What Did You Mean?

One of the more interesting aspects of working with Asperger Syndrome is that some of the qualities are very childlike in nature. In other words, you would almost expect any child to posses that given quality, but the aspie child will not necessarily “grow-out” of that quality as he/she reaches adulthood.

One such quality is that of literalness. Most individuals with Asperger Syndrome (and other forms of autism spectrum disorder for that matter) have a difficult time translating idioms, figures of speech, and sarcasm into the intended meaning. Furthermore, differentiating a rhetorical question or statement from a purposeful question or statement can pose a problem.

Three Examples

  • A mother is printing out an important document and runs out of printer paper. She calls to her son: “Can you run to the store and buy some more printer paper?” Forty-five minutes later, her son rather sweaty, the mother is handed a new ream of printer paper. What happened? The child jogged to the store, bought the paper, and jogged back – exactly as he was asked to do.
  • A girl drops a bowl on the floor, and it breaks. Mom throws her arms up in the air and yells, “Well that’s just great!” when she sees the mess. Hearing this, the girl proceeds to throw another bowl on the floor. What did the girl hear? “That’s just great!” Now you could probably read voice inflection into that statement, but the autistic individual may not be able to translate voice inflection in a meaningful way. Read the example again, and try to remove any inflection from your inner voice. Can you understand why the girl threw another bowl on the floor?
  • On a test, a boy reads the question: “Can you explain the theme of this book?” The student honestly writes, “No,” in the provided space and proceeds to the next question. Later, he is shocked to see that answer marked as wrong.

Again, look at the wording of the question. “Can you explain…” The student answered the question, but he honestly misunderstood the meaning of that question. Now, if I said each of these examples were 6-8 year-olds, you would shrug your shoulders and say something like, “Kids do the silliest things.” However, what if these are all teenagers? Well, the first one is just dumb, I guess, and the other two may be mistaken as serious attitude problems.

A Simple Matter of Mistranslation

A child with Asperger Syndrome will be very intelligent in many areas, so much so that we adults who interact with them may forget those areas where they are still developing. They are not being smart-aleks when they fire off an answer to a rhetorical question. No attitude is intended when an unexpected answer is given to a request. It is just a simple mistranslation. You said one thing, the meaning clear in your head, but the receiver heard exactly what you said and took every syllable literally.

Examples like numbers two and three still throw me off occasionally to this day. I answer rhetorical questions all the time, and I (admittedly) have no clue how to pitch my voice to correctly use figures of speech, sarcasm, or rhetorical questions in my everyday conversations. In fact, I’ve given up on rhetorical questions so entirely, I couldn’t even come up with an example of one in the above illustrations!

These language devices are very common in everyday speech – so much so that it would be a difficult conscious effort for many to avoid using one or all of them for an entire day, but don’t assume that everyone who hears you understands your meaning. You may have listeners who only understand exactly what you say.