While trying to analyse the strategies I’ve formed over the years for understanding non-literal language, it occurred to me that a helpful way to look at it would be to compare my present-day abilities with those of my childhood, and see what I’ve learnt over time.
There is one very vivid memory I have, from when I was ten years old, of an incident which was highly distressing to me at the time, but which in retrospect actually amuses me. I do find a lot of humour in the way things can be taken literally when not intended that way, and the misunderstandings which occur, because even now, I always visualise the literal meaning even when I know that is not the intended meaning.
This particular incident happened at school. It was at boarding school, and one day we had a class in the gym. We were doing some creative group work – some project or other. I can’t remember the details, but then my mind was mostly focusing on being confused. The very fact of being in the gym disoriented me. I liked being in the classroom, at my desk, knowing what I was doing. This project work in the gym was all very confusing and vague to me – I didn’t really know where I was supposed to be, exactly, other than in the gym. Everyone was walking around, in all kinds of directions, and there was no order. And of course, because it was groupwork in the gym, the other children were talking in huddles about all kinds of things – social chitchat at the same time as talking about the project.
So I did what I had learnt to do at this school in social-type situations. I was annoying in a silly way, which made people respond to me in an amused, jokey telling-off way. I had learnt this behaviour as a way of joining in when there was no structure. For instance, one thing I did was to take people’s bags and run off with them, so that they chased after me, laughing, telling me to give them back, and then I’d give them back, and they would banter with me. I can’t remember what exactly I did on this day – I think it was something I said. But one girl in my group (let’s call her Sarah) wasn’t as humouring of me as the girls I usually bantered with/annoyed. She said to me: ‘Oh, go to hell!’
I froze in horror and felt a feeling of deep fear and distress in my stomach.
Now, at one level, I was quite accustomed to the dynamics of insults. I was familiar with the custom of children calling each other names like ‘pig’ or ‘wally’ or ‘wombat’ or ‘cow’ – and would join in with relish! I found it quite amusing because obviously we weren’t really pigs or cows. I was also familiar being told to ‘shut up’ and ‘go away’, and also saying that to others. It wasn’t nice when people said such things, but I understood it and was familiar with it. But being told to go to hell was something I wasn’t familiar with at all.
Well, I was familiar with the concept of hell – I knew it was a nasty fiery furnace where people went when they died if they didn’t go to heaven. I knew it was a terrible place. I therefore thought Sarah must really really hate me to want me to go there. I must have done something very dreadful indeed. There was also the distressingly confusing aspect of the fact that I wasn’t dead. I’d never heard of alive people going to hell, and so I had no idea how to go about it. In my confusion, I literally thought I had to go to hell right away, because Sarah had told me to. I had already been confused as to where I should be and what I should be doing, but now I realised that the place I should be wasn’t even in the gym, because hell wasn’t in the gym.
I walked out of the gym, and my eyes become hot with tears. I walked down the small corridor that linked the gym to the rest of the primary school. There were some doors that I knew about – the door that led to the toilets and the door that led outside – and there were also doors I’d never opened before, and I found myself wondering if hell was behind them. Maybe if I’d thought about it logically, I would have realised this was a daft thought process, but my mind was racing and panicking in a confused and terrified way. I had to go to hell. I didn’t want to go to hell. I didn’t know how to go to hell. I was horrified that Sarah hated me that much that she was sending me there.
One of the girls from my group saw me in the corridor and told me to come back into the gym.
‘No, I can’t,’ I said.
She saw in my face that I was crying and asked me what was the matter. I explained to her, through great gasping sobs, that I didn’t want to go to hell, and that I didn’t know how to get there, and that hell was a horrible place. She was completely confused and got another girl to come talk to me with her. They both asked me what was wrong, and eventually managed to get from me that Sarah had told me to go to hell.
They then told me that it was ‘just an expression’ – which meant nothing to me. I knew it was an expression. Anything anyone said was an expression. And this expression had told me to go to hell. They told me that Sarah didn’t hate me and that I should come back into the gym. I told them I couldn’t go back into the gym because she’d told me to go to hell and that hell wasn’t in the gym.
The girls tried to reassure me that it would be all right and that they would sort it out. They went back into the gym and then, a little later, Sarah came out. She came up to me, looked totally confused. She asked me what was wrong.
I told her the same as what I’d told the other girls – that I didn’t want to go to hell, and that hell was a horrible place, and that she must hate me very much to want me to go there, and that I don’t even know how to go to hell, and that I’m still alive, and that dead people go to hell, and that if she wants me to go to hell she must tell me how to get there.
What I remember most about this conversation with Sarah is her complete confusion – and also her kindness. She was genuinely astonished that I was so upset, and she tried very hard to make me feel better. She explained that she said ‘Go to hell’ to lots of people, and that it was an expression (this still meant nothing to me!) and that she didn’t really want me to go to hell (this reassured me enormously!) and that it was her way of saying she was annoyed with me, but that she still wanted me to be in the gym, and that she wasn’t annoyed with me forever, and that she liked me.
I’m actually really impressed in retrospect at her maturity in dealing with it. She was pretty mature for her age in general – she was taller, larger and more developed than the other girls. Also, thinking about it, the expression ‘Go to hell’ is one said more by older people, which is why I’d never heard any of my peers saying it before. As I was very young for my age, Sarah and I were very different and I’d actually barely spoken to her before this experience of having to work in a group with her.
Anyway, it amuses me in retrospect because it seems so ridiculous that I took it literally. But, thinking about it, it only seems ridiculous because of the context I have since learnt. And I think that is how strategies work for understanding non-literal speech – it’s about becoming aware of contexts, aware of expressions and types of expressions, and also aware of the world in general.
Because I’d grown up in a religious environment, I was used to hell being talked about literally, and very seriously. As an adult, I’ve been exposed to many different people with many different beliefs, who refer to hell with very different understandings of it, so I now have that wider context.
Also, as a child, I didn’t know how to deal with confusion. Now, if I am confused, I try to analyse it – or if I’m so confused I can’t analyse, I am at least aware that I am prone to misunderstanding people because of my Aspergers. This self-awareness is really useful. It causes me to try to find another way of understanding something if I am confused. I have the larger awareness that my confusion isn’t because the world is a completely random and unpredictable place, where anything can happen (including me being required to go to hell in the middle of class!), but because I have difficulties seeing the bigger picture sometimes, and making the links I need to make. Awareness of this makes me look for the big picture and the links whenever I’m confused or distressed – and to ask people I trust for their perspective, when I’m still confused. As it is confusion and distress that prompts me to analyse and look for the big picture, the mistakes I tend to make most often are when it hasn’t even occurred to me to be confused (such as when, as I described in an earlier post, people ask if I want to go out for coffee).
It takes years to build up such strategies though. They are largely about learning context by being in lots of different situations. Because of difficulty generalising, it’s important for people on the autistic spectrum to be exposed to many different people and situations. I store in my mind all the different situations I encounter. It’s like a reference book in my head that I can refer to in order to deal with new situations. Then, when I am trying to interpret a new person and situation, I can find all the similar people and situations in my memory and use those to help me translate the new person and situation. Obviously, building up this mental list takes time. And I have purposely put myself in many different and unusual and challenging situations (such as different sorts of job, volunteer work, travelling, etc.) simply so that I could learn how to deal with them. I do that less as I grow older though, because it does take a lot of energy.
Another strategy I’ve learnt, although I use it selectively and with discretion, is to ask people what they mean when I am confused. For a long time I didn’t do this because I didn’t want to appear foolish. I often don’t know whether something is confusing just to me or to everyone. If other people ask, then I realise it’s confusing to everyone, but if no one else asks, I imagine it’s something obvious to everyone else. So in the past I’ve tended to say nothing, and try to hide my confusion. But now I often ask, depending on the person and the situation. If someone knows I have Aspergers, or is generally a patient, open-minded person, then I am comfortable asking. But I will avoid asking the people who look at me like I’m stupid when I ask such questions, or who make sarcastic comments to me. I find when I am able to ask, and the person I ask explains, then I am able to understand what’s going on a lot better than when I don’t ask, and as a result I can join in conversation more.
The other strategy, as I mentioned, is self-awareness. It’s about knowing that you have this difficulty with non-literal language, accepting it and being alert to the fact that, if you are experiencing confusion, this specific difficulty with non-literal language may well be the reason. It’s also about remembering to look for the non-literal ‘layer’ after understanding the literal meaning, and being patient with yourself, knowing that you might need some time to process. I find I feel a pressure to respond straight away – so when I don’t understand something that is addressed directly to me, I will respond with a sort of laugh or an ‘mmm’. And then, a few moments later, after I’ve processed what the person has said, I will sometimes realise that my response wasn’t appropriate, so I say ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear what you said at first’ and then I will respond more appropriately. If I didn’t respond automatically straight away, then that sort of awkwardness wouldn’t happen. So I’d like to get out of the habit of responding straight away. I think this will involve being patient with myself. I observe that there are plenty of people who don’t respond straight away in conversation, and it’s not perceived as a bad thing, so it is a behaviour I could adopt as a strategy for processing the non-literal levels of conversation.
So, to sum up, the strategies I’ve pinpointed are:
- Being aware that you have a difficulty understanding non-literal language, and applying this awareness to confusing situations
- Looking for non-literal layers after you’ve processed the literal meaning
- Being exposed to many different situations and people, and using these to interpret new ones
- Asking people what they mean when you are confused and when you can trust the person to respond helpfully
These strategies are what I’ve applied to myself and have been helpful, but I’m sure my list isn’t comprehensive. So if anyone has other strategies, I’d be interested to hear them.