by Beth Haley


If you are learning a new language, colloquialisms can be confusing. The metaphors, slang, and idioms most people are used to hearing every day might make very little sense.

For example: The saying, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” has little to do with the Greeks, except for the history of the Trojan horse, and more to do with being cautious about overly generous gifts.

“I’m sitting on pins and needles,” might be a saying that is a “head scratcher” for people learning English. They may wonder about the safety of their chair and if the person speaking has a scalp condition.

“On the other hand, ” if you were to look at the “flip side,” most people, once familiar with a language, understand these types of sayings, and know that considering another point of view, or listening to opposite, or additional information, is what is represented by these sayings.


There is however, another group of people who can have difficulties with the everyday colloquialisms that they hear in their own language, and these are people on the autism spectrum. For them, slang terms that make sense to others are like “ships passing each other in the night” and their symbolism is not translated into a clear picture of what is meant or represented.

One might “bend over backwards” in an effort to speak clearly, but even with the best attempts, if colloquialisms are used, someone with autism may envision, “bend over backwards,” as a person doing a backbend.

In other words: Literalism is translating words in their exact sense and literal meaning.

For someone with autism, this goes farther than just the literal spoken words, and can affect being able to correctly interpret tone and body language as well.

For example, Sarah interprets “hello” as a greeting. Yet spoken in a different tone and using specific body language, a “Hello” might be someone trying to convey romantic interest. Despite the differences in tone and body language, Sarah still interprets “hello” as literally, just hello. This can create quite a bit of confusion unless the person in question clearly states their intentions and interests.

And, if being literally-minded is not challenge enough, once a metaphor is understood, knowing then how to appropriately respond, can be an even greater challenge.

For some, the challenges of a language dissipate with learning. For others, this has been, is now, and will always be a struggle for understanding – making each social encounter and conversation an event which feels like… well, like sitting on pins and needles.

‘Copy & Paste’ – Hidden Asperger’s – Girls with Aspergers | Niamh McCann | TEDxDunLaoghaire

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