Can people with autism learn to understand metaphors and similes?

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
January 9, 2024

Along with other figures of speech like idioms, metaphors and similes can pose a problem for those with autism, as they can take things literally. I know that from experience myself, as I’ve experienced language development delays growing up. 

The reasons why those of us with autism take things literally may be to do with differences in the ways how our brains process information. There may be differences in wiring and the way different parts of the brain are connected.

Autism and MetaphorsPin

What are metaphors and similes?

In short metaphors are figures of speech where things represent other things. If you come across a metaphor, the first thing to remember is, not to take it literally. This is something I do, even if a metaphor is difficult to work out for me at first.

Take this metaphor here for example, ‘Life is a rollercoaster ride’. We know life obviously isn’t a rollercoaster ride. This can be a way to approach metaphors.  When we take time to think about this carefully, by picturing a rollercoaster in our minds, it is full of ups and downs. 

And now back to everyday life, we have all, no doubt found out that life is full of ups and downs. Ups can include the joys of celebrating great achievements, like passing your driving test. The downs, on the other hand, can be used to represent the events that bring disappointments, like not getting a job you badly wanted, since another applicant may have been considered that bit better than you. 

Similes compare things using words such as “as”, or “like”. Here is an example of its use here, “Your bag is as light as a feather. I can pick it up with only one finger.”
Think back to a time when you have picked up a feather, remember how light it felt.

Like with idioms, we can also work out what similes’ meaning in context. If someone told you that you were as daft as a brush for doing something, they mean you were very foolish for doing whatever it was. You should be able to work this out if you realised that something you just did was a very silly thing to do. 

In addition, you could, and perhaps should pay close attention to the mood of the person telling you. We normally have been told off for doing something silly, so the mood of the person telling you off is likely to be one of anger.

Trees in blossom

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During the spring we can’t help but regularly notice more flowers in bloom and trees blossoming. Metaphorically, trees in blossom can be used to represent people.  I once heard it at a wedding that if the married couple supported each other during their married life, especially if they have complementary skills, they’d blossom. 

Thinking back to trees in blossom. They can be very attractive and wonderful sights. Compare this to a couple getting married, the use of blossom in a marriage where the couple supports each other can very likely represent a wonderful and successful marriage. 

Improvements in connections between various parts of the brain

As the years passed, I found my language ability improved.  Along with this, there was an improvement in my ability to understand language, apply new knowledge, and express myself. 

I believe improvements like this can be down to development in connections between various parts of the brain, allowing for better communications.  I’m not an expert on this.  Read more information about this here.

I've tried studying books and other relevant works linked to my interests that require one to think very thoroughly to try and understand. Here, certain parts of your brain may have to work together, and in doing so, may enable the development of neurons, and thus better communication between the relevant part of the brain involved in the processing of information. Whenever I see a science-related news story, I like to try and understand the science involved.

Learning to play the piano where one may try to memorise the notes of their favourite musical pieces, and work out which notes to play based on written music, and how loud and how quick to play them.

Learning some foreign languages. This can require one to memorise words and translations, along with trying to understand grammatical rules.

By doing regular exercise, you increase the blood flow, and uptake of oxygen and vital nutrients not only to the brain but to all the other vital organs as well to aid processes with their development.

By taking up a new hobby in photographing nature subjects. Your brain may have a work out here when you’re trying to decide what type of scene may make a nice photograph.

Since my language ability has improved I now find figurative language more interesting, and like to challenge myself into working out meanings, along with trying to understand any clever usage of words in newspaper headlines. 

Some months back I wrote a blog post consisting of my own poems where I try to put metaphors to use. In addition, I also wrote a post where I thought up short stories in order to make it easier for those with autism to understand idioms.

Unlocking Language: A Personal Odyssey in Connection and Learning

Embark on a soulful podcast journey with me, where I explore my language development. From decoding metaphors to my own growth in relationships and education, this episode is a tapestry of insight, warmth, and celebration.

Join me in my exploration, where the power of words transcends barriers, and every listener is invited to witness the transformative beauty of communication.

Conclusion

As I have written earlier, metaphors can prove problematic for those on the autism spectrum, since they may take precise views of language.

If over time, connections between various parts of the brain can be established by doing activities to keep the mind active, improvements may be seen in how the individuals concerned process information. This is just based on my reasoning and understanding.

Are you on the autism spectrum and have experienced difficulties with metaphors and similes?

Have you found ways that may have made them easier for you?

Are you a teacher or a parent of autistic children who have trouble understanding metaphors and similes? 

Have you found any ways to make metaphors easier for them?

Let me know about any experiences in relation to these questions in the comments section below.


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