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Why Autistic People Take Things Literally

Understanding Why Autistic People Take Things Literally

Literal thinking is a common trait among individuals with autism. It means that they tend to interpret language based on its exact meaning, without considering the context or possible intended meanings behind it. This can lead to misunderstandings in communication and social situations.

In this article, we will examine how the unique characteristics of autism can contribute to developing this tendency towards literal thinking.

Let’s start by exploring what autism is and how it impacts language understanding.

Neurodiversity and Communication Challenges

If you are autistic, you may struggle with communication in certain settings and situations due to the unique challenges presented by neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refers to the idea that differences in the way we think and process information are normal and should be celebrated, rather than stigmatized.

Communication challenges are a common feature of autism, and can manifest in a variety of ways, such as difficulty interpreting non-literal language, taking things too literally, or struggling to understand social cues. These difficulties can make it challenging to connect with others and navigate social situations effectively.

It is important to recognise and accommodate these communication challenges in order to promote inclusivity and understanding for autistic individuals.

Social Cues and Literal Interpretation

If you’re autistic, you may struggle with interpreting social cues. This can make it difficult to understand when someone is being sarcastic, joking, or using figurative language. As a result, you may take language more literally than others.

For example, if someone says, “Break a leg!” before a performance, you may take this as a literal command and become confused. Similarly, if someone says they’re “feeling blue,” you may interpret this to mean that the person is literally the colour blue.

It’s important to remember that this tendency towards literal interpretation is not a personal choice or a lack of intelligence, but rather a cognitive difference that is part of the neurodiversity spectrum of autism.

If you find yourself struggling with interpreting social cues, there are strategies you can use to help. You can ask for clarification if you’re unsure about what someone means, or you can try to establish clear communication by using simple, direct language.

Additionally, using visual supports like picture schedules or cue cards can be helpful in promoting comprehension and understanding social situations.

Cognitive Differences and Literal Thinking

Autistic individuals may process information differently than neurotypical individuals, which can lead to literal thinking. Research suggests that autistic individuals have a more concrete understanding of language, which means they might struggle with abstract concepts and figurative language (NIMH, 2021).

For example, an autistic individual might not understand the phrase “raining cats and dogs” and take it literally, picturing animals falling from the sky. This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation in communication.

This literal thinking can be attributed to cognitive differences in autistic individuals. Studies have shown that autistic individuals may have difficulty with mental flexibility and executive function, which are essential for problem-solving, decision-making, and adapting to change (Hill, 2004). This could result in a more rigid and literal interpretation of language.

It’s important to note that not all autistic individuals exhibit literal thinking, and that cognitive differences can vary widely among individuals on the autism spectrum (Autism Speaks, 2021). Therefore, it’s essential to understand each individual’s unique communication style and adjust accordingly to promote effective communication.

Abstract Concepts and Difficulty in Comprehension

If you are autistic, you might have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. Literal thinking can make it challenging to comprehend metaphors, idioms, and other figurative language. For example, when someone says, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” you might take it quite literally. You may struggle to understand the intended meaning.

This can also extend to academic subjects like literature and poetry. When reading a poem, you may focus more on the literal meaning of the words, rather than the overall theme or symbolism. This can impact your ability to fully appreciate and understand the work.

There are strategies that can help with abstract concepts and comprehension. Using visual aids, such as diagrams or pictures, can provide a more concrete representation of the concept. Breaking down abstract ideas into smaller, more manageable parts can also improve understanding.

It’s important to note that difficulty with abstract concepts is not a reflection of intelligence. Autistic individuals are often highly intelligent and capable of advanced thinking. However, their cognitive differences may make it harder to understand certain types of language.

Sensory Processing and Literal Interpretation

Autistic individuals may experience sensory processing challenges that impact their ability to interpret language. This is because sensory processing influences how the brain receives and processes information, including language comprehension.

For example, an autistic individual may struggle with interpreting figurative language such as idioms and metaphors, as their brain may process the language literally. This is because the brain focuses on the literal meaning of the words rather than the intended abstract meaning.

Sensory sensitivities can also affect how autistic individuals process language. For instance, if an individual is overwhelmed by a particular sound or sensation, they may struggle to focus on the words being spoken to them. This can lead to difficulties in processing and interpreting language correctly.

To support autistic individuals in this area, it is essential to create an environment that is sensory-friendly and accommodating. This can involve using visuals aids and reducing sensory distractions in the environment to promote focus and comprehension.

It is also crucial to use clear and concise language that avoids the use of abstract concepts and figurative language where possible. Using concrete language that is explicit and straightforward can help to promote clear communication and understanding.

Enhancing Language Understanding for Autistic Individuals

If you are communicating with someone on the autism spectrum, it is important to keep in mind their unique challenges with language understanding. Here are some strategies that can help enhance their comprehension:

  • Use clear and literal language: Avoid using slang, idioms, and metaphors. Say exactly what you mean and avoid using abstract language.
  • Provide visual supports: Use visual aids such as pictures, diagrams, and videos to help illustrate concepts and reinforce understanding.
  • Be explicit: Clearly explain expectations, instructions, and consequences. Break information down into small, manageable steps.
  • Offer time for processing: Give the person time to process what has been said before expecting a response. Avoid putting them on the spot or rushing them.
  • Use repetition: Repeat important information and key concepts multiple times to reinforce understanding.
  • Be patient: Allow the person sufficient time to understand what has been said and respond. Do not interrupt or finish their sentences for them.
  • Listen actively: Give the person your undivided attention and actively listen to what they are saying. Use reflective listening techniques to clarify and confirm understanding.
  • Respect sensory needs: Be aware of the person’s sensory sensitivities and adjust the environment and communication accordingly.

By using these strategies, you can help improve the language understanding of autistic individuals and promote effective communication. Remember, all individuals have unique communication needs and styles, so be open to adjusting your approach to best meet their needs.


Understanding why autistic individuals tend to take language literally is crucial in promoting effective communication and inclusivity. Autism impacts language understanding, contributing to the phenomenon of literal thinking. The unique communication challenges faced by autistic individuals, including difficulties with social cues and abstract concepts, also play a role.

Cognitive differences, such as concrete thinking, and sensory processing challenges can further contribute to literal interpretation of language. However, there are practical strategies that can enhance language understanding for autistic individuals, such as clear and explicit communication and visual supports.

Recognizing and accommodating the literal thinking of autistic individuals is key in promoting a more inclusive society. By striving to understand and meet their communication needs, we can promote effective communication and improve overall quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do autistic people take things literally?

Autistic individuals often have difficulty with understanding figurative language and interpreting social cues. Their thinking tends to be more concrete, leading them to interpret language in a literal way.

How does autism impact language understanding?

Autism can affect language processing and comprehension. Autistic individuals may struggle with understanding abstract concepts, metaphors, and idioms, leading to a more literal interpretation of language.

What are the communication challenges faced by autistic individuals?

Autistic individuals may experience difficulties in understanding and interpreting nuances in language. They may struggle with recognizing and responding to social cues, which can affect their communication skills.

What is the correlation between social cues and literal interpretation in autism?

Autistic individuals may have challenges in reading and understanding social cues, which can contribute to their tendency to take language literally.

How do cognitive differences contribute to literal thinking in autism?

Autistic individuals may process information differently and have a more concrete understanding of language, leading to a tendency for literal thinking.

Why do autistic individuals have difficulty comprehending abstract concepts?

Autistic individuals often have a more concrete thinking style, which can make it challenging for them to understand and interpret abstract concepts, such as metaphors and idioms.

How does sensory processing impact literal interpretation in autism?

Sensory sensitivities can affect how autistic individuals process and understand language, leading to a more literal interpretation. Sensory processing challenges can influence their overall comprehension.

What strategies can enhance language understanding for autistic individuals?

Clear and explicit communication, the use of visual supports, and other tools that promote comprehension can help enhance language understanding for autistic individuals.

Why is it important to understand and accommodate the literal thinking of autistic individuals?

Understanding and accommodating the literal thinking of autistic individuals promote inclusivity and effective communication. It helps bridge the gap in understanding and creates a more supportive environment.

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