On Metaphor and Culture
As noted by Bev in a recent post on the Asperger Square 8 blog, however, scripted language is a form of metaphor. Scripted language—that is, the use of phrases borrowed from another setting (such as favorite lines from movies or TV shows) is extremely common among autistics. If you visit an Internet forum in the autistic community, you're likely to find a mix of quotes from Tolkien and Heinlein, lines from Star Wars and Dr Who, computer analogies that encompass everything from the workings of the human brain to simple daily life activities, rebellious lyrics from various anti-establishment musicians, video game references, and much more, all bubbling cheerfully away in a richly creative anarchic stew.
So what's causing the confusion here? Why are autistics likely to have trouble understanding popular sayings, and how did mainstream society go so far wrong in believing that autistics lacked the capacity for abstract thought?
Well, I'd put it like this—to understand a metaphor correctly, one must first understand the culture to which it belongs. Metaphors, and the ability to interpret them, do not exist in a vacuum. Bev's post addresses this point (metaphorically) by linking to a summary of the Star Trek episode Darmok, in which Picard's Enterprise encounters a group of aliens who speak entirely in metaphors taken from the cultural saga of their race. Although the universal translator on the Enterprise can render the literal meaning of their words, no useful communication is possible without knowing the context.
Because speech does not come as easily to autistics as it does to others, we often try to compensate by analyzing words and their possible intended meanings in detail, as Bev also has described. This causes us to see ambiguities in commonly used phrases and, sometimes, to become confused by them.
Many of today's folk sayings have their origins in a pre-industrial society that no longer exists. For example, the phrase "make hay while the sun shines" doesn't mean much of anything unless you first understand that a farmer must cut hay on a clear day, so that it will not get wet and spoil, and that villagers in the past who failed to gather sufficient quantities of hay to feed their livestock over the winter were quite likely to starve.
A non-autistic person who was not in the habit of analyzing the meaning of every sentence would simply file such a saying away in his or her mind, upon first hearing it, as an unfamiliar phrase. He or she probably would not ask what it meant and would not take any action based on it. After hearing it a few more times, in various situations, the person eventually would learn its usage (while still being unaware of its origin) from context.
However, an autistic who heard this phrase for the first time probably would try to reason out the intended meaning and, not being familiar with its history, might reasonably conclude that he or she had just been asked to go to a farm and cut some hay because the work would be pleasant on such a nice sunny day, or something of the sort. Far from reflecting a lack of imagination and analysis, this misunderstanding actually would be a consequence of applying more imagination and analysis than the circumstances required.
On the other side of the cultural/linguistic divide, non-autistics often fail to understand the metaphorical nature of autistics' use of scripted language because they haven't had enough conversations of this kind to learn the context. Autistics are a small minority, and most people, no matter how well-intentioned, just aren't going to talk with us enough to get a good grasp of how we use language. As a result, an ugly stereotype has developed that characterizes autistics as little more than robots or tape recorders, repeating phrases randomly with no intelligent thought.
Cross-cultural communication is always fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, even under the best of circumstances. When the majority group makes the arrogant assumption that it is intellectually superior, that potential increases exponentially. Andrea just posted an excellent list of potential pitfalls in cross-cultural relationships; you may want to take a look at it and think about the implications for a while!