whether the literal meaning makes sense. The speaker’s body language and the tone or inflection of their voice, for example, are context clues which help us search for figurative meanings in what someone says.

Let’s look at an example:

Someone comes up to you and says “Can you throw this in the garbage?”. There are lots of literal meanings to that question:

  • Are you able to throw it in the garbage?
  • Are you allowed to?
  • Is it possible?

But there’s really only one figurative meaning – please put this in the garbage.

When you hear a question like that for the first time, the thought process which the brain goes through to work out the figurative meaning is something like this:

Hey, who said that…
Are they talking to me?
What did they say?
What do those words mean?
Is that what they meant by the words?
Hmm. It didn’t sound like a question…
And they’re not waiting for an answer…
I think they probably want me to throw it in the garbage…

You might then double-check with the person what they wanted you to do. Or maybe you’d put together all the extra clues to figure it out, like the person holding out a piece of garbage and looking at you expectantly. Or maybe you’d just take a lucky guess, throw the thing in the garbage and know it was the right choice by the person’s pleased response.

Conversely you might find out the intended meaning the hard way, by responding something like “No I don’t think I could reach the trash can from here” and getting a surly response.

All of these responses would help you to figure out the correct meaning of the phrase, which then gets stored in your memory. After that, every time you hear someone use that same phrase you’d know exactly what they mean.

For someone who can’t easily shift their attention, however, it might take a few extra moments for them to notice that someone is talking. And then a few more moments to realize that the person is talking to them. As they try to switch focus from whatever they were doing, their brain is playing catch up to process the words that were said and figure out what the person wants them to do.

And that’s the part where literal thinkers might get stuck. Mentally sorting through the possible meanings requires a lot of flexible thought and attention shifts. And if they’re focused on details, their thought process might look something like this:

Are you talking to me?
What do you want me to throw?
How heavy is it?
How far is the trash can?
Is it my job to clean up trash?
Will I get in trouble for throwing it?
Throw is a good looking word…
But it looks like row…
I don’t like boats…
What was the question again?

That requires a lot more thinking time and mental effort. Social and communication difficulties also make it hard for them to check if they got it right. Meanwhile if they take too long to process all these words and meanings, the person asking them to throw the thing in the bin gets grumpy at them for not responding, which can trigger anxiety and shutdowns and other stress responses.

If the person also has trouble picking up the environmental clues that help us connect cause and effect, even when they get the response right they might not connect that to the figurative meaning of the phrase or store the memory in a way that allows it to be used again later.

So for all of these kinds of reasons, autistic people can have trouble building up their library of figurative meanings which makes it more likely that they’ll interpret language at just that top literal layer.

What can you do to help?

Realize that it can be stressful

Some people find figurative speech uncomfortable or upsetting, especially when it’s confusing or creates unsettling visual imagery. It’s also quite common for autistic kids to equate figurative meanings with lying, or to get teased for their misunderstandings.

Literal interpretation of instructions or rules can easily be misinterpreted as non-compliance, bad behaviour, stubbornness or being bossy. Kids can often feel confused about this too, as if they’re getting in trouble even though they’re following the rules.

All of this can create a great deal of stress and uncertainty for them, and can be very damaging to their sense of self-confidence.

Practice being a language detective

Help literal thinkers to practice and develop their skills at sorting through the possible meanings of the things they hear, to become language detectives so they can find clues about the deeper, figurative semantic layer. Practice looking at all the different ways a phrase can be used, pointing out the clues they can use to figure out which is the right one.

Make questions obvious

Using exaggerated verbal inflections can help to make it clearer when you’re asking a question. You can also try giving the person a clear prompt that a question is coming up by first saying This is a question.

Be careful with word choice

Always double-check for understanding when using figurative speech, don’t assume that someone who thinks literally has picked up on your intended meaning. Where possible, try to choose concrete language and say exactly what you mean (put the puzzles on the shelf instead of just tidy up). Allow extra processing time too, and get into the habit of seeing the literal meaning of your words to avoid confusion before it happens.

Provide exposure to figurative speech

You can help a literal thinker build up their ‘figurative meaning library’ by pointing out when words have second meanings. Explain what a figure of speech is, and teach lots of common euphemisms so they will be less likely to get confused or alarmed when they come across them:

  • Pull your socks up!
  • Keep your shirt on!
  • Hold your horses!
  • I laughed my head off!

Lend a hand with humour

Don’t laugh at any misunderstandings, no matter how cute they seem, and try to avoid using sarcasm. It can be stressful when you’re the only one who doesn’t get it, so take the time to explain jokes so they’re not left out and try to avoid subtle humour that uses double meanings or a deadpan delivery.

Last updated 12 Jul, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.