Why do Autistic People Take Things Literally?

ringmasters tale, autism all stars. aspergers, autism, disability, diversity, parenting, psychotherapy, special needs, literal thinking, autism awareness, autism acceptance

One of the main criteria for receiving an autism diagnosis is having ‘problems with verbal and non-verbal communication’. These problems (or complications as I prefer to call them) can take various forms, but without question one of the most widely recognised is the way autistic people seem to take everything literally. So, why does this happen?

Well, first it’s important to recognise that it doesn’t come from a lack of understanding of what’s being said to them, but from a difference in processing the information they’re taking in.

All language has two layers of meaning: what words actually mean (their literal meaning) and what we want them to mean (their figurative meaning) which is where the expression ‘figure of speech’ comes from (when someone says one thing but means something else).
Sometimes it’s easy to spot this kind of thing, for instance when someone says ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ or ‘I laughed my head off’. Now, I say it’s easy to spot, but actually this kind of language is one of the things autistic people can have real difficulty making sense of.

Dyslexic people always ask ‘Why can’t words just be spelled the way they sound?’ while autistic people ask ‘Why can’t people just say what they mean?’ It’s one of the main reasons people on the spectrum struggle so much with social situations, but with a little understanding and patience, it’s easily resolved. The best way to deal with this is to remember that autistic people don’t automatically understand what’s implied, only what’s actually said.

Why? Well it all comes down to brain wiring.

All brains collect information from their environment and process it the best way they can in order to make sense of the world around them. The way a brain usually works is to create a filing system that groups similar objects and instructions together so it can respond to them in roughly the same way whenever it encounters them in the future.
For example: Four legs + fur + teeth + waggy tail = Dog. Once it’s been identified, anything representing a dog (a picture, sculpture, toy etc.) will be filed in the same group, making it easier to react to dogs in an appropriate way in the future.
Autistic brains, however, don’t automatically group these things together, and instead they initially file everything as a separate piece of information with no apparent similarity to anything else. At the same time, autistic people can also have an incredible ability to pattern match and can very often spot patterns in things that neurotypical people overlook, it’s just that when it comes to something being missing in an instruction or statement (in other words ‘implied’), and they therefore have to make the connections using only the information provided, things can sometimes go off track.
This results in two distinct character traits in autistic people when they’re young: either they appear to have no sense of danger whatsoever (because they can’t predict what might happen if they run across a road, for instance) or they have greatly heightened anxiety for the very same reason.
When it comes to following instructions, unless something is mentioned, an autistic brain won’t bring it into the equation, whatever that happens to be. See the image below for a classic example of perfect autistic thinking…

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Rookie mistake. Did you mention moving the cat? Well, did you? No; moving the cat was implied, not actually said.

After countless scenarios just like this one, I taught my children to ask themselves ‘How likely is that?’ before following an instruction they thought seemed a bit unusual. On the whole it’s worked really well, although my husband still gets caught out by it every now and then.

Here’s an actual conversation from my house:

‘Nigel, did you ask Aidan to put the clean towels upstairs in the bathroom?’
‘Did you mention anything about putting them in the airing cupboard?’
‘Er…no, I don’t think so. Why?’
‘Oh, no reason…’

ringmasters tale, autism all stars, aspergers, autism, disability, diversity, parenting, psychotherapy, special needs, literal thinking, autism awareness, autism acceptance

The other thing we’ve done is introduce the children to puns, metaphors and figures of speech by pointing out how funny they can be. There are some really good books available on Amazon, and working through them together can be a great bonding experience. Expect lots of misunderstandings and most likely a bit of frustration during the learning process, but do persevere because if they can get to grips with this kind of thing, you’ll find autistic people can turn out to be masters of dry humour.

The fact that people on the spectrum start off with such a disjointed filing system yet manage to not only function but in many cases achieve wonderful things, is just one of the many reasons I think they’re so incredible.
I talk about this in much more detail in my book The Ringmaster’s Tale and also tell one of my favourite stories about literal thinking, which I’ll leave you with here:

When my son Dominic was sixteen his friend’s brother had open heart surgery and he asked how the operation had gone. His friend said ‘Well, they were in the theatre much longer than expected’ to which Dominic replied ‘Wow! They went to the theatre? He must have been feeling better.’ Without missing a beat, his friend said ‘Not that kind of theatre, Dom’ and they carried on with their conversation.
That it was an operating theatre was clearly implied by the fact an operation had just taken place, so Dominic’s friend didn’t bother to say the word ‘operating’, only the word ‘theatre’.
To Dominic’s mind though, a theatre is where you watch a play, and because he couldn’t add the right context to what he’d been told, it seemed perfectly logical (if rather surprising) that the lad must have suddenly gone on a night out.
Instead of making fun of Dominic for this, his friend realised he actually hadn’t explained himself clearly enough, and dealt with it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Autism acceptance at its best!



  • Natalia Torres says:

    Amazing! Thank you so much. I’m sharing with teachers and the staff that works with my boys at school. So well explained!

  • Kevin Levites says:

    I’m an autistic adult, and have had no end of issues with literalness….especially at work.

    I, for example, was a security guard in a library, and a part of my job was to evict sleeping patrons.

    I see a guy sleeping, and I wake him up to make him leave, and he shows me a medical alert bracelet that says he’s a narcoleptic, so I let him stay.

    I get written up, because there’s “no such thing as an exception to the rules”.

    A week later, and elderly man who is quite spry hires a nurse to take his wife of 60 years out of the nursing home, where she lives because she has end stage Alzheimer’s…..with catheters, feeding tubes, a tracheostomy, oxygen, and so forth.

    I get suspended because I didn’t kick them out because she was unconscious.

    Now, here’s where I get to the point: I get fired because I kicked a woman out of the library because her baby was sleeping in the baby carriage.

    What no one believes is that I don’t see a difference between a sleeping baby in a baby carriage and an eldery, paralyzed, brain damaged, dying woman in a wheelchair when it comes to sleeping in the library.

    I don’t want to hear that I don’t have common sense, because if common sense doesn’t work for a narcoleptic, and it doesn’t work for an elderly, paralyzed woman in a wheelchair…..then why does it suddenly work for a baby in a baby carriage?

    • Helen says:

      Hi Kevin,
      I’m so sorry to hear you’re experiencing these difficulties. The best thing to do would be to make sure your employers are aware of how to make appropriate adjustments for their autistic employees. Here’s a great place to look for help with this issue: https://www.autism.org.uk/professionals/employers/information-for-employers/managing.aspx
      Hope things go well for you.

    • Pj says:

      Coming from a non-autistic person: Quite frankly, I think your employers were scum. Narcolepsy is a medical condition and they wrote you up for making a simple reasonable adjustment to someone who had evidence of their medical condition. And a woman was unconscious for goodness sake. As far as I see it, you did the right thing. As for the baby, you were specifically told by your employers that there is no exception to the rules (which is most likely illegal depending where you live, when it comes to a medical condition), so you followed the instructions literally. If you’re in the UK, then the employers broke the law regarding disabled people, and they likely broke the law by firing you for following instructions, though not enough people have enough understanding of autism so a judge may not understand.

      My point is, you did nothing wrong – your idiot employers did. You used compassion the first time and, were it not for the employer’s instructions, would probably have not thrown out the woman with the baby. Also, the ridiculous answer to why it’s not alright to kick out the woman with the baby: Babies are cute. It’s the same illogical reason that shops that have ‘no dogs except assistance dogs’ signs let small dogs in that are clearly not assistance dogs as they’re running about all over the place.

      A more logical reason though would be that babies cannot read signs and have absolutely no control over when they sleep, plus they have little awareness of situations. Their brains are not developed enough to understand what they are and are not allowed to do. But being unable to control falling asleep also applies to the narcoleptic guy. So your employer was absolutely wrong.

      • Caitlin says:

        Exactly! Totally agree and very unfortunate for you Kevin. You were on the money (in the right). No room for initiative in some circumstances. Bosses will tweak rules regardless sometimes, just to reinforce their position. Sad 🙁 not a healthy way to govern.

    • Alex says:

      Sounds like your boss might’ve just been a hardass. It’s not always you.

  • Kevin Levites says:

    Thank you all for the validation and the support. It means a lot.

    Thank you again.

    –Kevin Levites

    • Helen says:

      Hi Kevin,
      Thank you so much for your kind words, they’re much appreciated. I just checked out your book ‘Field Notes of an Autistic Paramedic’ and it looks fantastic so I’ve ordered myself a copy on Kindle. Look out for my review on Amazon as soon as I’ve finished it!
      Very best wishes,

  • Kevin Levites says:

    I want to thank everybody again for the validation, and to thank Helen again for the interest in my book.

    When discussing why autistic people are so literal, I have a sightly different view on this subject.

    Albert Mehrabian–in 1967–decided that communication was 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and only about 7% was attributed to what was actually being said. Many people (including Mehrabian himself) claim that these numbers are not absolute, and are often quoted out of context . . . but let us accept these percentages for just a moment, so that I can make a point.

    Autistic sensory issues having to do with sound and tone are very common. We have trouble seperating different noises and sounds from each other.

    So . . . tone of voice (38%) of the communication is lost. It is also well-known that autistic people have trouble interpreting body language. This trouble with body language seems–to me–like a form of dyslexia. I suspect that this trouble with body language is related to sensory issues in the same way that we have trouble processing sensory input from lights, clashing colors, and so forth. This sensory “noise” drowns out the details of body language like static on a television set.

    This means that another 55% of the communication is lost, which only leaves us with the 7% that is being said . . . and people wonder why we are so literal.

  • Stephen Hinkle says:

    I think part of it is when persons on the autism spectrum recall the meaning of a word, the first meaning that comes to their mind is the literal meaning. It takes them longer to determine if something is an idiom, sarcasm, slang, joke, or a symbolism for example.

  • Dave says:

    Hi everyone,

    This was helpful to read. I just had a difficult situation with my fiancée. We had some of her work colleagues over for a few beers and she said before they arrived that she was going to have some last few puffs of her electronic cigarette. She had previously told me that she doesn’t do it in front of her work colleagues.

    The arrived, after about an hour, the battery on my electronic cigarette died and I asked her where her one was. She scowled at me. I didn’t understand why.

    After they left she was very upset. She said that she had told me that she doesn’t use it in front of them.

    My brain didn’t interpret it the way she intended it to. I had no idea that asking to borrow her one would jeopardise her position and make her look like she was hiding something from her work colleagues. When she told me that she doesn’t use it in front of them, I didn’t think for one minute that they didn’t know that she used one at all 🙁 I feel so dumb

    • admin says:

      Hi Dave,
      Honestly, there’s no need to feel dumb about this at all. What your girlfriend said IMPLIED that her work colleagues didn’t know she used one at all, rather that STATING that was the case. My advice would be to have a chat with her and explain that’s just not how autistic brains interpret information, so if she can be really specific about what she tells you in future, it would be very helpful.
      I’m sure she understands now that you didn’t do anything on purpose to embarrass her, but I can understand her reaction at the time, because whether you meant to or not, you did still make her feel embarrassed in front of people who are important to her. This is such a common challenge for autistic people in relationships, but there’s a huge difference between doing it deliberately and not understanding things that haven’t been said out loud. Maybe you could show her the blog post about why this happens so she’s got a bit more information about it.
      Good luck with sorting this out, and I hope you feel a bit better about yourself now we’ve discussed it.
      Best wishes to you and your girlfriend,

  • Catherine says:

    I have a friend who tries to help me be less literal by saying no when he means yes and yes when he means no. But not always, so I can’t just assume he’s doing it. I don’t really understand why he does this. It feels like he’s trying to ‘cure’ my autism rather than simply accepting me as I am.
    I always believe what people say to me, which is probably just another form of being literal.

    • Helen says:

      That must be SO confusing for you, Catherine!
      Maybe you could get him to read this blog post so he understands a bit more about how autistic brains process language.
      Good luck!
      Best wishes,

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