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December 30, 2019

Literalism & subtext

Last updated on February 15, 2021

Earlier today something happened which made me realize I probably speak with more subtext than I thought, while an autistic person I was interacting with realized they probably take things literally more than they thought.


Literalism

I designed a new banner for one of our autism Facebook groups in which I used the character I created of my friend Thomas Gisler, as you can see below.

An illustrated portrait of Thomas.

So I sent Thomas a message:

Martin: Did you see the banner I designed for the new group?

This is the banner I was showing him:

Embrace Autism | Literalism & subtext | banner EmbraceASD Outreach

And he responded:

Thomas: Looking at it now… [half a minute silence]
Thomas: OK… seen! 🙂

Did you notice what just happened? I missed it at first. I continued my interaction with him and then thought, “Hang on, did he just literally answer whether he had seen the banner?” Indeed he did.


Expectations & internalizations

What he missed was my motivation for asking the question. I think this is what researchers mean when they say we lack theory of mind. Had I asked the same question to a neurotypical, they would likely have responded with something like, “I haven’t seen the banner yet. Let me see. Oh cool, you included me!”

Or this was the kind of answer I was expecting, based on my own experiences of how most people ask and answer questions. It seems I have become a little bit neurotypical in how I engage with others. It’s logical on the one hand but also quite bizarre that through prolonged engagement with neurotypicals, my autistic cognition has apparently become more neurotypical. And considering my slightly more neurotypical cognition then is based on particular brain wiring which I suppose are then a little bit more neurotypical, effectively I have become “a little bit less autistic” if that makes sense to say. Strange thought.


Talking with subtext

I know I use an idiom or metaphor now and then, so my communication isn’t exclusively literal, but it actually shocked me to realize that not only do I speak with subtext, but I then also expect others to understand that subtext. An autistic person no less.

At first, I thought it was funny that Thomas answered my question literally. Then I realized how strange it is to ask a question I didn’t really want to know the answer to. Whether or not Thomas had seen the banner was not relevant or interesting. His emotional experience in response to seeing the banner is what I was after. So why didn’t I ask that?


Realizations

This also makes me realize a few things:

  1. How frequently it must occur that an autistic person answers someone literally—or interprets something literally—and is seen as rude or strange. Because the normative views of human behavior take shape predominantly based on how non-autistics view human behavior, and so autistic behavior or cognition is often misunderstood.
  2. How frequently there is a mismatch between autistic and neurotypical cognition and communication. This is what Dimitris Bolis et al. call dialectical misattunement.[1]Beyond Autism: Introducing the Dialectical Misattunement Hypothesis and a Bayesian Account of Intersubjectivity I mean, my interaction with Thomas demonstrates that this dialectical misattunement even happens between autistic people. But the greater the difference in cognitive and communication styles, the more likely this tends to happen.
  3. How often figurative language prevents deeper and more meaningful conversations. Because had I asked what I actually wanted to know from Thomas, I would have received a much more meaningful and interesting response. So when people ask one thing while they actually mean to ask something else, there is potentially a failed attempt at making a connection. If they leave the literal response for what it is and don’t ask a follow-up question, conversations risk remaining superficial, and the parties involved risk being confused about how to relate to each other.
  4. When people ask one thing while they actually mean to ask something else, you might think this counts as miscommunication. And yet not only do people expect that you intuitively understand subtext (sometimes even autistic people themselves, as I demonstrated), but if you don’t, miscommunication is often attributed to the person who doesn’t get the subtext—which is often an autistic person.

Not everyone speaks with subtext, and not everyone is always able to interpret subtext accurately. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of how literal or figurative we are in our cognition and communication. Be cautious not only of what you say, but what may be lost on a person for one reason or another.

And remember, many of us just assume that what was said was literally what was meant. What else could reliably be assumed?

This article
was written by:
martin-silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace Autism, I’m living up to my surname as a silver award-winning graphic designer. Besides running Embrace Autism and researching autism, I love typography and practice type design. I also fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

I discovered I’m autistic when I was 19, and was diagnosed at 25.

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