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!
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?’
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