As a young child and for a couple of years in the early stages, my time as a teenager too, I felt confused by the most simple of metaphors which wouldn’t trouble a lot of people who thought things through in a lateral way.
“It’s raining cats and dogs.” Is it? “Can you see that person over there, Phil? He’s got a mole on his chin.” Has he? Where?!
My trouble was that I was, and I still am, a literal thinker. I’ve never been a lateral thinker and even though there are times where I struggle to understand humour and mixed up instructions as an adult, I like the way I am. Why should I try and conform to what others believe, and realise a German Shepherd won’t fall out of the sky?
The best thing about the way that I think about certain phrases too is that I’m not alone in having these images pop into my head.
As somebody who would find it hilarious to think that a small furry animal could be attached to somebody else’s face, it would make me laugh in a way that not many other things could.
Whether I had a vivid imagination or whether I took every phrase on board in a literal way, expecting to see a mole or expecting to hear a bark or a miaow as grey clouds filled a blue sky was always something I expected.
This childlike sweetness doesn’t last forever though.
As an adult, the literal way of thinking and reacting can be something that becomes an annoyance. It can take all of the humour and fun out of being somebody who does not think laterally, and taking everything that is said literally can make you feel a bit stupid.
When at university in a lecture or when at work, the questions which have obvious answers get muddled up when humour is attempted in the answer that is given.
“Excuse me? Can I go to the toilet please?” No. “My shift has finished now. Do you mind if I go home?” Yes.
These answers may be taken in good humour if you are somebody who is lateral, but literal thinkers may hold on to their bladders or work overtime in these situations!
There would be a desire to do what has been said and if there are issues with understanding facial expressions or tone of voice as two social cues that can be misread, the situation can snowball out of control until the person who has been lighthearted makes the connection that the intended joke was missed.
It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions by Michael Barton sums this up beautifully, as the logic of thinking in a black and white way with no grey areas is covered by talking about the examples that have put a smile on my face again as I’ve done a bit of research for this blog piece.
To introduce readers to a literal mindset, Barton says: “The English language is full of idioms and metaphors, which can be difficult for people on the (autistic) spectrum to understand because they interpret the sayings literally.
“Take, for example, ‘He laughed his head off.’ This could be quite disconcerting if taken literally! I remember being told to ‘Hang on’ when I was younger, and wondering what to hang on to. When visiting the GP I was told to ‘Take a seat.’ Where was I supposed to take it to?”
Barton goes on to explain that “people on the spectrum can suffer in the real world if other people don’t understand how they think”, and this is a thought that I do not completely agree with or completely disagree with myself.
Whether you are autistic or not, or whether you are disabled or able-bodied, everybody is allowed to be unique and everybody can adopt their own views on whatever they choose to stand for.
Understanding isn’t something that must take place, for example in a workplace where an autistic employee may find himself or herself working as a result of finding a job, but it is something that you can opt-in or opt-out of.
That choice would go down to an individual but for me, and for a lot of people who think literally rather than laterally, there is something charming that not everybody can see.
That German Shepherd is soaring through the air!