Aspergese 101: On Taking Things Literally and Mind Blindness

No, we don’t take everything literally.

“Theory of mind” or “mind blindness” references an inability to intuit the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others. Mind blindness is most often applied to people on the spectrum, but that’s a “mind blind” perception of the way we work.  Mind blindness is a real thing, and some people do have it.  Sure, even some people on the spectrum have it, but it’s a consequence of other factors, like trauma or personality disorders, and not an innate trait of autism.

Aspies do have a natural code that is intuitive, and so we get along quite well with each other and understand each other.  We just have a different code from NTs. Our neurology has caused us to perceive things differently and think differently.  Knowing these differences makes the world and NT-ND interactions much easier. It’s helped me to not be so at-odds with humans.

One pervasive difference I’ve noticed is that my brain’s reward centers crave to examine the hell out of everything in the universe, learning the origins, studying the cultural history, considering the current obsession du jour’s applications across various contexts, etc. To me, it’s exciting.  This is how I have fun.

At the end of one of these random research excursions, I will have increased my knowledge in multiple, disconnected fields by tying them all together within the framework of one interesting prompt.  It might take me seconds to move past something new and interesting, or it might take me days.  I often realize that I missed the main point of something someone was trying to tell me several hours after the conversation ends because my brain derailed when they said something fascinating, out of context, or metaphorical.

So, as I look back on my life and all those times when I saw my conversational partner’s eyes glaze over with boredom or their pupils begin to widen with anxiety, I now am able to apply those differences within the context of Asperger’s. Most people don’t want to examine everything.  Most people do not want to examine much of anything, and their brains do not find this collaborative examination to be enjoyable.  To most people, it’s barely tolerable in small doses.  Socrates, of the The-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living fame, got on his neurotypical townsmen’s nerves with this unrelenting aspie examination to a degree that he was given two options: drink this goblet of poison and just kill yourself, or stop asking so many damn questions.

He chose the hemlock.  So would I.  That’s how much it means to me to be able to break down and examine everything.  I do not enjoy interaction that doesn’t involve doing this, or that which makes me feel like it’s not even an option.

And as a tangent, because that’s how my conversational word salad works– It’s not that I can’t understand metaphors or interpret them, but I can’t move on until I interpret it. And, this might mean instead of feeling confident that I know what a metaphor means, I come up with twenty interpretations for it, consider how it would mean for different people with different perspectives, consider the meaning between the meaning, why a metaphor was used specifically at that time, and what caused the narrator to want to compare those two things specifically.  Why a river instead of an ocean?  That was three aquatic allusions– is a theme emerging? 

When I write fiction, every word is a metaphor or an allusion to something else, or to many things, even if it appears a hollow plot point.  If I’m six-hundred pages into writing a novel, I’ll remember how many times I referenced something thematic, in what places, and the sentence.  I once lost 128 hours worth of edits and prose in a cloud glitch, but when I went to re-write my missing chapters, I just started typing.  The words came back to me, verbatim.  There are tiers and levels of meaning in the text, and most people won’t ever be able to peel back or connect the dots, and that’s purposeful, too.  I’ve left bread crumbs for those who think like me.  Everything relates to everything else.  This is exhausting to some, but my brain does this automatically.  It’s how I’m wired.  To say that aspies interpret things literally or can’t abstract is to undermine how complicated and alive our thoughts are.

But, back to the topic at hand.  I’d be convinced that the other person in a conversation would be equally enthusiastic to hear what I had learned about an idiom’s etymology, be enlightened about a historical fact, or start a side discussion any time someone interjected one of these turns of phrases.  Surely, that was going to be more engaging than the story about the postal worker always delivering the wrong mail, or the pastor’s-uncle’s-brother’s-wife-who-hosted-a-retirement-party-for— I was wrong… usually.

The current tests to assess for Asperger’s are unreliable for measuring these nuances.

Thus, I propose the following as an informal indicator to measure whether or not someone is an aspie.  You will need two people to administer this test: an examiner to use an idiom in a conversation, and an actor to interrupt the examiner.  Below is the indicator:

Examiner prompt: I really wanted the citron shift dress, but my mother bought me the lime A-line, instead.  I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just be–
Actor response: Who would want a horse as a gift? That’s the worst gift I can ever imagine! Where the hell does one put a horse?
If the subject is NT, his or her response will align more with the following: uncomfortable courtesy smile, begins to fidget nervously with clothing to demonstrate the body language that they feel threatened, eyes start darting to the door and back, door and back… May even respond with a timid, “Oh, that’s so interesting,” while angling his or her body towards the nearest exit.
Aspie Response: “YES! I know, right!? Annnnnd, If I’m to assume the routine duties of shoveling steaming deficate, purchasing grain, and providing adequate lodging for this insurgent gift, would it not be prudent to look said equine in the mouth to ensure that there are at least no obvious signs for disease?” *continues monologue*

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As I wrote this blog, I decided to message some friends and see how they would respond.  It was 2:00 am when the inspiration struck, so even if beyond 90% of my friend list is neurotypical, of course the only friends awake were aspies.  I sent a few messages.  I was not mid-conversation with anyone, there was no context, and what is transcribed is exactly how I started the conversation.  There were no hellos, no how are yous, no I’m-writing-a-blog-and-need-input disclaimers.  I just went straight to it:

Me: you up?
Aspie 1: Yup
Me: haha, we never sleep
Me: if someone is talking to you, and the phrase “never look a gift horse in the mouth” were to come up in the conversation, what would happen to your internal dialogue
Aspie 1: I would visualize it and then every idiom with horses would flood my mind. I would get overwhelmed and then just nod like I wasn’t lost. Later, I would google it.
Me: ahahhahahaaaaaaa okay. good to know
Aspie 1: I know what a lot of idioms mean, but that one . . . And the putting the horse before the cart get all twisted together . . .
Aspie 1: Or is it a euphemism?
Me: hahahaaaaaaa you mean the cart before the horse?
Aspie 1: Maybe!!!
Me: AHAHAHAAAAAAAA
Aspie 1: No wonder it never made sense!
Aspie 1: It makes sense in that order.
Aspie 1: I wonder if my mom said it backwards . . . My bestie says it backward!! I was always like, wait . . . Don’t we want the cart behind the horse? This would be my inner dialogue every time.
Me: AHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA I’M DYING

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Me: Dude, when you hear, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” what’s your internal dialogue
Aspie 2: Checking it’s teeth to make sure it’s a good horse will make you realise that people don’t give good horses as gifts

[ The reason this is so hilarious to me is that he is so cynical.  He asserts that people will only gift their unwanted items ]

Me: Lmfaooooooooooo
Aspie 2: why? That’s where the saying is from
Me: Not exactly lmfaoooooooo
Me: But yours is way better
Me: Omg i can’t breathe
Aspie 2: No it really is where the saying is from
Me: I’m wheeze laughing
Me: It’s more like don’t be picky about the gifts you receive. Just accept it and be grateful it was free
Aspie 2: yes and that’s from checking the teeth of horses to check how old they are dude……
Me: I know that
Aspie 2: okay good
Aspie 2: juuuust checking
Me: The part that’s so funny is that you interpreted it as “people don’t give away their good horses”
Me: You’re such a misanthropic aspie
Aspie 2: I interpreted it as “be grateful for the gifts you receive” but I explained where the saying is from as that’s where my mind goes upon hearing the saying
Aspie 2: which was your original question
Aspie 2: not “what does this saying mean”
Me: This keeps getting more hilarious
Me: I’m going to show you why
Me: One minute
Aspie 2: it’s a question from raadsr?

[ The RAADS-R is a screening tool for Asperger’s ]

Me: Now I’m about to need oxygen. Omg *ceases to live*
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Me: you up?
Aspie 3: Mostly
Me: I will not turn on your brain further then
Aspie 3: I’m chilling on my couch listening to my honeys play magic
Aspie 3: Stimulation would be good now… Please do
Me: Okay, haha
Me: if someone is talking to you, and the phrase “never look a gift horse in the mouth” were to come up in the conversation, what would happen to your internal dialogue
Aspie 3: I’d get slightly distracted by the phrase and probably get annoyed at whoever was trying to make me feel guilty
Me: haha
Me: okay
Me: that’s an awesome response
Aspie 3: What’s a gift horse, anyway?
Me: ahahhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Me: right!?
Me: like, who even wants a horse?
Aspie 3: I like horses but they’re for rich people
Me: can’t nobody afford horse maintenance
Me: hahaa jinx

[ several minutes elapse ]

Me:
are you still thinking about gift horses?
Aspie 3: I’d imagine this is an old timey thing where presents came in the mail by horse
Me: in the mail!?!?!? i can’t breathe, haha

[ This is extremely funny to me because I read this and immediately thought that he meant someone was mailing a horse via horse.  It did not occur to me that I was the one who interpreted this hyper-literally until re-reading it ]

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I asked my aspie husband at dinner today, and he said without hesitation, “I’d probably tune out and immediately start trying to figure out where the idiom had its roots, you know?  Like, at what juncture in history was it customary to give old horses as gifts?”

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My aspie friends knew exactly what I meant, without context or asking for clarification.  It made sense to them.  When I asked NTs, though, things were interesting.  Mostly, because they knew I was an aspie and a writer, they started guessing why I was asking or if it had something to do with autism.  Just about everyone needed examples, context, and explanation.  No NT said that hearing that comment would cause them to get sidetracked and lose focus.  Three out of 7 NTs admitted to being suspicious of the question itself and the motives of the hypothetical person in the scenarios and examples.

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So, what’s the point? 

I guess several inferences could be made about this odd experiment in the social interchanges of aspies and neurotypicals.

1. Aspies are not “mind blind,” and they do have a common language.  They can intuit each other quite easily.
2. Aspies are much more complicated than just “taking things literally.” They all know that something out of context in speech will cause them to focus on and interpret that thing until they’ve figured it out.
3. Aspies all had a similar response to other aspies; NTs all had a similar response to other NTs.  We know the same words but speak very different languages.
4. Aspies have a similar sense of humor, and one that, if you’re NT, will likely not find so humorous.

What are your thoughts or insights?

2 thoughts

  1. I too am sceptical about “mind blindness” and how it manifests. I think we do often take things literally, but not in the way usually mentioned in literature about Asperger’s i.e. not understanding idioms like “pigs might fly”. I think somewhere along the line a gross oversimplification was made in the effort to condense things down for a lay audience. The result being that a limited case scenario got abstracted into a basic tenet.

    I believe that it’s not that we as Aspergians don’t take things literally, it’s just that the true reality of how that plays out in the real world is complex. It’s grounded in how we think, which is in turn founded on differences in our perception. The methods and workarounds we employ in order to get by in the social world are quite individualistic and there are not enough of these complex examples out there, because they’re hard to articulate and condense into something that ‘gets over’.

    In my own case, I am quite literal in that I’m logically focused rather than emotionally focused. I believe the basis of this is my inability to split my attention into multiple ‘channels’ (for example to make eye contact whilst listening to what a person is saying). I think this is basically the same thing that you’re saying when you say that you can’t move on until you ‘interpret’ a metaphor. I’m always stuck in getting an idea to play out, and so processing conversations involve a lot of crunching gear-changes. I have to take a deep-dive into a sea of possible permutations of what’s being said and then come back up for air to latch back onto what’s being said *now*. Because of this, I find it hard to separate what’s important and what’s not in a conversation or build on elements of the conversation to form a wider impression.

    The way things work of me is that, instead of synthesising the essence of a conversation and storing that using an emotional shorthand (that person was x y z), I instead tend to latch on to a single detail that I consider to be representative of the whole. Once an interaction is over and I’m replaying it, a sentence often sticks out that I consider to be the ‘truth’ of the conversation. It’s usually something practical (“we’re going to get some food at that new restaurant next Tuesday”) and I hold future interactions up against it. If further down the line I perceive that this truth isn’t being adhered to, then I can lose faith in the relationship. It has to do with black and white thinking and my difficulties dealing with change. I’m not empathetic in that I don’t immediately get that a person’s perspective may change based on context or that their circumstances may change based on new information or events. To me people should be solid and unwavering. But in other ways I *can* display empathy, having often thought through the permutations of what someone might be thinking far more than others have. So yeah, it’s complex!

    Of everything you mention here, it’s the idea about not feeling confident in your interpretation of things that resonates with me the most. I’ve never heard this expressed before and it was amazing to read! I too come with up twenty different interpretations for everything from different perspectives and as such I *never* feel confident with anything…even when it comes to things that have an absolute answer, such as adding up simple numbers in my head. I always have to check and triple check and sometimes I get lost in the checking process itself…it adds extra overhead to everything. Somehow my brain won’t go to a place of a single universal underpinning truth…there are always options. I know that this can come across as lack of self-confidence, but this is an unfortunate effect, not an underpinning cause…but is probably responsible for many a misdiagnosis.

    I have more to say on the subject of how well Aspergians might get on with each other or not in social situations but that’s probably best saved for another time.

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