One trait that often comes along with Asperger’s is a very literal mind. In my mind, words tend to correspond to specific concepts, and the construction of a sentence is a lot like the building of a mathematical formula– it’s meant to communicate (usually) one particular thing.

Of course, language is much more complicated than that. Sometimes two completely distinct concepts are represented by the same word. Often, the same word can have different meanings depending on the context of the words around it or the context of the entire conversation. And there are endless ways to play with this capacity for words to mean different things– poetry, metaphor, puns are all possible because of all this. And if the words are spoken out loud, things like vocal inflection and facial expressions can influence the meaning as well.

I think it’s likely that all children get confused about an expression they haven’t heard before, but Asperger’s can make it easier to miss some of the contextual signals that clue people in about what a person means. A manager at CNN who has Asperger’s shared an example of this from her elementary school days:

“In first grade, whenever someone made a mess in the classroom, the teacher would ask a student to get the janitor. The student would come back with Mr. Jones (not really his name), who carried a broom and large folding dustpan. When I was asked to get the janitor, I looked all over the school and reported back to the teacher that I could not find it. After all, the person was Mr. Jones, so the janitor must be the object, right?”

That’s very logical thinking! I have a couple of funny examples of my own literal thought processes from when I was the same age.

Every Wednesday, my school had chapel. The whole elementary school gathered in the sanctuary (at the time, the school was held in a church building), and someone would teach a Bible lesson. At one of the earliest chapels I can remember, the school principal spoke about 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which says simply “Pray without ceasing.” (It makes a great memory verse, because it’s only 3 words!)

The principal gave several reasons why it was important to pray without ceasing, and I got the central message. But there was one problem: I had no idea what the word ceasing meant. I knew that when it was time to pray, teachers would usually tell us to bow our heads, close our eyes, fold our hands, and stop talking, so maybe ceasing was not doing these things. “Whatever ceasing is,” I resolved, “I want to make sure I don’t do it while I’m praying!”

I chuckle when I think back on it now, but I also wonder if I would have been even more confused if I had known that ceasing means “stopping.” Taken absolutely literally, this could mean that I would have to pray 24 hours a day and never eat, sleep, or do anything else! But, of course, that’s not the only meaning the word “stopping” can have. If a friend tells me that they “stopped” smoking, they probably don’t mean that they have been spending 24 hours a day smoking until this very moment. Rather, they’re talking about breaking a habit. Similarly, I believe the Bible is talking about having a habit of prayer that continues throughout one’s whole life.

My other example from first grade is a little more embarrassing, but also funnier. I can’t recall what occasioned this lecture– if it was intended preemptively or if it was in response to specific behavior by my classmates– but one day, my first grade teacher explained in a serious tone that “boys should never try to look up girls’ dresses.”

My mind raced as I tried to figure out what the teacher was talking about: To “look up” something meant to look for it in a book. I knew how to look up words in the dictionary, but why would a girl’s dress be in a book? I tried to make sense of it. Oh! Maybe my teacher was talking about a catalog. I liked to look through toy catalogs to find things I might want for Christmas, but I knew that sometimes there were clothes in catalogs too. Maybe girls don’t like it if you talk about what catalog they bought their dresses from? My parents had told me that it wasn’t polite to ask someone how much money they made, so I guessed that it could be seen as rude if you talked about how much someone else’s clothes had cost. In the end, I decided the whole thing was confusing, but I figured I wouldn’t have a problem obeying the teacher’s instructions, since clothes catalogs were boring anyway! 🙂

Pretty silly, I know! But it was logical reasoning based on the information I had available to me. Recalling these moments of confusion makes me realize how much my thought process takes the form of an internal monologue– if I didn’t understand something, I would turn it over in my head trying to make sense of it. I must have learned pretty early that I preferred remaining confused for a while (until I somehow got the missing piece of the puzzle) to asking a question if something didn’t make sense to me. Maybe when I finally did come to understand the answer, I realized how embarrassing it would have been to ask my original question (that certainly was the case in my second example!).

I wonder if most children would have had an easier time coming to the right conclusion about things like this because of the ability to gain contextual information from people’s inflection, posture, and behavior. Being more social and attuned to what others are thinking in the first place might also help people to pick up idioms and figures of speech almost subconsciously.

While difficulty with non-literal or nuanced speech can be a characteristic of Asperger’s at a young age, when it is often diagnosed, I think it becomes less and less evident as a person grows up. In one of my early posts, I used the android character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation as an example of some Aspie patterns of thinking (with the understanding that in a lot of other ways, Data is very different from a person with Asperger’s).

A running joke with Data was that he often misunderstood figures of speech:

Chief O’Brien: We’re all going to be burning the midnight oil on this one.

Data: That would be inadvisable.

Chief O’Brien: Excuse me?

Data: If you attempt to ignite a petroleum product on this ship at zero-hundred hours, it will activate the fire suppression system, which will seal off this entire compartment.

Then, whenever Data tried to use a figure of speech, he usually failed to understand that the specific wording was important:

Data: I fear we may be pursuing an untamed ornithoid without cause.

Riker: A wild goose chase?

This characteristic could be funny, but it was also one of the things I found least believable about the character of Data.  Even at the very beginning of the series, Data has been around humans for many years.  His android brain gives him the ability to store everything he experiences without the possibility of forgetting it, and he is able to read a book simply by flipping through it.  It doesn’t make sense that it would take so long for him to figure out how to use idioms and figures of speech.

Everyone learns more about how to use language as they grow up, and that includes kids with Asperger’s.  I used to have a children’s book about idioms and figures of speech that organized them into categories (it’s amazing how many figures of speech there are about dogs, for example!) and explained how each phrase came to have the meaning it does today.  Not only did it help me to understand some of the expressions that confused me, but it also piqued my interest in the many nuances of language.  Now I enjoy the fact that language is so flexible!