I had real difficulty getting into the upstairs bathroom the other day. There was a trail of clothing on the floor, some skeleton wristbands dotted about and a couple of black plastic strips (that appeared to have been cut off the strip curtain – like off of the ’70s – in his playroom) stretching across the room, tied onto the tap at one end and the light chord at the other.

“What’s going on here?” I enquired.
“It’s a dementor, Dad.”
Of course.

The following day (I hadn’t plucked up the courage to return the bathroom to its day job), as you do, I had an urgent need to urinate. “I’m just going downstairs to the loo. I don’t want to go upstairs because there’s a dementor in there,” I told DS1, playing along with his game.

“Daaaddd, you know it’s not a dementor. It’s just black clothes.”
Really? Thank goodness for that.

Sometimes the literal meaning of something wins out – even when it is of his own creation.

Say what you’re saying

Deciphering the real meaning behind a saying is a common difficulty among people with autism. I once read about a girl who spent several days looking out of a window waiting to see cats and dogs raining down.

While DS1 hasn’t gone to those extremes and he does understand such sayings when they are explained to him, he is prone to taking the literal meaning of words – especially when the literal take on the saying goes against fact… or when it suits.

Now, some of his comments are not entirely due to incomprehension caused by autism – and even when they are, I don’t see this as an issue… more a source of entertainment. Some are due to the fact he is only eight and couldn’t be expected to understand the meaning, while others are undoubtedly down to his sense of humour ­– but they certainly bear repeating.

We have, of course, had the classic case of incomprehension, when I told him he was driving me up the wall.
“Don’t be silly, Dad. You can’t drive up a wall.”

But sometimes he takes these things to another dimension. Instructions being a prime example, in that on occasion he does exactly what he is told. The only problem being if you don’t say exactly what it is you require. The implied element is often ignored.

While this is by no means a continual happening, on occasions you do have to spell things out for him. Does his brain stop him remembering the order of things, as it does with many auties, or is he just being a pain in the arse?

A picture-led script (known as a ‘social story’) is often used as an aide-memoire to help them with what to us is second nature. We’ve not had much success with those, though. They tend to end up in the bin. So I can only assume the latter.

For example: “Can you go to the toilet before we go out. We’ve got a long drive”
He goes and reappears.
“Have you flushed the chain?”
“Oh, no.”
He disappears, the chain flushes and he reappears.
“Have you washed your hands?”
He disappears again.
“And dry them,” I call out.
“No, not on me – on a towel.”

And, of course, he’s used literalism to prolong going to bed.
“Come on, time to go to bed,” I announced.
He then proceeded to get on his bed and start bouncing.
“That’s not going to bed is it? You need to lie down and go to sleep,” I said.
“Oh, right. You didn’t tell me to lie down.”

Sometimes, you need to be very explicit with instructions.

Slightly tenuous, and not really literal in this sense, but it does sort of link in: one day after school his friend Andreas was round, when DS1 started barking like a dog really loudly.
“Why are you barking?” I asked.
“Andreas told me to.”
“Oh, so would you stand in the middle of the road if he told you to?”
That didn’t go to plan.

Ten minutes later, he came downstairs with his right foot and trouser leg soaking wet.
“What’s happened?” I enquired.
“I put my foot in the toilet,” he replied, as if no further explanation was needed.
“Erm. Why?”
“Andreas told me to.”

Why is it when your friends tell you to do something you do it – however ridiculous – but when I ask you to do something, you don’t? was a retort that sprang to mind about two months later.

Stating the not so obvious

This sense of literal can apply to objects: last summer, on holiday, we drove past Corfe Castle.
“Look, there’s Corfe Castle,” I pointed out.
“That’s not a castle. It’s in ruins.”

It can apply to fiction: I am currently reading him The Hobbit, and we got to the bit where it says: “… collected again from the four corners of the world.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, it means ‘from all over the world’.”
“But the world doesn’t have corners,” he quite rightly pointed out, before going on to say: “If this book had been written a few hundred years ago [when people thought the Earth was flat], it would have been right.”

You don’t realise how confusing language is sometimes.

It also applies to people: his mum was really upset one day – stressed out with work – and DS1 attempted to console her.
“I can’t do anything,” she cried.
“Yes, you can,” he told her. “You are talking and crying – you can do things.”

On another occasion, we were talking about Andreas’ dad and about his forgetfulness. DS1 was supposed to have been going to Andreas’ for tea, but his dad had double-booked him. I explained to him that we would have to rearrange for another day and joked about Bob’s inability to remember stuff.
“He doesn’t forget everything,” piped up DS1. “He knows his name.”

Wary of his literal thinking, I was quite concerned to read in his literacy (or should that be literalcy) book the following sentence – although admittedly it was a good example of how to use an adjective: “I quietly demolished the house.”
I have made sure all the hammers are locked away.

He can also use literal understanding to excuse himself from taking responsibility for his actions. At a festival earlier this year, he was sitting next to his friend Joanne in a cycle trailer. It was a bit cramped, and arms were flailing everywhere as they jostled for room, when DS1 caught Joanne in the face with his pen. Her tears flowed.
“I know it was an accident,” I said to him. “But you can see Joanne is hurt, so please can you say ‘sorry’.”
“It wasn’t me,” he insisted. “I didn’t touch her. It was the pen.”

Another time, we were running late for school.
“Come on, we’re late. Get your shoes on and let’s get going,” I geed him along.
“It’s your fault,” DS1 told me. I’d not noticed the time and had failed to give him a warning that it was nearly time to go.
“You can keep an eye on the time too,” I said. “That’s why you have a watch.”
“No it’s not,” he informed me. “I have a watch because Karen bought it for me for my birthday.”

Musical differences

Lyrics in songs are a minefield. We were listening to The Wonder Stuff’s Size of a Cow, when it reached the verse that starts: “You know that I’ve been drunk a thousand times…”
“No I don’t,” said DS1, disdainfully. “ I don’t know you, do I?”

Only this week, the Levellers’ Beautiful Day was playing when an incredulous DS1 complained: “Why are they singing this? It’s not a beautiful day, it’s absolutely pouring with rain.”

Though, thankfully at his age, he doesn’t understand the connotations of this one, it does warrant an airing: we were listening to music in the car and had inadvertently streamed the uncensored version of a Lily Allen album, which includes a song pertaining to the act of oral sex.
This prompted DS1 to pipe up: “But that’s silly. Why would she want to give someone a head?”

There was silence as we tried to ignore his question, not really knowing how best to respond.
He pondered for a while more before uttering: “And, even if you did, it wouldn’t take ages would it? You’d just go ‘there’s a head’ and leave again.”


  • Neal Underwood

    Proper laugh out loud moment at him putting his foot down the toilet. Fine work mate

    • Phil Clisby

      Thanks. Yes, that was funny, but my personal favourite was the watch. Factually correct and hilarious. As the saying goes: ‘It’s funny because it’s true.’

  • Clive

    Your blogs continue to communicate a perceptive and entertaining understanding of autistic behaviour. Keep it going – great stuff.


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