Literal, rigid and Analytical Thinking in Autism


“I am so hungry I could eat a horse”

Silly expression really yet a widely used one. However, for a person with Autism, this expression would actually be taken literally. They would think you eat horses!

“Sit still its like you have ants in your pants”  It is so important to throw off these expressions and also sarcasm, as children and young people on the Spectrum simply take them in the literal sense of the words. Another words they would be likely to respond in panic thinking they actually have to eat a horse, or that they truly have ants in their pants. You have to be so careful with this. We were told of a story of a teenager in mainstream, who had Autism, and she was asked when she was going to do her work. The Teacher said to her “I want you to do that work and not go to lunch or think of anything but completing it. Then bring it in to me.” So, the girl took the work home, started working on it , and struggling with it took 24hrs to complete the task. The next day she took the work in to the Teacher who asked how long she had worked on it. The girl replied” all night and day. The girl then said” can I go get something to eat now?” The girl had taken the Teacher literally and had not eaten anything for the whole time she was working on it because the Teacher had told her she couldn’t eat her lunch or think of anything until the work was completed.

This story was told to us to warn us about how literally Children on the Autism Spectrum take what you say to them. Everyday sarcasm gets on my nerves anyway, but after learning about how literal people with Autism are, I really saw to it that we as a family stopped saying things that could be taken too literally by Jay. Sometimes my older two will be deep in to their video games and will say something like “oh you’ve killed me” Little things like this that neurotypicals say could be  misconstrued by the person with Autism.  Anything said in sarcasm will not be understood, neither will turn of phrase or saying metaphors. A Teacher or Parent may say ” what a shining star” This is totally confusing to a person with Autism, as stars are in the sky and how can a person be a star? Or they may say “thankyou so much you are an angel” Again the person would hear that they are an angel, and so they will think they are or will be very confused as to why they are being called one.

Language is already incomprehensible to many people on the Spectrum, but throw in sarcasm, wit, metaphors, jokes and phrases and they are lost. To help our Special children with this, it is always best to just say exactly what you mean, in clear concise wording and without turn of phrase. For example to say, ” go in the kitchen and get your shoes on and put on your coat and I will be there in a minute” is confusing.  Not only is this a massive sentence to process, it also ends in a promise that the Parent will be there in precisely one minute. The child may become distressed because they have no idea what a minute is. It is a turn of phrase. Instead, you could say  “Please put shoes on. When I have put this away I will help you.” Put the item away and then go and help them. Say what you mean with a clear instruction with a time frame they understand. With Jay, I am now able to give a five minute warning whenever it is time to go or to do another thing. Instead of just saying “in five minutes,” I show Jay five fingers to show what I mean. He may not be able to count down five minutes, but the connecting of five visually to the time frame helps him to compute that a change will happen in a time frame.  If I was to suddenly announce to Jay without a warning that it was story time, or it was time to go home from somewhere he is enjoying, he would panic and go in to a Meltdown, and this has happened a lot to us. I always have to give the warning for any transition in his day, no matter where we are. When I give instructions to Jay, I think of what I am about to say in my head first, to make sure it is clear, basic, computable, and processable to Jay.

One day when it was hot, I said ” its so hot I could melt” After saying this Jay was stressed. He then ran inside and shouted “I will melt” He had taken me literally. I asked him if I could pop some sun cream on last Summer. He said that I could and I proceeded to. I said ” we must wear sun cream as we will burn if we don’t”  I thought nothing of it. This was a few Summers back, and later on that Summer I had noticed that Jay did not want to go out at all. I said ” shall we go and play outside?” He shouted back “no” and cried. Then out of the blue he put his hand on his skin and said “its going to burn me”  He had been genuinely afraid that his skin would burn but like when the dinner gets burnt or food I had burnt and he thinks it is dirty. He had again taken what I said in the literal way. He was visibly anxious and scared that the Sun would burn him. So much that he would not go out in it. Of course I then explained in simple terms that it means your skin will go red and sore so we put on cream to help it stay white. This was a clear factual message as to what his skin would do if the sun caught it and a clear message about what the cream would do to help stop it going red. Sticking to absolute , literal facts is best, however we all use phrases and expressions naturally in our daily lives, and so it is a case of really thinking it through first, and changing the way you speak to the child or young person. Humour is also hard to grasp for people with Autism, and this is yet another barrier to social interaction and makes life difficult for them.

Jay lives his life literally, rigidly and analytically. The structure he requires to his day is what makes his world make sense to him. Going to his mainstream School and trying to follow the endless rules and expectations was too hard for him. Even in his Special School, he has to regularly process all the information, conversations and instructions and he normally does this at the end of the day, which regularly produces a Sensory overload which leads to Meltdown. Language is so complex to him, yet it will all be there swimming around his head just waiting to be computed. This tires him greatly and can cause him to withdraw, where he will switch off from us and immerse himself in his own world of play and structure and routine. Even this world is literal and absolute and analytical. His play is very structured and we are not allowed to move anything. I tend to create art activities to do with Jay because they are again clear and concise. To create a story and game with small world toys takes imagination, and because Jay is literal, he tends to copy or mimic stories from what he watches on television or films or reads in books. He will watch a film and follow the story using his teddies and then mimic that story. So, if I was to join in and change the story it would move away from his interpretation of the story, confusing him and stressing him. With children with Jay’s type of Autism, it is best to be close by and to observe them . This way they are in control, but you feel you are involved.

Because Jay’s brain is literally minded, he prefers non-fiction books and lots and lots of facts! He will read stories at bedtime, but prefers factual books in the daytime. He likes to read things that are true and things that are predictable and sequenced. His hobbies and interests reflect this. Space has Planets which are in sequence. Animals and Insects are predictable too. The life cycles of Frogs and Dragonflies, Moths and Butterflies are all predictable natural rhythms in life, and he loves to look at these over and over again, maybe just to make sure they are the same each time. They are unchanging  and stay the same. The Sun will always rise and set. The Moon will rise and set. Winter will change to Spring, Summer to Autumn, all of this has a predictable outcome. Jay gets stressed about the Weather, because it is not absolute. It can change and unpredictably and so he is weary of it. His literal mind feels calm with anything that he can predict or is non-changing. Anything that is changeable is scary to him, and it lies in the fact that his brain is wired differently to accept only that which is easy and predictable. His brain has an analytical and rigid way of processing the world around him and this includes our language, and how we explain things to him.

Jay knows when he needs space from people. He will just say it. He will say ” go away” he will say “shoo.” Learning to not respond to this with the usual reaction Parents give is something that takes experience and understanding. They are not trying to be rude. They are just being Literal. They need space, so they say so. A child with Autism will say it how it is. They have absolutely no idea that they are offending anyone. They do not tap in to your emotion at these moments, only their own. Yes, they are capable of empathy but it is on their terms when they give it. Jay will notice if a character in his programmes has been hurt or upset,  and he will react with sympathy, yet he will not think twice about telling me he requires my absence rather than my presence, in those moments of over load when he knows that he needs peace, quiet and solitude in order to recover and regroup. This is fine by me. Because I understand Jay and his needs. I have learnt to never get emotional about it. There is no point in becoming hurt or emotional because your child with Autism has told you to go and leave them be. They are simply expressing that they cannot compute or process anymore at that moment and that this is all they are capable of in that time. Jay always comes to me when he has had some time and often will hug me or ask me for a drink, and I just respond in a normal voice saying of course you can. Learning to parent the child with Autism in a non-emotional way is the only way to deal with moments when they hit out or shout or say they don’t want you near them. I am not saying show no emotion because that is needed in order for them to understand their own responses, I am simply saying that in the harder moments its best not to react and just say ” okay I am just in the kitchen if you need me. ” It really does work. Even if you do feel hurt, maybe acknowledge that emotion but don’t allow it to take over you. They are being literal. They are simply telling the truth. As I have said before the rules of society rarely matter to children with Autism. They are too busy trying frantically to process what is expected of them and maybe constantly panicking if they are doing it right. They do not need the added pressure of ‘Social Etiquette’ on top of that, because they do not see the sense in it as their brains are rigid and analytical and literal. Jay sees the world through his own agenda and not mine. Constantly fighting against this natural developmentally different brain is completely pointless because we cannot change it. Their brains are wired this way. We have to find ways of working with this not against it!  All they need is our support, understanding and love.


Above -Jay with his rigid and sequenced way of playing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s