Three Ways my Autistic Children (and husband) Struggle with Literal Thinking that may Surprise you

A quick google of ‘autism’ and you will read the fact that people with autism often have very literal thinking. They take the meaning of things exactly as written or spoken and therefore struggle with things like sarcasm, jokes and idioms. What people often don’t realise though is that literal thinking goes way beyond this and can affect autistic individuals in ways you may not even expect.

I have an autistic husband and two autistic children so I see how they interpret the world daily and how literal thinking affects them in quite surprising ways.

Here are my top three ways and how I have helped them to understand what they really mean.

1. Food packaging.

Last week I needed to pop into (there I go again using a funny saying that my kids would take literally. For the record I never went pop.) a frozen food shop. I had the children with me and so I let them chose something for dinner. My non verbal son chose these sausages.

I have learnt to not ever let my son see frozen food coming out of the packaging after one particular long screaming match when I realised he could not understand why the frozen chicken nuggets cane out the packet cold and pale when the packet had them brown and warm?

So I cooked the sausages and made some potatoes and baked beans for my son only to have him scream in frustration because he assumed the picture on the outside of the bag would be EXACTLY how his dinner would look that day. He took the serving suggestion as literal.

My son has learning difficulties as well as autism so I can’t just explain the concept of ‘serving suggestion’ sadly. Instead I now google what I am making and show him an image as close to what his dinner might look like rather than allowing him to see the food packet.

It’s not even just frozen food either! One day I remember buying a new wok when my son was 6 and he was flapping with excitement when we brought it home only to scream for hours when we opened it because none of the food on the box actually came with the wok!

2. Shopping

Clothes shopping is always something my daughter finds confusing. She is very small so clothes for her actual age are way too big for her but she can not grasp the idea that I could buy age 7-8 year old clothing for her when she is actually 9. If she is with me she will put back the clothes that fit (even if she has tried them on and liked them and they fit well!) simply because they are not for her actual age! She is every bit as literal with books and toys and when she saw a toy she really wanted recently and the box read ‘aged 4-8’ she burst into tears in the aisle because she was convinced she could not buy it since she was 9. She assumed as there was an age on the box that she would be asked at the checkout to ensure she was the right age before she could buy.

I have had to come up with social stories to help her understand that ages are only guidelines and do not have to be exact. It’s a slow process though!

Shop names are another source of confusion to my literal thinkers too. Even my husband recently told me at the grand age of 60 that he never could understand why Boots does not actually sell boots? My nine year old daughter is still totally convinced that the body shop sells bodies and that poundstretchers actually stretch pound coins! The Orange shop confuses her because they actually sell phones that are not just orange and she also gets angry at Pets at Home because the pets are definitely not at home they are in a shop! And of course Subway should be a transport stop and not a sandwich outlet!

On a walk to school just yesterday we passed some flats for sale and she asked why anyone would want to buy an Igloo (a national estate agents) and if the house Purple Bricks were selling actually had purple bricks?

I have to admit that although these stories are funny now it really opened my eyes (another phrase my daughter would get confused at!) to how confusing the world is if you take everything literally!

So how have I helped my daughter with this? Well we have a piece of paper now where we write down funny shop names and funny signs we see so I can explain them to her. I am just ever so grateful she has yet to ask about the shop called Virgin!

3. Everyday phrases we all use.

With three people in my house having autism I have had to really think about my language. While I understood they would struggle with obvious idioms like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ I took it for granted they would realise me saying I was ‘just jumping in the shower’ meant I was having a wash rather than trampolining in the shower! For the very same reason I never ask my kids if they would ‘jump in the car’ because…well you can image can’t you! Other common ones I have been caught out saying was ‘it’s been a long morning’ to which my daughter quite rightly corrected me with the fact every morning has in fact got the exact same amount of hours in it! I told my husband the other week I was just going to ‘fix dinner’ to which he asked me how I had broken it? We never go window shopping either unless we literally want to buy new windows and asking my daughter ‘what’s up?’ would have her genuinely answer me with ‘clouds, sky and aeroplanes’. She is technically correct of course!

Thankfully there are some great books now to help children (and adults) understand what many of our common idioms actually mean including ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ by Michael Barton. You would be surprised how many idioms we all use without thinking!

There is so much more to literal thinking that just struggling with jokes and sarcasm. It perpetuates all aspects of daily life, communication and socialisation and everyday I am reminded how beautifully pure and literal my family understand and see the world.

I will leave you with two questions my 9 year old asked me just this last week that have taken rather a lot of explaining:

Mum, the cafe says they sell all day breakfast so why is there no Rice Crispies on the dinner menu?’

This doesn’t make any sense Mum! The sign says plastic bags cost 5 pence yet this roll of bin bags is £1 for 10. Are these not plastic bags too?’

If you want to follow more of daily life with my family do please pop over and like my faithmummy Facebook page where I now share more than you will get to read on here. I also make a weekly Facebook live on a Thursday evening. It would be great to have you join me!

17 thoughts on “Three Ways my Autistic Children (and husband) Struggle with Literal Thinking that may Surprise you

  1. I often chuckle to myself as I have to be careful how I word things with little man. I have to give instructions very literally. If I say ‘can you get your shoes on’ he take that as a question and answer ‘yes’ then walk off. I need to make sure I say ‘put your shoes on’ instead. They have such beautiful minds x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can remember being very puzzled as to why a lot of houses had signs outside saying “For Sale – Steve Gooch” – who was Steve Gooch and why did people want to sell him? I was even more puzzled when someone used a different estate agents! Oh, and don’t get me started on when someone says they will be 5 minutes and take 30 minutes- or my husband’s response to being asked what time he’ll be back “not late”. Is that not late for me (10pm or not late for him (midnight)?

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  3. Oh I understand your struggles. My daughter used to scream as a little one (before we had any clue she was autistic) when i would say “oh you’re so cute and delicious, I could just eat you up my little baby pie!”… How scary when I think back, she literally thought I’d eat her 😥

    I haven’t stopped using idioms or phrases as I have two other (NT) kids and it’s so inbuilt I can’t really help it, so from as long as I can remember (since realising little miss 7 is literal) I will ask her what she thinks I just said and what it might mean and she will try and be lateral, doesn’t always get it but sometimes she does. She does get annoyed that people don’t say what they mean though. She has asked us all on many occasions to “stop being silly” and “that’s not a thing, what are you saying?!”….

    Shop names, we have never had that problem (although I want to ask her what she thinks about Poundstretcher now or Boots!) but I like the Idea that it might explain why Lush is my daughter’s favourite shop! 🙂 it is what is says it is!

    she has wildly out of balance olfactory senses and will scream and tell you she has a headache if you microwave Chinese food! But put her inside Lush and its almost impossible to leave 🙂 because its so lush.

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  4. I told Mimi to kick the cat out the other day – I then heard ‘hiiii yaaaa’ as she actually kicked the cat out the door 😬 he was fine and it wasn’t hard thankfully but I won’t say that again in a hurry 🤦🏼‍♀️

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  5. this as usual is really interesting and also probably useful for helping people to understand how literal meanings affect people with autism.
    it’s probably something to do with the lack of cohesion/big picture, you analyse each word etc and don’t see the wider context that means words change meaning in different context e.g shop names. not so sure about how that works with the food packaging thing but that’s a really good thing to raise awareness of and it is good that you figured out that’s why your son was upset.
    dave gorman on modern life is goodish did a segment about literal food serving suggestions too, though he was saying how impractical they are.


  6. My daughter has ASD and one of the things she doesn’t like is brushing her hair. I told her her hair “had a rats nest” and she was very concerned about rats taking up residence in her hair. I have to be careful with phrases like that… but I can comb her hair more often now “to get the rats out” in her own words.

    Still learning how to handle her and my own behavior such as watching how I speak. We noticed the literal interpretation before her official diagnosis.


  7. I never thought if the food packages as confusing for my 3 boys with ASD. Thanks for that insight. For all I know, it could’ve been the root of previous meltdowns in the grocery store in the past. Definitely something I will keep in mind for the future.

    Another one people need to watch out for that I mindlessly said to my eldest while helping him clean his room one time was, “crack the window”. Luckily for me it was one of the rareasons times he paused and confirmed my request rather than actually doing exactly what was asked of him.

    It’s can be difficult to deal with at times, especially when they are doing what you have asked but I must say it’s funny and eye opening when you see the world as they do through those literally lenses they wear.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My son and I were visiting rhe doctor when he was 4 years old. After the doctor walked in and introduced himself and I explained the reason for our visit he began typing something out on his computer. His back was turned so my son could not see he was busy and so my son attemptied to get his attention. At which time I said to my son. “Just wait hun, he’s typing.” Without missing a beat my son says, “Uhm excuse me, Typing?” After repeating thi’s a few times I finally realized what I had said and corrected the confusion by letting him know the doctors name wasn’t Typing but that he was typing on the computer. To this day we refer to the doctor as Typing.


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