Skip to main content
Written by:
October 17, 2019

A literal clown

Last updated on February 17, 2021

Yesterday something happened to me that reminded me of how literal autistic people can be in their interpretation of things—sometimes with hilarious results. Or maybe it just reminded me of how shockingly literal I can be.

The clown

Yesterday evening Natalie and I went to Toronto; Natalie had an appointment with another therapist who does intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP), which is a powerful trauma therapy that Natalie also recently got trained in. We will most certainly write a post specifically on this therapy at some point, because there is something about it that connects to autism and alexithymia in a crucial way.

Anyway, while Natalie was undergoing this intensive therapy, I was enjoying exploring the book store next, as well as the general area. It’s a Greek part of Toronto called Greektown, so you can imagine there are plenty of wonderful scents in the area to explore as well.

At one point I was standing still, either looking around or on my phone for a moment, and this young black guy comes up to me and says:

“Yo. Did you see that? That clown almost drove over me!”

I didn’t respond because I didn’t take him seriously. He wasn’t pointing anywhere so I had no idea where he was supposedly almost driven over, and I saw no clown anywhere. Why would there be a clown? I was reminded of the 2016 clown sightings. But I guess since you don’t generally see clowns on the street, I figured he must be joking.

As the guy continues walking he looks back at me and says, “You would call the police if I asked you to, wouldn’t you?” He didn’t wait for a response and continued his merry way. “What a strange fella,” I thought.

The fool

When Natalie finished her appointment half an hour later or so, I tell her about my strange experience; I tell her this guy said he was almost driven over by a clown. Isn’t that a story to tell the grandkids?

Natalie paused for a moment and then starts laughing. She explains to me that there never was a clown. Not in the literal sense, anyway. What the guy meant by a clown is something like “that idiot” or “that downright fool”.[1]Clown | Urban Dictionary

Turns out I was a downright fool. A bit ironic, then, that the guy is almost driven over by a clown, and the first thing he does is walk up straight to the very next clown to report on his first clown incident. And what does the next clown do? Take him literally, and thus fail to take him seriously.

Tribalism & empathy

Moments like these make me realize that tribalism (i.e. loyalty to your own kin due to strong relations of proximity and kinship, as well as the inherent exclusion of others on account of that tribalistic connection), which drives what Damian Milton calls the double empathy problem,[2]On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ can be fueled through misunderstandings like these. In this case, a guy using urban, metaphorical language, and an un-urban, literal-minded autistic person.

What happened here was funny at least from my perspective because I thought he was talking about an actual clown. But from his perspective, he asked a stranger for validation and inquired about whether they would offer help if the situation had been direr, and that stranger effectively did nothing. Maybe I am taking the situation too seriously, as I would think he wouldn’t have continued walking if he genuinely needed help. But I wonder if, in his mind, my lack of response confirmed any (perceived) sense of tribalism. If so, I am sorry.

Misinterpreting metaphors

But I did learn something valuable. Next time when someone starts talking about a clown in a context in which a literal clown makes little sense, I will be ready! I will be a master of metaphorical interpretation, at least in that instance.

Which is to say that there are many more metaphors to assess for their potential to misinterpretation. For instance, earlier today I learned that when people say, “I am tired of hearing X from you”, it is an expression of anger and judgment. When I said it though, I literally meant that it is tiring/exhausting me. I honestly thought the expression is linked to a physical sensation (tiredness); I thought that people tend to make this statement when they are angry, because what is playing out in front of them is stressing and exhausting to them. I had no idea it was shared with the sentiment of, “I’m not putting up with this”. Now I know not to use that expression again, because I will mean it literally when I feel a need to say it.

It seems for autistic people, it’s likely they think they understand certain metaphors, but end up using them in a literal sense. At that point, it is no longer a metaphor but a literal expression. But considering the neurotypical world is going to interpret those literal expressions in a metaphorical way, there is the potential for not only misinterpretation but a deeper misunderstanding of each other.

All of this begs the question, what are other metaphorical expressions I ought to learn about in order to navigate the non-literal-minded world as an autistic person?


This article
was written by:

Martin Silvertant is a co-founder of Embrace Autism, and lives up to his surname as a silver award-winning graphic designer. Besides running Embrace Autism and researching autism, he loves typography and practicing type design. He was diagnosed with autism at 25.

PS: Martin is trans, and as of 2021 she writes under her true name, Eva Silvertant.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


Let us know what you think!

A hand pointing down (an index symbol).
Notify of
Inline feedbacks
View all comments
We would love to hear your thoughts!x