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!

Did you really have to say that?

isaac smile

The picture of innocence. Not yet 5. Not yet speaking. Not understanding much of what others say or do. Happy, flapping, chest beating, walking up and down in lines in the pouring rain, red jumper wearing, up all night if you let him, lovable boy.


Blisfully unaware of what others think of him. Or say about him.

O, Thank you God!

Because the world is cruel to him at times. Difference is not yet understood or accepted.

I had a little glimpse of that last week watching Isaac running in and out of automatic doors at a museum. But that was tame behaviour. Compared to yesterday that is. Actually compared to a lot of days really. It’s hard to talk about the screaming, and the biting, and the fighting against you. The public tantrums and refusals, the head banging, the kicking and punching and the hair pulling. The ‘challenging behaviour’ that so often comes as part of the package with autism. The inability to sit at a table when you need him to, the embarrassment of touching things he shouldn’t, the high pitch scream that could empty an entire shopping centre.

Believe me, I know these things are hard to see. They are hard for me to see too.

But do you really have to add to my heartache, my embarrassment and my upset by saying something horrible?

Like ‘children like that should not be taken out where others have to see them’?

Did you really have to say that?

Do I really need to hear things like that?

I’ve also had:

‘Sometimes a good smack is all they need’

‘He’ll soon grow out of it’

‘Maybe you should read to him and he might learn to talk’

‘It’s good he goes to school so far away then you can just forget about him and no-one needs to see him’

‘That’s good his playground at school is an inner coutyard. I mean people walking past would not want to see him licking the fence or making silly noises or the like. Other kids might think that is ok.’

‘They can test for things like Down’s and stuff now. Did you not get that test?’

‘Think about it this way. You get extra money and a car now so that’s good.’

‘You shouldn’t be allowed to park in a disabled space when it’s for a child’

‘The disabled seats are not for kids you know!’

‘They never had such a thing as autism in my day. You just had to teach your kids back then’


I could go on. But you don’t need to hear them. Neither do I.

My beautiful boy is a treasure. He takes a tin of baked beans to bed to hold at night. He gets such delight watching drops of rain falling down a window. He gets excited about going out in the rain. He can spend hours simply pouring coins from one cup to another one. He is thankful for the food on his plate…so thankful in fact he will even try eating the plate! He can hand me a photo of an ice lolly when he wants one. He thinks nothing of watching TV with a swimming ring around his neck:

swimming ring


He is a real child. Someone’s child. My child. He is loved. He is treasured. He is stunning. He is different. But he isn’t less.

Words are so powerful. Isaac may not know what people are saying but I do. You are breaking my heart when you say things like this. You are breaking his dad’s heart. And his sister’s heart. And you are breaking God’s heart.

“See to it that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that thier angels in heaven always see the face of my father in hevaen.” Matthew 18:10

Did you really have to say that?


Show me…when the words won’t come

Have you ever been to a card shop but you just can’t find the right card? When it’s not a simple ‘happy birthday’ or ‘merry Christmas’ moment or perhaps even a crisis or bereavement. When you read the words on the cards but none of them seem to convey what you want to say. I guess that is why there is a market for blank cards. But then sometimes you just can’t think what to write yourself. Sometimes words just won’t come. If you could only just see the person and give them a hug. Then you could show them you care when the words won’t come.

If this is how I feel as an adult at times when I have a vocabulary of thousands of words at my disposal and an understanding of language that allows me to use those words to convey meaning, thoughs and emotions, it is no wonder children with limited language and understanding find putting things into words so hard at times.

My children are almost 5. My daughter has good understanding of spoken and written language for her age and communicates well at home. But there are times when her words just won’t work. When her anxieties take over and she is unable to communicate. Outside of home, without mum and dad for support she can find it crippling to use spoken language to communicate. I am a fluent communicator and able speaker but everyone can feel that anxiety at times and struggle to get the right words. Under pressure, with a camera filming you, faced with hundreds or thousands of eyes upon you, sitting close by someone you have strong feelings for but have never yet mentioned to them, in court having to answer questions in quick fire, meeting a stranger for the first time, and many other situations beside.

For Naomi we had a situation a few months ago when she came home on the nursery bus with tears sitting behind her eyes just waiting to fall down her cheeks and onto her clothes. Even with her language skills she was unable to tell us what had happened. So I held her, looked into her eyes and slowly said ‘show mummy’. So she went straight to her nursery bag and brought out her diary. In it was a card to say she had had her teeth polished at nursery that day. For two hours she had detested the taste of the polish in her mouth to the point she had felt sick. She didn’t spit the clumps out as she knows spitting isn’t nice. She had a drink, we got out all those horrid tasting clumps of polish and we shared a cuddle. She showed mummy the problem when her words would not come. And I was able to put it right and comfort her and show her all was well without using many words too. A hug and a smile go deeper than words ever can.


Isaac can’t speak. Now and again, mostly when very upset, we will hear the occassional ‘mum’. We have tried, speech therpists have tried and many other professionals have tried. But so far the words won’t come. So he shows me.

He shows me he is hungry by going to the cupboard and getting a plate:


He shows me he wants more by outstretching his arms:


He shows me he likes something by touching it:


He shows me he loves me..even when the words won’t come.


I tell my children all the time I love them. But I also show them. I tell my husband I love him everyday too. But I also show him. And he shows and tells me too. This week marks our 15th wedding anniversary. Long before the wedding, long before we ever had children, before we even confessed our feeling towards each other we had a special moment. Our relationship started with a hug. An embrace that conveyed way more than any amount of words. No words can ever adequately convey the feelings and emotions of a first kiss. 15 years later there are still many moments of silent love. When the house is quiet and he makes me a cup of my favourite hot drink the way he knows I like it. When I am in a shop and see the book he has been looking for for months and I buy it as a surprise. When we have got through another day of appointments and stresses and screaming and that smile and hug at the end of the day says more than the inside of any greeetings card ever could.

When that smile and the light in the eyes shows love when the words won’t come:


Cards are great. But sometimes there are no words to describe what you want to say. And sometimes you just don’t have words to start with.

So share a hug, send some flowers, smile, laugh together, treat someone, listen, spend time with people and show them you care. Actions really do speak louder than words. I know my children love me even though neither of them say. Even though one has the words and the other one is non verbal it doesn’t matter because they show me…even when the words won’t come.