Autistic literalism

In the April 7th New Scientist, an interview with Michael Barton (“Mapping the language minefield for kids with autism” by Alison George), leading with:

Why do people with autism, like yourself, find the English language so confusing?
Autistic people think in black and white and therefore interpret everything literally. Ordinary people seem to love using idioms, metaphors and figurative speech, whether to aid communication or simply to make life more interesting, whereas for autistic people they simply make no sense.

About Barton:

Michael Barton has high-functioning autism, studies physics at the University of Surrey, UK, plays jazz piano and gives talks on the positive aspects of autism. His book It’s Raining Cats and Dogs is published by Jessica Kingsley

The full title of the book:

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An autism spectrum guide to the confusing world of idioms, metaphors and everyday expressions

About the book, Barton says:

I originally started drawing pictures at junior school to help me remember what these phrases meant. Before long I had filled a whole folder and people started asking for copies. I hope the book will help autistic kids learn about idioms, and help adults who deal with autistic kids to understand them better.

Idioms like “it cost him an arm and a leg”, “I gave him a piece of my mind”, and “pull your socks up”; text that must be interpreted in context and taking background knowledge into account (on a bus: “Passengers are to remain seated at all times”); and indirect speech acts:

At junior school my pencil broke, so the teacher asked me to see if there were any in the cupboard. When I returned, pencil-less, she said “Were there any? ” and I said “Yes, lots”.

The number of such problematic expressions is enormous — once we move away from idioms, essentially open-ended — so picking some number of them for a book of helpful advice is quite a task. I haven’t seen the book yet; my copy is in the mail.


One Response to “Autistic literalism”

  1. Taking things literally « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] while ago I posted about Michael Barton’s book It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the […]

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