wikiHow to Teach Figurative Language to Autistic People

"Literal thinking" is a diagnostic criterion for autism, but many autistic people are capable of understanding figurative things. With help, many autistic people can learn to understand jokes, sarcasm, and figures of speech—and even use them themselves. This guide is for parents, caretakers, and older siblings, but some of the advice may be useful for autistic teens and adults who teach themselves.


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    Give young autistic children access to things that distort the idea of reality (such as exaggerated cartoon antics). This will help the autistic person become accustomed to the idea that unrealistic and unexpected things can be funny.
    • Older children, teens, and adults are probably already aware that people distort reality for fun. They might enjoy more sophisticated humor, such as satires and live-action comedies.
    • When enjoying a story together, point out silly things that happen and say "Isn't that ridiculous?" This will help the autistic person learn about both humor and typical human interaction.
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    Use figurative language in silly ways. In a low-pressure context (such as the dinner table), describe a story that didn't happen or a view you don't hold. Let the autistic person make a game of guessing whether you're serious or not.
    • Children enjoy outrageous stories, like the time you rode a T. Rex away from the meteorite that made the dinosaurs extinct. If you're getting giggles, it's going well.
    • Say things that are obviously wrong. For example, use a silly voice say "Happy 69th birthday!" to your 39-year-old mother, while your autistic sister is in the room. When corrected, continue being wrong. ("Oh, that's right, she's not 69. She's 79!") This will elicit some laughs.
    • For older children, teens, and adults, pretend to hold a viewpoint that is uncharacteristic of you (e.g. "Oh, I hate Star Trek. It's no good at all"). If the autistic person doesn't seem to get it, give more and more ridiculous reasons.
    • Avoid jokingly criticizing the autistic person, something they did, or something they hold dear to them. They might not realize that you aren't serious, or feel confused about if you're joking, and start feeling very hurt and upset. For example, if they love Star Trek, then you might want to joke about disliking dogs or video games instead.
    • This tactic is a favorite of dads everywhere.
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    Get a book of idioms from the local library or bookstore. A dictionary of sayings such as "the pot calling the kettle black" and "it's raining cats and dogs" can help autistic people interpret the meanings.
    • Idiom books are available for all ages. Some contain mostly pictures, while others are mostly text like a chapter book.
    • Deep thinkers may enjoy books that explain the reasoning behind the idiom (for example, explaining how pots and kettles used to be hung over the fire, which would turn them black). This also makes it easier to understand and remember.
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    Encourage their experimentation with figurative language. Don't be surprised if the autistic person begins to spontaneously use jokes, sarcasm, and metaphors. Show your appreciation for their wit, even if it doesn't make much sense to you. They're still learning.
    • With time, some autistic people master the art of humor. Many autistic bloggers display a refined sense of sarcasm and wit. Autistic people may come up with new and interesting uses for language.
    • Making bad jokes is part of life. Many neurotypical children invent jokes that make no sense. For example: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Apple." "Apple who?" "Apple on the ceiling!" It takes time to learn how to construct a surprising and well-thought-out joke.
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    Politely explain if the autistic person is confused. Demonstrating patience and respect will tell the autistic person that it's okay to ask for clarification and make mistakes. An accepting environment allows them to take risks and learn more.
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    Don't pressure learning. Sometimes people need to take things at a slow pace, or they just aren't ready. Proficiency in figurative language is a useful skill, but not a crucial one, so don't worry if the autistic person isn't understanding much. It may be the wrong time. Just hang out with them, have fun, and leave the lessons for another time.


  • Autistic people are remarkably passionate about their special interests. Try telling silly stories about their favorite topics. For example, a girl who loves fire trucks might enjoy a story about how you singlehandedly put out a forest fire and saved all the animals.
  • Keep things fun! Relaxed atmospheres are the best places to learn new things, so try to use figurative language when the autistic person isn't under stress.
  • Discuss the meanings and uses of figurative language with the autistic person, and become a figurative-language decoding team. Offer to let the autistic person teach you things from the book of idioms or share their observations. Their insight may surprise you!


  • Never criticize the autistic person, their actions, or their passions when you aren't being serious. This can frighten and confuse the autistic person.
  • Never "talk down" to an autistic person. This is very insulting.
  • Avoid figurative language games when the autistic person is stressed or tired. Relaxation time is especially important for autistic people, and over stressing them may lead to a meltdown.
  • If a teaching method frequently upsets the autistic person, stop using it.

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