When I was about 8 my mum took me and one of my brothers fishing for the afternoon. As a child who loved to just sit and stare at things moving slightly, whilst conjuring up little fantasy worlds and stories in my head in silence, fishing was an ideal hobby; especially when the hobby also includes having to buy and collect lots of cool coloured floats! Unbeknown to me during this particular fishing outing my mum and my brother had decided to play a game between them of coming up with unrealistic and dramatic scenarios. I tuned in just as my mum had started to create a rather dramatic scenario of what would happen if we suddenly had a nuclear attack, and how we would have to jump in the river and keep our heads under water, as this would be the only way to survive. Looking back on it I think her survival plan may have been slightly flawed, but of course as an 8 year old who tended to take things seriously, I took her scenario very literally and prepared myself to jump in. An hour later and the game had been finished for some time, when suddenly a very loud roar was heard overhead from a low flying plane. Of course one joke about how that would be the nuclear attack my mum had predicted and I was fully freaking out, seeing my life flash before my eyes and on the edge ready to jump.
I would love to say that as I’ve got older the occurrence of such freak outs/embarrassments from taking things too literally has lessened somewhat, as I have adopted a pessimistically sarcastic attitude in all social situations, assuming everything (within reason) is a joke. However, I do still let my guard down occasionally, for example several weeks ago I found myself stood in front of a non-automatic shop security barrier waiting for it to open, because my partner, who had gone through before me, made a sarcastic comment about how useful automated barriers were. Little had she realised, I had been so preoccupied with entering the shop that I had taken her literally and picked up on no hint of sarcasm whatsoever, until she eventually twigged and pulled me through, saving me from further embarrassment. I also love comedy shows and stand up performances, but do spend a lot of energy during them consciously working out what the jokes mean and why they would be considered funny, before eventually laughing out loud a minute behind everyone else. This is fine when you are watching a comedy show and the whole thing is funny, but not so much during a conversation when someone has made a joke and then a minute later moved onto more serious matters, such as the recent death of a relative or the loss of their job.
I am reassured though that taking things literally is a common symptom of Autism, so I am not alone! However, I would like to rebuke the standard advice that people should tip toe around kids with autism, omitting any jokes from their interactions in case they do not understand them. Had people taken my over literalness seriously as a child, I would not be able to cope in any social situations at all. In fact I think the only way I get through tedious days at the office, long nights typing essays and large horrendously awkward social situations are through finding humour in anything possible. Having an impaired sense of humour isn’t a symptom of autism, we just struggle a bit with the meaning of words sometimes and how depending on the situation those meanings can change!
Generally speaking studies have found that those with autism have a tendency of taking things quite literally. For instance in one study participants were asked to describe the ‘relationship’ between two moving triangles. Those without autism tended to give the shapes quite humanistic qualities and made up scenarios describing their ‘behaviour’ (also known as Anthropomorphism), whereas those with autism were quite literally about the two triangles, and were less likely to ascribe mental or intentional traits to them.
The consensus at the minute is that people with autism take things literally because they have an impaired theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to one’s ability to infer mental states in other living beings. So, for example, that other people don’t know what you’re thinking as they are thinking differently and don’t know what you know and vice versa. An impaired theory of mind explains a number of different autism symptoms, and may well explain the issue so many autistic people have with understanding jokes. Understanding that someone is joking and doesn’t mean something literally would require a fair bit of abstract thinking about the other persons mind, i.e. a lot of hard work!
Now onto the real reason I wrote this blog piece, humour me, what embarrassing situations have you found yourself or your child in due to taking things too literally?