Sunday 8 January 2017

What does it mean to be a Literal thinker?

A common characteristic of individuals who are on the Autism Spectrum is that they can be very literal. They may have difficulty in grasping abstract concepts or understanding non-tangible ideas. And they tend to take words and/or phrases literally.

The English language is full of slangs, puns, paradoxes and just downright confusing phrases. This can pose a very daunting challenge for an individual with Autism. A literal thinker will take language literally and the words that they speak and hear, they process them in a concrete way.

Basically an individual with Autism will mean what they say, say what they mean and hear the words that you say, not the meaning behind them.

L and O are no exception! All children can be very literal thinkers. My two little superheroes take it that one step further!

We are still learning what we can and can't say to our little superheroes.

For example......and there are many!

Don't say "there go the frogs again" when Daddy superhero lets rip with a fart!
The result was that L and O start rummaging through the front garden looking for said frogs! That was one very long conversation trying to explain that there weren't actually any frogs croaking, it was just Daddy letting off some gas!

Don't say "go and turn on the taps L" when there is only one tap in the bathroom sink.
Result is that L goes into the bathroom and turns on the sink tap and the bathtub tap and then forgets to turn both off when he leaves the room! Every single time! Note to self, stop saying this!

Don't say "go to bed" when it is sleep time and L is already in bed.
The result is L says "but I am in bed, see, I here!" Aaaagh!!!!! Go to sleep, I meant, go to sleep!

Don't say "No calling out from bed tonight please" to O when she is tucked up in bed and meant to go to sleep.
Result is that ten minutes later you hear a tapping noise coming from O's room. When I went in and said "O, I said no calling out" O responded with "but I wasn't calling out, I was tapping the bed, I didn't call out. It's different!" Yes it is different, guess I should have said no noise please!

Don't say "Just a minute" or "Just wait a second."
Both little superheroes walked off and came back a minute later. Yep, they went and counted to 60 and then came straight back. Next time I gave a time frame and you guessed it, they were back immediately after the time frame finished.

Don't say "hold your horses."
Both little superheroes stood there with their mouths open catching flies as they looked for some horses to hold. Oh dear, why did I say that!

Don't say "let's do your maths homework a different way" to O.
O then becomes very upset because "Miss S said this is how we have to do it." We had quite a few conversations with Miss S during the school year about completing homework in a different way.

Don't say "we're following our noses" when O or L ask where we are going.
Take a guess on how many odd looks I got with two children walking around with their heads poked forward and bottoms pushed out as they tried to follow their noses. Why oh why did I say that.

Don't say "go and hop in the bath" to L when it is bathtime.
Not even going to explain this one. Needless to say it was hilarious, even L had a giggle!

Don't say "we're lost" when O or L ask where we are as we're driving in the car.
This evokes a lot of crying and children saying "but I don't want to be lost!"

I think their very literal take on the world and words is one reason why my little superheroes like everything to be organised and in O's case, why everything has to be done in the correct way.

Because of their very literal take on the world, my little superheroes can also be very honest, in fact they can be brutally honest. They also cannot tell a tie to save themselves.

Don't ask them if your hair looks good or what they think of what you are wearing if you want an honest answer. They'll give you one, even if it means that the answer comes out as an insult.

They don't mean to insult you, they are just answering your question.

So how can this literal take on the world be beneficial to individuals with Autism I hear you ask?

While it means that people on the spectrum can have a very hard time comprehending what other people are saying, which in turn can make social situations even more awkward, it also means that individuals may be very exact when completing tasks.

Being exact and precise and thorough can be an asset. Not being distracted by the social happenings around them, means that they can focus on the task that they were given. This is not to say that individuals who aren't on the spectrum can't focus too. We all have this ability, some just perform it better than others!

I watched a BBC episode of "Employable Me" several weeks ago.  The episode followed two gentlemen, one of whom had Autism, as they applied for jobs. The young fellow with Autism was incredibly literal and preferred things around him to be exact and precise. Long story short, he applied for and was given a work trial in a computer manufacturing plant. Within the first few days of his work trial he was able to pick up faults in the software programs, that the software developers hadn't been able to find.

The episode concluded with him being offered a position within the company. The CEO of the company recognised that his eye to detail would be an incredible asset to the company.

Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lewis Carroll ..... all of these people have something in common, apart from their brilliant minds. They're all thought to have been on the spectrum. They have all touched and changed the world in some way, they were all extremely precise, thorough and focused on what they did.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science a the Colorado State University. The University calls her "the most accomplished and well known adult with autism in the world." If you haven't watched one of her TED talks, you should. Temple didn't speak until she was three and a half years old, she communicated her frustration by screaming, peeping and humming. After receiving the diagnosis of Autism, her parents were told that they should institutionalize her, but they didn't. And look at what she has achieved. Temple is also an outspoken Autism advocate. The world needs more individuals like Temple Grandin.

The next question that I ask myself, is how can we help our children to understand the world around them? How can I make it easier for them to comprehend what others say and mean?

The word "no" can be a huge pitfall in superhero headquarters. The word "no" to my little superheroes means never, not at all, not a chance, not ever.

Instead of saying "no, you can't have an icy pole," we need to re-phrase what we want to say.

No, you can't have an icy pole at the moment, you can have one after lunch. This gives hope to a child who is a literal thinker.

To someone who isn't aware of how literal ASD children are, it may seem that the child is being a brat. The child may be seen to be being intentionally difficult. Sometimes, this can be true. But it more than likely is that it is a misunderstanding. The individual, child or adult, has literally misunderstood what you have said.

When I see that my children are staring at me with confused eyes after I have finished talking, I wait to see if a little light bulb goes off in their heads. If they are still looking at me like I have three heads, I get them to repeat what I have said to see if they have processed the information the way that I meant. If they haven't, then I rethink what I just said and explain it in a different way.

It all comes back to say what you mean and mean what you say!

At times, both O and L need a little more time to process what has been said to them. If L doesn't understand, he will say "what?" O responds with "can you please repeat that?" It's not that they weren't listening or that they are being rude, their brains are just trying to process what we have said and they are recalling a memory on how to answer or respond.

When we repeat what we said, most times they respond to what we are asking or saying. Give your child enough time to process the information if they don't respond straight away. Showing anger or annoyance towards them is a sure fire way to start a meltdown.

Auditory prompting and information should be kept to a minimum. If children are struggling to comprehend what you are saying, they may understand better if visual cues and prompts are given instead.

We use visual cue cards for L at home and also at the Early Intervention Centre that he attends. He may struggle to understand verbal instructions, but if you give him a visual card with the steps on it, he completes the task very quickly. Visual cards can be used to give directions, give instructions, rules, anything that can be explained using pictures.

Below is the visual cue card that we use for L when he needs to get his gear ready for rugby training and games. He brought this to us a few days ago asking where his head gear was - he wasn't sure what it was called but he pointed to the picture and asked. This is a huge step for L.

We also make sure, where possible, that all the adults who have contact with O and L - teachers, carers, coaches, relatives - are aware of just how literal both O and L are. We explain that if they need to give instructions to either O or L, at times both need step by step instructions. This is important as it reduces the frustration on everyone and we avoid the dreaded meltdown.

We are assisting O to understand phrases, multi-meaning words, jokes and playful teasing by using examples that she understands. In some ways, and Miss S her teacher from last year can attest to this, O's dry sense of humour is way above those of her peers. O had to do several speeches as part of the school curriculum last year, she chose to do one of the speeches about sea cucumbers. O found the fact that sea cucumbers breathe through their bottoms (really they do) hilarious and included it in her speech by saying "talk about having bad breathe!" This went straight over her classmates heads, as did several of the jokes Miss S cracked throughout the year. O got them all!

We know that O and L will probably be literal thinkers for a long while yet. And even as adults they may still struggle in certain situations. But the more we do with them now, the easier it will be for them later.

And if all else fails, I have accepted that in the meantime, my little superheroes, at times, are just bona fide smart asses, but in a nice way!


  1. Wow! I am new to learning about autism. I am a nanny and I want to be able to look out for these things. I think it's very true about the English language, we have so many confusing phrases, so it's understandable when a child may take it seriously. Thank you so much for this post!

  2. a really informative post. thanks for sharing

  3. Wonderful post. I have seen my sister in law go through this with my niece and nephews who are autistic and its been a challenge when she has to explain to other family members not to say things unless they are literal. She loves using visuals to help my niece to communicate with others, especially at school.

  4. It can be so hard to remind yourself to speak literally and avoid all of the "phrases" that we usually use without thinking!

  5. This is such a helpful post. I'm so glad that there is more awareness and understanding of autism. With more awareness, comes more understanding.

  6. So interesting so many ways to think. I found this to be very informative!

  7. I love to read more posts about autism and seeing more like these and helping bring awareness to autism is so great!


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