So Freaking Literal: Neurodivergence and Literal Thinking

“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers (Ukrainian national flower) will grow when you all lie down here.” Jesus, are all Ukrainians as hardcore as this woman?

A few days into the current shit in Ukraine, a friend shared a picture of a sunflower she was embroidering with the tag, “Seeds for your pockets”. To which I responded, “That’s lovely but I have to tell you that I’m not planning on lying down any time soon.” And, she came back with, “Not for you, dingaling.” We were, of course, referencing the story from the early days of the war about a Ukrainian woman in the city of Henichesk who offered Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so “at least sunflowers (Ukrainian national flower) will grow when you all lie down here.” My friend meant, of course, that the seeds were for Russian pockets. But that thought didn’t even occur to my literal-ass brain. And, this little tale is a good example of today’s topic: how neurodivergence and literal thinking go hand in hand.

Neurodivegence and Literal Thinking: A Little Background

Literal thinking is a hallmark of autism. There are multiple reasons for this; most likely, as many reasons as there are autistic people. A lot of them involve language usage–something that tends to be a challenge for us–but something called “theory of mind” also seems to play a part. This is basically the ability to understand that other people may think differently than we do. Now, while I understand that people do think differently, I have no idea how that might work. And, in actual practice, the idea that someone thinks differently than I do doesn’t really occur to me. My default setting tends to be “literal” and I just assume that everyone else is the same. And, to paraphrase Vladek Spiegelman, here my troubles begin.

We Speak Different Languages

One of the criteria for an autism diagnosis is having issues with both verbal and nonverbal communication. And this whole “literal thinking” thing is primarily about communication. As neurodiversity advocate Janae Elizabeth says, we don’t get what neurotypicals are saying because we’re “speaking different languages.” That makes a lot of sense because I constantly feel like I’m surrounded by people speaking a different fucking language. And, that I don’t understand a goddamn bit of it. Worse, I don’t have an English/Whatever-the-fuck-they’re-speaking dictionary. And, body language? Don’t get me started on that shit. I’m supposed to know someone likes me by the way they touch themselves??? That doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. I swear, sometimes, it feels like neurotypicals are just fucking with me.

Of Skinning Cats and Cigarette Butts

One place neurodivergence and literal thinking shows up is in the issue folks with ASD and ADHD have with colloquialisms. While I kind of get them, I also have my moments. If you told me “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” I’d know you’re not talking about literally skinning an actual cat, you’re just saying that there’s more than one way to accomplish an objective. But, if your language is the least bit imprecise, I might not get your meaning. For example, in one of my first jobs (at McDonald’s), a supervisor told me to go clean up a “huge, disgusting pile” of cigarette butts that had been dumped in the parking lot. When I walked out the door, I noticed about 4-5 butts and some ashes right away. But, I thought, “Nah, that’s not it. She said a ‘huge pile’.” Then, I proceeded to walk all over the lot, looking for that massive, nasty heap my manager had so vividly described. Eventually, I figured it out but it took a good few minutes.

A Double Dose

The thing is, I may be getting a double goddamn dose of this whole literal thinking thing. While folks with autism are the go-to when it comes to this shit, they’re not the only ones who deal with it. Literal thinking is an ADHD thing, too. At least, it seems to be. Because people with ASD can be up to 70% likely to have ADHD, it could just be a weird, shitty crossover thing. I mean, the two conditions are so fucking intertwined, it’s hard to say where one stops and the other begins. Whichever one it is, our brains process language in a different way than neurotypical ones which makes communication, well, let’s say difficult.

I Don’t Get It

If I was going to sum up my life in one sentence, that would be it. All too often, I don’t get it. And, sometimes it’s because I think too goddamn literally for neurotypical shit to make any sense. All too often, it feels like the world is an impenetrable maze of bullshit that makes absofuckinglutely zero sense. How the hell you people navigate this shit-hot mess you’ve constructed is totally beyond me and a lot of days, the hermit lifestyle looks pretty fucking good. But, just when I’m ready to chuck it all and move to a cave in the goddamn desert, one of you will do something that makes me think, “Maybe this society thing isn’t so bad after all.” In other words, just when I think I’m out, you fuckers pull me back in. And, I’m not sure how I feel about that.