image features yellow police tape which reads quarantine with a person sitting in front of it in what appears to be a yellow hazmat suit reading a newspaper full of covid headlines. Image represents an autistic person on the spectrum with autism looking at a newspaper and feeling anxiety and stress because the language of war is being used and autism is characterized by taking things literally

Being Autistic & Taking Language about COVID-19 Literally4 min read

We’re now several months into what is being called lockdown, self-isolation, or shielding. I’ve gotten used to hearing a new language that is being used to describe what is going on –and of course, being autistic, my brain defaults to literal interpretation, and this loaded, grim language has increased my anxiety.

As well as my employment as a manager within a successful social care organisation, I’m a director of a small not-for-profit social enterprise based in the UK called Autism Wellbeing. In keeping the focus on well being, I feel it is important to help autistic people navigate one of the problems that has been causing me the most stress: the language.

According to Terra Vance, founder of NeuroClastic:

Autistic people have a very different relationship with language from most people. While others speak in gists and emotional connotations, we tend to speak in factual details. If we are articulating our emotions, we tend to state a fact and then follow it with something like, “…which makes me feel [insert emotional experience]” or “…and that bothers me because, [insert practical + emotional consequences].”

An autistic person may say, “I am going to be staying mostly indoors for a long time, and taking precautions when I need to leave my home, which makes me anxious.” But, most people will imply the emotional consequences of such circumstances by using language that catastrophizes the situation: quarantine, lockdown, sheltering, isolation, crisis, national emergency, scarcity, rationing, etc.

But without an awareness of these language differences, or without taking some time to translate neurotypical language to ourselves, neurotypical language can be incredibly jarring for us, especially the sensationalized language of mainstream media.

Why taking things literally increases my anxiety: Covid, the language of media headlines, the art of war, and autistic translation

On Taking Things Literally

Like many autistic people, my natural interpretation of any new information tends to be to take it literally.

That doesn’t mean I’m naïve or lack understanding. I have learned to recognize what many figures of speech, idioms, metaphors, and non-literal sayings are actually communicating.

I Can’t Filter

I am very open-minded and can accept that there are layers of meaning and figurative language in things I hear; however, I don’t have the ability to filter out unnecessary or meaningless information unconsciously like many people appear to do.

This is great for seeing situations with a unique perspective, thinking outside the box, or noticing patterns, but it also means I have to do the work of consciously processing information to understand it unless it matches something I already know.

Processing Figurative to Literal Information Means Taking an Emotional Journey

My initial, literal interpretation can be emotional or confusing. Think about these commonly-used phrases: “I’ll kill him if he does that again,” or “That baby is so gorgeous I could eat her.”

I have learned specific examples of how exaggerated or figurative language is used (as above), and also patterns in how people use language. For example, emotions are often described as colours (green with envy, feeling blue, seeing red), or elephants are used to denote size (elephant in the room) or memory. I can apply these ‘rules’ to help me get by socially.

Determining the Agenda

When the language pattern and the words don’t match, it can be because it is a joke or a lie or some other hidden agenda. I understand how this works and can use it to a fair degree.

Covid-19 is an illness, and usually when people are talking about illness, they are kind and caring– unless they believe that people are some how at fault for contracting it.

The language of coronavirus is the language of war. I understand that this is because of a political agenda.

The words used are powerful and scary. War and staying healthy and well are opposites. The language does not fit. But this is not a joke or a lie. I feel suspicious.

The words include lockdown, isolation, curfew, prohibit, enforce, battle, casualties, threat, quarantine, etc.

I know these words aren’t meant to be taken as literally as I tend to take them, but my natural reaction is to take them as hard facts– and this makes me feel frightened. Frightened because I don’t want to be locked in anywhere, for example, and frightened because someone is using the wrong words, and I don’t really know why.

I also feel confused. The confusion adds to my emotional overload. My body is reacting to the fear the words create, so my senses are heightened anyway (flight, fright, fight). This makes everything even more difficult to process.

Decoding the Language

I find out what the words mean in the context they are being used. I don’t necessarily agree with them or think they are the most appropriate words given the situation, but I gain a better understanding.

My understanding helps reduce my anxiety, but every time I hear the words, it triggers my anxiety again.

It is sad that people are talking about an illness in a way that isn’t compassionate.

Emma