Idioms and autism: how you NEVER “change your mind”


I was ten when I realised that changing your mind is a horrible thing.

Think about it.

 

Having your mind changed?! How on Earth do you do that? Is there an operation involved, and how would it not kill you? Would you still be you afterwards, or would somebody else have stolen your body and be living your life pretending to be you?

Urgh.

Allow me to demonstrate what changing your mind really is.

 

You’d be amazed how often we use idioms whilst honestly thinking they’re literal. I’m willing to bet that at least a few of you didn’t realise that ‘changing your mind’ wasn’t even literal until I pointed it out just now. But, to people on the autism spectrum, there are some idioms that just don’t make sense.

 

This article is not about idioms that are very obviously idioms: e.g. “raining cats and dogs”. This entry is about phrases that you would probably say to someone with autism without knowing you were saying anything weird.

 

So, for your reading pleasure, here are some phrases that you think are literal, but really aren’t.

 

“Go through that door.”

Yeah… good luck with that. Doors are solid objects.

 

“You’ve caught the sun, haven’t you?”

I’m far cleverer than I think if I’ve managed that.

 

Like this lad.

Like this lad.

 

“Keep an eye out for me.”

Don’t!! It’ll be so messy!

 

“What’s up with you?”

Read this word for word. It’s ridiculous.

 

“Are you out of your mind?”

No.

 

“Give me a ring later.”

I’m sure we’re supposed to go on a few dinner dates before I propose.

 

Are you SURE you wanted me to do this?

Are you SURE you wanted me to do this?

“He totally got stoned last night.”

Were any of his bones broken?

 

“Shall we press on?”

I have no idea what you’re asking me.

 

“I didn’t like sprouts at first, but then they grew on me.”

If someone says this, keep your distance. Whatever disease they have, you don’t want to catch it.

 

“I’m all ears.”

No you’re not.

 

Seriously. DON'T.

Seriously. DON’T DO IT.

 

“It’s time to toast the happy couple!”

Well that’s one way to make a wedding party more memorable.

 

“I just can’t get my head around it.”

…Then duck and walk under?

 

“Honestly, I was beside myself.”

That’s not honest at all.

 

There are also some phrases that sound like they should be literal, so I’ve always interpreted them that way. I remember my disappointment when I drank ‘sugar free’ Calpol, only to find that it did not contain free sugar.

 

The result are often embarrassing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time when Mum drove me across town and we hit red light after red light and ended up being ten minutes late.

I told her that “we must have been driving through the red light district.”

She looked at me funny.

 

There have to be hundreds more of these. If you have any, please load the comments section with them. It’s kind of fun collecting them.

 

Oh, and just to finish… never, ever, EVER tell us to “keep our eyes peeled.”

Ouch, I hate that phrase so much.

 

Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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49 Comments

  1. “Bite the dust”: to die
    “Hit the sack”: prepare for sleep
    “Street-walking”: a prostitute who solicits on the streets

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      • In german it’s “Ins Grass beißen” – to bite in the grass. Do you imgagine someone on a meadow right now, too?

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    • Up the Wooden hill to Bedminster?

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  2. I’m 50, and I am still discovering what different idioms. Recently I learned a Norwegian one that has puzzled me (I am Norwegian).

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  3. Diagnosed late in life (because autism was not even a word when I grew up) so thought I was an alien from another planet. Showing my age here but used to parrot–and still do, some days–the sixties expression “hang in there.” As a poet, I had hours of contemplating that one 🙂

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  4. I understand idioms, but people think I don’t because of how often I respond with jokes about them.

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  5. pull your socks up – do a better job
    don’t let the cat out of the bag – don’t tell anyone
    a few sandwiches short of a picnic – someone not very smart.
    six of one half a dozen of the other – the same either way.

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    • Give it your best shot,
      make a fist of it,
      a dog’s dinner.
      make a hash of it,
      a long shot,
      a nutty fruit cake,
      cry wolf,
      rolling stone.

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  6. like a bull in a china shop or to go at it like a bull at a gate

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  7. My son is 11. High fuctioning. Labeled “weirdo”. Friendless. Nobody knows he has Aspergers. Not even him. You are writing his life story. The more I read of yours the more I learn about my son. If you keep writing I’ll keep reading. Thank you for helping me get to know my son better!!

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    • Thank you for the massive compliment! 🙂 I’m really glad the site has helped, and I wish you and your lad all the best as he grows up. 🙂
      (By the way, if you find yourself wondering whether/when to tell him about his Asperger’s, one of my more recent articles gives some advice on it. It may help him if he’s aware that he’s socially different but doesn’t quite know why. 🙂 Either way, high five him for me because I grew up being socially different too!)

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  8. “We’ll drop you off on the way home.”
    “I’m gonna run to store for a few things.”
    “Keep your eye on the ball.”
    “I’m gonna jump in the shower/tub before bed.”

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    • Haha, perfect example. 🙂 We say them without even realising they’re idioms at all!

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    • When people say that they’re gonna run somewhere real quick I tell them I’d love to see that lol! I tend to use it to and catch myself and say well I’m gonna drive somewhere real quick.

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  9. I’m gonna take a pee or take a poo. My husband and in-laws use this one a lot and I always ask them where they’re taking it to lol.

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    • LOL- literally yesterday, I was at a friend’s house and he asked me to take a seat.
      So, being in a jokey mood, I picked up the chair and took it out of the room. 😀

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  10. There’s a coffee shop in Australia called “coffee club”

    A girl asked if I’d like to go and I replied “I’m not a member”

    I never heard from her again.

    It’s just a stupid name! Its not an actual club!

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    • lol 😀 I love that one!

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        • Ha, we have them here too. 🙂 Never understood why they used that name!

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          • I think it’s because they serve subs. Like SUBway.
            By the way, thanks for this. I have a really crazy number of autistic people in my family, including my brother and father, but not me, and this has really helped.

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  11. I understand idioms but, like most social situations, I take a few seconds longer then most to process and realize people are joking or using idioms/euphamisms. The words ‘horny’ (covered in horns) and ‘hot’ (temperature, not amount of spice or attractive) threw me of forever. I’m 33 and still picture someone covered in horns or sweating from overheating.

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  12. My son struggles with these… Is there a way you would recommend to help with idioms? Currently, we explain them to him one at a time. Fortunately, with him, he will remember the explanation forever but there are always new ones so I am worried we are not helping him with flexible thinking. Any advice?

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    • For starters, keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂 Learning them one at a time is how I did it.

      Besides that, perhaps suggest to him that if something in conversation sounds unbelievable, it most likely is. It might do some good to encourage him to think that if he hears something and it doesn’t make sense (or if it doesn’t seem relevant), it’s likely that the other person’s being non-literal- so either use your imagination to picture what they might mean (depending on his level of social development) or simply ask them to clarify. 🙂 Hope this helps a little.

      Post a Reply
    • There’s an idiom card game where you have to match the idiom to its correct meaning. If your child likes games this could be a fun exercise. Google idiom card game or idiom fun pack. There’s also an ‘idiom of the day’ wall chart. Even without the actual games, talking (and laughing) about idioms on long drives in the car is useful.

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      • Great suggestion. 🙂 Thanks!

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    • I’m not diagnosed, though I have some traits resembling autistic ones. One thing that probably helped me understand idioms was that my family got the Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms through a school book order. Perhaps there’s an updated edition or a similar resource in print or online (hopefully more appropriate than Urban Dictionary).

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  13. I told my ASD son many years ago he had missed his window of opportunity. He ran around the house looking for it…..??

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    • Ha, brilliant! 😀

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    • Haha, EVERYONE around me used to use that one while I was growing up. 🙂

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  14. The odd voice out– I don’t have this issue. I (suddenly noticed that) I don’t use idioms a lot, either speaking or writing, but I do understand them for some reason. Maybe it’s the same part of me that picks up on details and hints far too well (watching movies with my just a bit younger brothers and me saying ‘that’s so inappropriate’ and them saying ‘WHAT?’) but for some reason, I manage, even if it takes a bit of time afterwords to work out why that means what it means, or work out what the person is saying based on context.

    Whatever the reason, I just wanted to offer my perspective– Idioms do not faze me. Another blessing from Above. Conquering stereotypes!

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  15. I remember my son asking me ‘are you going to buy that new car? ‘ I said ‘I need to sleep on it’ it still makes me chuckle seeing his face in pure shock thinking that I was going to actually sleep on the car

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    • Haha, brilliant. 😀

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  16. On Guide Camp, I was told to use Elbow Grease when cleaning the pans.
    I dutifully went off to the stores tent and emerged 10 minutes later having not found it. Only to be told it just meant “use a lot of energy and scrubbing”

    Post a Reply
  17. I was watching TV and it was reported that…’there is a plant in the audience’. I kept watching the tv and finally said to my dad ‘I can’t see the plant’. It’s meant that someone was secretly giving the answers to the man answering them, I think it was one cough to mean yes and two coughs to mean no. I will never forget that one and I still find it funny.

    Then there is the other ‘I’ve a tummy bug’ my responce was ‘how did the bug get in your tummy?’ ?

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  18. Please don’t ‘hit’ the red light.

    Post a Reply
    • When I was six or seven, my babysitter was driving me to summer camp, and she was getting mad at this one lady who “ran” a stoplight. “I didn’t see her run,” was my response. My babysitter simply laughed and then explained what it meant.

      Post a Reply
  19. Not quite the same but there is a sign that appears every so often where i live for a ‘giant plant sale’ cracks me up every time but no one else gets it! How is the visual image you get from reading giant plant sale not hilarious! It’s a sale of bus sized daffodils and Daisy’s in my head, walking round there would be like being a borrower!!!!

    Post a Reply
  20. The British expression for stopping by – “I’ll knock you up”, in America would mean “I’ll get you pregnant”.

    For me, “to change my mind” wouldn’t entail an operation, because I view “mind” as the “software”, while the brain is the “hardware”. I continue to “change my mind” by learning new things. However, the autistic “operating system” the software runs underneath remains the same. 😉

    Post a Reply
  21. It’s not really an idiom but this is a good example of how I fail often to understand simple spoken English. When I was little (about 4 or 5) my grannie’s friend got a knitting machine and offered to knit things for everyone. I wanted a scarf. She asked me what colour (red) and then she asked me “How long do you want it?”. My rather confused and upset response was “I want to keep it forever.” I still remember all the adults laughing and me not having a clue what I had said that was funny.

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  22. I alwayys caught on to idioms quickly because languages were a special interest, but there is nothing like literally translating your own language word-for-word into another for exposing the subtle uses (e.g. go through the door). I still remember telling my friend in France that I was going to get ON the bus to go downtown, because that is what we say in English. His response, roughly translated, was “I hope you have some really strong bungee cords.”

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  23. If I haven’t heard certain idioms before, then I’ll take them literally. I am thankful to Urban Dictionary for this reason. It’s taught me an awful lot of slang phrases my NT friends just pick up naturally.

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  24. I learn my idioms from either books or Urban Dictionary. And very rarely, I learn them from my friends. I don’t use idioms that often, but my favorite one is “Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse”, which is said when one is putting the wrong person in charge.

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  1. Taking things literally: when having autism’s actually pretty funny | Autistic, Not Weird - […] I’ve already done an article about idioms. With one of them, I didn’t even realise it was an idiom…
  2. Asperger Syndrome: 50 important facts about having “mild” autism | Autistic, Not Weird - […] Idioms and autism: how you NEVER “change your mind” […]

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