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Talk the Talk: Changing your communication style for communicators who are literal

Updated: Feb 4

*Cassie eating lunch alone in the student support room*
Student walks in “Hello miss, what are you doing?”
Cassie: “I’m eating lunch with all my friends”
Student (looks around the room confused): “What friends?”

This example, among many others, is an example of a young person on the Autism Spectrum taking something literally.

Chances are that if you work or live with a child or young person on the autism spectrum, you too have examples of the above. Taking things literally is often a characteristic of being on the autism spectrum, however it can also be a symptom of a language disorder.

As loveable as it may be at times, it can also be frustrating for the child or teen and can cause a lot of confusion that can be avoided.

Here are some quick tips and tricks that you, as a parent or professional, can do to support for those who may struggle to understand the meaning behind the words we say!

Words with multiple meaning (strategy: change the wording)
Instead of…. Change to….
“Hand me the key” “Give me the key”
“Can you run to the shops” “Please go to the shops”

Use of idioms/sayings (strategy: add an explanation)
Instead of…. Change to….
“He’s a cold person” “He’s a cold person. He shows no feelings”
“She just swept it under the rug!” “She just said she didn’t want to talk about it”

Requests that are not direct (strategy: say exactly what you mean)
Instead of…. Change to….
“Shouldn’t you go to class?” “You should go to class”
“Did you want to pack that up?” “Please pack that up”

Ambiguous statements (strategy: be clear, say exactly what you mean)
Instead of…. Change to….
“Its not exactly what I wanted..” “It isn’t what I wanted. Can you do it again?”

Statements with uncertainties- should, could, maybe, perhaps
(strategy: say what is certain)
Instead of…. Change to….
“Maybe I’ll might make burgers for dinner” “I will make burgers for dinner”
“Could we catch up on Friday?” “I will book for Friday”

Questions with a double negative (strategy: change wording)
Instead of…. Change to….
“The pilot can’t find no place to land” “The pilot can’t find a place to land”

Use of sarcasm (strategy: say exactly what you mean)
Instead of…. Change to….
“The restaurant was soooo good” “The restaurant was terrible. The chicken was cold”.

By making subtle changes to your own language, we can decrease confusion and frustration and support these children/young people to understand the world around them and be successful social communicators.

In therapy, we can also teach these children to understand common idioms and slang and how to find the meaning when it isn’t always obvious.

If your child is literal and struggles to understand non-literal language, contact your speech pathologist for assistance or click here to book.

Resource: Language Assessment and Intervention for the Learning Disabled (Wiig & Semel, 1999)
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