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Autism – Avoiding abstract language

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Most individuals with autism have difficulty understanding abstract language, sarcasm, and metaphor. Individuals with autism may also take language literally.

Here are some examples of how we might use language in everyday situations:

its raining cats and dogs”.

I’ve learnt so much today, it feels like my head is going to explode

You’re so funny” said sarcastically.

Someone walks into a room and says “goodness, its hot in here”. A neuro-typical individual may think about opening a window, an autistic person may just assume that it is hot, and not have any notion to do something to change the situation.


These are examples of how language can be used in one way, but be meant or interpreted in another. For an individual on the autism spectrum this type of language can be confusing, or the language and its meaning can be taken literally. The use of abstract concepts such as “I wish, I believe, I imagine” can also be very confusing for an someone with autism, because they are talking about concepts that are not visible or concrete, they are individual beliefs, or imaginary concepts.

Most of us learn to understand this type of language, and even if we haven’t heard an expression before, we can often figure out its meaning from the context in which it is used. Teaching the meaning of metaphors to individuals on the spectrum can sometimes help with their understanding of these concepts.


It is important to be aware of our own language when we communicate with individuals with autism. We must refrain from using sarcasm and abstract language. We must also be aware that things we say may be taken literally and so must think carefully before we make a comment or give a command. If we say something will happen later, we must be sure that it will happen. If we give a message, we must make sure it is clear and not ambiguous. The use of visuals and socials stories can be used to help individuals with autism understand language, tasks, and help them deal with changes in a routine.
Some tips to avoid confusion

  • Use words such as “sometimes”,”maybe”, “usually” etc when stating when things will happen. For instance if you state “Swimming is on Wednesdays”, some individuals will believe that swimming happens every Wednesday, even it is Christmas day. However, if you state “Swimming is usually on Wednesday”, there is then room to change things.
  • Be careful about instructions that you give. For instance if you say “always listen to an adult” – this theoretically could lead to problems as not all adults are positive role models.
  • Be careful when writing social stories that you are not over specific. For instance, if you write a social story for a student that is hitting other children, and you state in your story – “I will not hit other students in the playground”, the student may interpret this as – I can’t hit student’s in the playground, but it is okay to hit them in other places.
  • Be careful not to create bigger behaviour problems by offering rewards. For instance, if you say “if you stop screaming I will let you play with lego”, the student may then see that screaming is a way to get to play with lego, and the behaviour may increase.

For more information about autism and other communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for specific fact-sheets with helpful hints about Autism go to the Autism Downloads section.
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