Literal Thinking in Children on the Autism Spectrum

“My son with high functioning autism takes everything literally. I have to be careful to say exactly what I mean. For example, recently I was in a hurry and told him to ‘Step on it!’ – which utterly confused him. If I don’t keep conversations focused and simple, he’s lost. Plus, he only wants to talk about the 1 thing he is really interested in at the time.”

Literal thinking in a child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) goes far beyond the concrete thinking that is associated with young kids or learning disabled children. It results from the underlying communication disorder, which makes them unable to understand the shifting meaning of words in changing situations. In addition, they tend to persevere in their first impression rather than discarding it to test other meanings.

Many times, a youngster on the autism spectrum will have a difficult time understanding that some words have different meanings. For example, my grandson's face was red from playing outside, and I said, "Your face is beet red." He couldn't understand how his face could be like a vegetable.

A good example of a homonym is to use the word "bow." You could mean a violin bow, a ribbon tied into a bow, a bow and arrow. Same spelling, but a different pronunciation is the bow of the ship or bowing from the waist. Same pronunciations, but different spellings are a bough from a tree or a beau. Confusing, isn't it? Imagine how confusing it is to a youngster with special needs!

Kids on the spectrum have a very difficult time understanding when it's polite to say something. When the child sees an obese person, he thinks nothing of informing that lady that she's fat. He also doesn't understand why his statement would cause such a negative reaction. To him, he was simply telling the truth.

These young people don't understand "white lies" or why we tell them. For example, why would I tell my mother-in-law that I love the tie she got me for Christmas, and then turn around and donate it to Goodwill? So I don’t hurt her feelings. A youngster with HFA will be brutally honest upon receiving an undesirable gift, and to say otherwise would be lying.

Since it is impossible to teach your son every innuendo of speech as well as nonverbal cues and multiple meanings, he may eventually compensate in such ways as the following:
  • By reading extensively for information rather than pleasure, preferring fact to fiction
  • By developing any nonverbal talents he may have to the point where he can earn the social approval he craves
  • By concentrating on subjects in which he can be exceedingly well-informed
  • By becoming precise in language, seeking words which have a definite concrete meaning

As a result of their literal thinking, HFA children are easy victims of the unkind peer who likes to make fun at their expense. If they react with anger to trickery, their problem is compounded. Even if they are philosophical about being teased, literal thinking is a decided handicap in school and on the job, because most people communicate with a kind of shorthand speech, which is not to be taken literally.

Everyone has a "blind spot" in learning and understanding things. Many of us don't understand algebra or chemistry. And how many of us just ‘laugh off’ the fact they can't even program our VCR? These are deficiencies we can usually work our life around or completely avoid. In your HFA son, the "blind spot" happens to be reading social and non-verbal cues – something he can't work around or avoid.

Learning to say what we mean - and mean what we say - is often easier said than done. You can't just tell your son, "If you don't do your homework - you're in deep trouble." Otherwise, he envisions himself in a hole - or worse. If you mean "it's raining hard," then don't say "it's raining cats and dogs."

It is important to think about how we, as parents, word things to the literal youngster. If you have one of these literal kids, know that he is not doing this purposefully. Be patient and try to learn to think how he thinks. Some of the best minds in the world are very literal. Looking at life through the eyes of a child on the autism spectrum can give you a whole new outlook on life.
As one mother of a child with autism stated: "ASD kids have a hard time reorienting and recalibrating their perceptions and understanding of meanings to adjust for new info and scenarios. This is linked strongly to generalisation and abstract thought and understanding. They are often 'lost' hence the feeling of being on the 'wrong planet'. In fact it's their map that is poor. Try and help them update the map by sharing yours to make theirs more high definition."

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
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