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Taking things Literally

Posted Oct 04 2007 12:00am
The literature often talks about Aspergers people taking things literally.

The most common example of this being a child who is told to "pull their socks up" actually bending down to do so.

Now, before I go into the whys and wherefores, I'd just like to ask my "normal readers" to stop and think about this line for a minute. What exactly is it telling you to do? What would someone with less familiarity with the English language think?

I'm forever explaining things to my kids as "the English language is really quite silly" and "they shouldn't really do things like this but..." because a lot of the problems stem from the language itself. I'm not sure why normal people pick these things up faster than Aspergers people but I think it's to do with usage. Asperger's kids often have at least one asperger parent and while they've long since learned what these words mean, they don't use them in everyday speech, hence their children don't get used to them.

I certainly choose my words very carefully to increase my chances of being understood.

Fast Learning
I think that Aspergers children quickly learn not to take things so literally but that they do it by assuming that everyone is "kidding". Certainly it's true to say that everything has more than one meaning to an aspergers person and that they tend to quickly evaluate the various options in mid-conversation before choosing the most appropriate answer.

This can also lead to minor delays in conversation, depending upon how fast they evaluate things.

I guess this means that while a normal person probably always takes expressions like "pull your socks up" or "pull your finger out" to mean improve, and hurry up respectively, an aspergers person will always choose from four different definitions.

Literal Jokes
I'm trying not to get into the "not getting jokes bit" - I'll save that for another post, but I do want to cover how Aspergers people use their take on language for joke purposes.

Exhibit A
Last night, we had strawberries and cream for dessert. When I was cleaning up after the meal, my wife pointed to the strawberries saying that since they are greens they should go in the green bin. "oh.. but they're red", I said, with a wry grin. My wife proceeded to give me a reason why they are considered green, then realized that I was joking. I talked to her later and she said that a non-aspergers person wouldn't even consider the colour.

Exhibit B
Also last night... The trial period for scouts is almost over and I asked my son if he was ready to become a Joey. He said yes but that he wouldn't become a real joey. [for the non-Australian - A joey is like a small kangaroo]. He and I thought it was funny, but my wife didn't follow the joke and he had to repeat it before she understood. Once again, non-aspergers people tend to hold only one definition for a given context.

Final Thoughts on Taking Things Literally
Aspergers kids can learn to not take things literally but they don't seem able to let go of one meaning - they need to store both. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it can cause delays in conversations and may also impact their ability to be understood.

How can you help?
Expose your children to as many "silly english phrases" as possible. Learning them early can save embarrassment later.

In particular, for me, the most embarrassing one was when I was told to bring a plate to a function.

(for my Aspergers readers: bring a plate actually means bring a plate with food on it for sharing - not just bring the plate).
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