Interpreting idioms for neurodiverse minds
Updated: Oct 17
One of the most frequently used types of figurative language in casual conversation is idioms. Idioms (also known as a turn of phrase) are defined as a series of words with non-literal meaning. This meaning can only be understood by putting together the background information and context. For example, “That was a piece of cake” after you have completed an exam.
Research has found that some people with ASD may face a greater difficulty in understanding idioms. This can be due to the expressions being interpreted literally, independent of the social context. Difficulties related to figurative language comprehension and production have been seen among the associated features of autism. It has been suggested that this might be linked to broader difficulties including challenges with understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings. (Whyte, E. M., Nelson, K. E., & Khan, K. S. (2013).
It is almost impossible to teach someone to memorize all idiom meanings. In order to support someone’s understanding of idioms they may need to be taught how to pick up on context clues. Learning how to pick up on context clues supports a person to become a better reader of social situations.
Tips if you or someone you know has difficulties understanding idioms:
Draw the idioms and challenge yourself to draw the literal translation. This well help you realise that some of these sayings can’t be interpreted literally and need to be related to the context.
Ask someone to explain the idiom and/or metaphor directly after you hear them say it.
Write scripts and help practise the meanings of idioms in context with a trusted person.
Read the book it’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions by Michael Barton.
Download the app “popular English idioms”. It uses animations to support the explanations of idioms through contextual examples.
If you, or someone you know, are finding it difficult to interpret and utilise figurative language in a social context, we are here to help. We can support you to increase your understanding and enhance the quality of your social interactions.
Whyte, E. M., Nelson, K. E., & Khan, K. S. (2013). Learning of idiomatic language expressions in a group intervention for children with autism. Autism, 17(4), 449–464. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361311422530