I am “Literally” Confused

“Hey Toni, can you write on your brother’s wall for his birthday?”

This request has haunted me since my mum uttered it when I was 15 years old. To most people, this was easily interpreted as a mother reminding her daughter to post something relatively affectionate on social media about her sibling.

But for those of us that take things more literally, this phrase means something quite different. I fall into this second category and this resulted in me calling my poor mum upstairs 5 minutes later to observe my very adorable (I thought) birthday wishes on my brother’s white bedroom wall. I had grabbed a pencil without a second thought and had never considered any other meaning to her words.

Thankfully my art was easily removed, but I have never lived that misunderstanding down. Every gathering of friends or family for the next year included my mum joyfully telling the story. It did not take me long to start telling the story myself just to enjoy the look on others’ faces as they realised my mistake.

But this was not the only example of how literally I take statements or questions. I am a perfect target for pranks, double entendres bewilder me and jokes are often very difficult for me to understand. My high school yearbook included a title for my autobiography and my friends cheerfully suggested that I call it, “Wait Ten Years for Me to Catch On”.

I was much more self-conscious about this during school because I was painfully aware of how slow I appeared when I didn’t understand things. I saw female characters in TV shows who were portrayed as “dumb” when they took a few seconds to understand jokes and then, like myself, announced their understanding with a very dramatic “ohhhhhhhh”. This made me feel conflicted as I was an excellent student, but I lacked what I saw as “social intelligence”. However, I learned why I struggled with this once I started looking into a diagnosis for ASD.

Because of my autism, my brain struggles to grasp abstract concepts. As a native English speaker, my language and culture are full of phrases which make no sense to me at first. Phrases like “fly on the wall” and “in the dog house” confused me as a child, and there are still many that I have yet to figure out. Being Scottish means an additional dialect of strange phrases and words on top of this and I sometimes feel like I need a translator to understand this whole other side of my language.

I know now that this is a common aspect of autism in both males and females, and I shouldn’t feel embarrassed to ask for things to be explained when I don’t understand. I am lucky to have understanding family and friends that help me see the funny side of things, even if they have to explain it to me first.

This literal way of thinking doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour. This also doesn’t meant that autistic people can’t make jokes just as well as neurotypical people. Some of the funniest people I know are autistic. Our world is just not always easy to understand for those with ASD. In an effort to break this stereotype, I like to overcome these difficulties with humour whenever I can. I love explaining my experiences in a funny way to show people how my brain works. For instance:

I once ate a bath bomb that my hilarious dad told me was a cupcake, and didn’t even question him even after I had a mouthful of soapy bubbles.

I can’t count the amount of times I have pretended to laugh at a joke I didn’t realise had occurred. I definitely can’t count the number of sexual innuendos I have missed in person or in films, because I have no idea when they happened. But this is something I am learning everyday, and it is something that I can teach myself thankfully. Everyday I take one small step towards understanding this aspect of conversations, although I sometimes wish people would just say what they mean instead.

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