Friday, 1 April 2011

How Aspie literalism really works

It's one of the stereotypical Aspie traits, isn't it? A tendency to take things literally. As though we hear the phrase "raining cats and dogs" and look up expecting to see furry quadrupeds hurtling out of the sky.


Photo by b1ue5ky. "Hurtling" not shown.

But, especially for adults like me who've had a lifetime to get our heads around the concept of figures of speech, it's actually a lot more subtle than that. Unless you grew up in a cultural vacuum you soon learn that "raining cats and dogs" is just a saying, and while you may think it's a ridiculous turn of phrase you don't actually think it's true.

However, that doesn't mean literal thinking goes away. It just means one learns, on a case by case basis, to avoid the usual traps.

I had an absolute gold-plated honking doozy of a literal moment while I was at Uni. I was studying Bliss by Peter Carey, and had to write an essay on a prompt that went something like:

Bliss charts a family's downfall into a chaotic world of drugs, sex, madness, illness and death. Discuss.

(It was a very long time ago, so I can't remember exactly how it went. But that was the general gist of what they were asking for.)

Now, as an older, wiser Aspie, I understand that they were looking for a discussion of the family dynamic and how it changed and disintegrated over the course of the book. But at the time I took it - wait for it - literally: I basically did up a list of events in the book involving drugs, then events involving sex and so forth, demonstrating how each vice became more frequent and extreme as the book progressed. Instead of addressing the overall theme they were after, I picked out the individual components of the question and addressed them. Couldn't see the forest for all those damn trees.

Two things strike me about this, the first being embarrassment on behalf of my younger self that I missed the boat so badly. Especially since this essay was the one I ended up having to present as a presentation to the rest of the class, who probably followed the long-standing tradition of assuming I was a bloody-minded berk who was deliberately going out of her way to be different and difficult.

But the really, really odd thing about this?  Even though I completely misinterpreted the question completely, I got an HD for the answer.