When I first started reading information about Aspergers, there was one thing that I didn’t think applied to me – the act of taking non-literal language literally. I knew that ‘raining cats and dogs’ didn’t really mean cats and dogs coming out of the sky. I knew that ‘pull your socks up’ didn’t really mean pulling one’s socks up. I knew these things because my mother had explained them to me when I was a child. I also knew about metaphor, because I’d studied English literature and had read all about it and learnt to recognise it in literature. So clearly I couldn’t possibly have the Asperger trait of non understanding non-literal language.
It is only in the past couple of years that I’ve become aware of how literal I am in many ways. In fact it is my very literalness that led me to believe that I couldn’t possibly be literal, because I took it in a very absolute way to mean not being able to comprehend any non-literal language at all. Of course, it is a lot more complex than that.
In reality, while I understand metaphors and non-literal language that has been explained to me, I often don’t understand metaphors that I’ve never heard before. I also often don’t understand sarcasm. Having Aspergers is a bit harder in some ways when you’re a Brit, because Brits love sarcasm and employ it frequently in a deadpan manner! Not only do I often fail to understand sarcasm, but I often take exaggerations literally. I remember a few years ago someone telling me about firemen having to come to her house for some minor incident. She said something about hundreds of sexy firemen in her living room, and I replied with confusion ‘Why did you need hundreds of them?’ She didn’t reply, and she and her friend exchanged glances. I realised a few days later that she must have been exaggerating!
But note the fact that I did realise. So it’s not so much that I’m unable to get non-literal language, but more that I often don’t process it at the time. Listening to someone talk is a form of multitasking, and requires a lot of effort. There are many levels:
- the level of hearing the noise
- the level of recognising it as speech
- the level of recognising each phoneme and recognising the words which the phonemes make up
- the level of understanding the words and how they relate to each other – the literal meaning of the sentences being spoken
And then there is the level of non-literal meaning, which may or may not be present. This involves stepping out of the details and looking at the big picture – the context, the clues, body language, facial expression, etc.
Now, in order to function at all in a conversation, all of the steps before ‘non-literal meaning’ are essential. If you are able to process all these steps (and they do require deliberate concentration – if I don’t make myself concentrate, then I just hear the phonemes and words, and details of the particular way the person pronounces them, with no meaning) then you can normally make general sense of a conversation. And if you’re making general sense, and it’s taking a lot of effort, there is nothing particularly that prompts you to make the extra effort to analyse the further layer for potential non-literal meaning.
For myself, it’s often after I’ve taken it literally that I realise. I might say something and receive an odd response from those I’m talking to. It takes a while to process the odd response – to analyse it, to work it out. Or maybe I have said nothing and the conversation has continued, but the oddness of the thing the person has said (and if it’s non-literal, it generally is odd when taken literally) will stay in my mind and will not leave until it’s been sorted out. If it’s not particularly odd, it may take a very long time.
For instance, it’s only recently dawned on me that ‘going out for coffee’ does not literally mean this. Now I’ve been going out for coffee for many years. It generally happens along the following lines:
A friend suggests going out for coffee. In my mind I am going out for a drink of coffee. I like coffee so I agree. We go to a coffee shop and I order a coffee. My friend may order a coffee too. Or she may order a hot chocolate. In which case my thought process goes something like this: ‘Oh – she changed the plan and ordered hot chocolate instead of coffee, without telling me she was changing it. That’s a bit cheeky – she could have told me! Ah well, it’s not a big deal.’
Now, because I have a lot of food intolerances, there are times when coffee gives me bad abdominal pains, so there have been times when friends suggested going for coffee and I explained that I wasn’t feeling well and that coffee would give me tummy ache. In such cases, they would tell me that there were other drinks available that I could order. My understanding of this was that they were changing the plan just for me, to fit around my tummy ache – so were were no longer ‘going out for coffee’, but ‘going out for coffee for everyone else and a different drink for me – and possibly a different drink for some of the others if they decided to change their mind when they got there’.
After several years, I realised that changing the plan at the coffee shop happens quite a bit, and that it would probably wouldn’t breach any etiquette if I did it myself, even though it is officially supposed to be coffee. After all, sometimes, when going out ‘for coffee’ with friends, I would see a drink I’d rather have, such as green tea. So, in this case, knowing that it was common practice to change the plan, I started to tell my friends, slightly tentatively, ‘Actually, I think I’m going to have a green tea’. I decided that informing them was the polite thing to do, since the plan was to have coffee. And they didn’t respond oddly to me, because after all, people often discuss what they are going to order, and they had no way of knowing that I was taking the coffee thing literally.
So, in all these years, I never realised that I was taking something non-literal in a literal way, because nothing out of the ordinary happened in our conversations to make me think I was misunderstanding. It was actually only a few days ago, in a conversation with someone who pointed out that a mutual friend on the spectrum takes literally the concept of going out for coffee, that I realised that is what I was doing too. That ‘going out for coffee’ actually really means ‘going out to a place which sells coffee and other drinks, and having whatever drink you feel like having’. This is actually quite a revelation to me. I also don’t like it – it’s inaccurate! I do not want to say ‘I’m going out for coffee’ when I’m intending to go out for tea. But then ‘going out for drinks’ really means ‘going out for alcoholic drinks’ (another non-literal phrase that took me quite a while to figure out!) so I can see that from a conciseness point of view ‘Going out for coffee’ is an economical – albeit inaccurate! – use of words.
Another thing about non-literal language that I’ve noticed lately is that when I am tired or unwell I am a lot slower to grasp even the most obvious metaphors. I observed this as I was reading Facebook updates a while ago, at a time when I was extremely tired. Someone had updated that she was ‘sorry to hear’ about a former teacher of hers. Now, while nothing about death was mentioned, I decided after a quick analysis of the sentence that the teacher must have died – because ‘sorry to hear’ doesn’t, in my experience, tend to have any other meaning in the absense of further details. The next sentence, however, totally confused me and made me think that he couldn’t have died after all. It included the words ‘rest in peace’. Surely, I reasoned, she wouldn’t be telling someone to rest if they were dead, nor wishing them peace. It is living people who rest and experience peace. So this person was clearly alive. So what was my friend sorry about?
I reread the status a few times trying to figure it out, and after a while I remembered that ‘rest in peace’ is an expression used to pay respects to dead people. It’s an expression I’d learnt outside the context of literal meaning – I’d observed first it as RIP, learnt that it was short for ‘Rest in peace’ and simply taken it as a phrase, all by itself, for dead people. Seeing it in the context of a Facebook paragraph, rather than as a single three-word phrase, had confused me, because in paragraphs I take each word individually. Had I not been tired I’d have no doubt figured it out a lot sooner – but having such an experience of language when I am tired is useful to me because it shows me in slow motion how I process language, and I can analyse the steps.
I don’t see this difficulty as being specifically about non-literal language, but more about difficulty integrating all the layers of language. People focus on the non-literal aspect when describing ASDs, but I think it would be more useful to look at it in terms of multitasking and integration of layers. It’s a sort of economy, when processing takes so much effort, to discard of the layers that are not absolutely necessary.
It’s not that we are incapable of understanding non-literal language, body language, facial expression, etc., but they each require an extra level of deliberate concentration, as the autistic brain doesn’t naturally integrate them all together. (Incidentally, if I watch a movie with the sound muted, I observe every little detail of facial expression and body language.) So the act of not making that extra deliberate effort and act of intense concentration is a way of conserving energy. Basically, a trade-off. Yes, you miss out on nuances and it can cause misunderstanding and bad feelings, but if you are generally understanding basic meanings and functioning, is it always worth expending more of your very limited energy supply to search for layers of meaning that provide the nuance that makes social interaction more graceful? For me, sometimes it is, but a lot of the time it isn’t. It involves exhausting constant hyper-vigilance, which isn’t good for the body or mind. And frankly I would much rather be a loner with a couple of friends and be able to relax and have energy and focus, than expend all my energy and be constantly hypervigilant to acquire many friends and great popularity.