Aspergese 101: On Taking Things Literally and Mind Blindness9 min read

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*


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!!!
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: 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*

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 ]

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 ]


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?”


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.


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?

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  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.

  2. Aspie2 con­ver­sa­tion depicts EXACTLY how most of my con­ver­sa­tions with NTs go. But they usu­ally result in an argu­ment where NT thinks I was being an a**…

  3. This is simply the best descrip­tion I have yet read, on how my mind works! As an only-just-diagnosed 50 some­thing Aspie, I’m hun­grily devouring so many arti­cles, trying to make sense of my life in this new-found light. Frustratingly, there is so much over-simplification out there about our thought processes. I manage to think a thought about a thought, about a sub-thought…
    My knowl­edge of idioms is pretty thor­ough and diverse, but this is exactly how I’d approach a new one, and exactly how I’d start a text at 2am! How else is there? 😉
    A won­derful, 100% relat­able and enter­taining read. Thank you!

  4. I would say (and have done irl)

    “In a stable, of course, of course, a horse,
    or sell it, they’re worth money, you know.”

  5. This article had me rolling on the floor laughing!!! I thought it was hilar­ious!!! I have never felt more seen in my life. Ever. I do NOT get phrases at all. I thought I was weird or some­thing. My ex hus­band would laugh at me when I would try to use them in a sen­tence and I always got them wrong. Learning so much about myself. Newly self-diagnosed. Thanks for this. Great read. And yes, I’m always up.

    1. Author

      It seems I have found another soul sister!

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