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Neurodiversity and the Literal Thinking Trap

Author: Amy Tindell of NeuroDiversity & Faith

Blog Used with Permission from NeuroDiversity & Faith

 For better or for worse, literal thinking is a hallmark of neurodiversity. This can happen for any of several reasons. Sometimes it’s a blessing and a source of amusement. At other times it’s frustrating and leads to embarrassingly awkward situations.

It all boils down to communication. When we communicate with someone, there’s often a literal meaning and a non-literal or implied meaning. Thinkers with ADHD, autism, and many other forms of neurodiversity get hung up on that second part. Let me break down a few reasons this happens.

In Autism…

For those thinkers on the autism spectrum and some other forms of ND thinking, sarcasm, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and figurative language might as well be a foreign language. These people can be amazingly intelligent, and yet literal processing can lead to some foolish choices.

For example, the first time I told my son to take the garbage out, instead of taking the full bag out of the garbage can and taking the bag to the outdoor garbage can to be picked up, he took the entire kitchen garbage can and set it outside the front door. At no point did any of this seem strange or confusing to him. He did exactly what I asked. It wasn’t until I told him explicitly what “take the garbage out” meant, that he realized the problem.

I admit I have similar problems sometimes. As a literal thinker, and as a mom of literal thinkers, I can share a little advice for my neurotypical thinking friends. First, don’t assume that I caught the implied meaning you may communicate. Second, be gracious enough to tell me when you didn’t mean something literally. Finally, don’t take it personally. Chances are, I’m not trying to make your life difficult or cause problems when I only catch your literal message and not the underlying implied message you think you’re communicating.

For a few more examples of literal thinking in autism, check out the Autism All Stars blog post on literal thinking.


My friends with ADHD are not immune to the literal thinking trap but for some very different reasons. They are very adept at using sarcasm and figurative language. From idioms to eye rolls, they can send those implied messages. The problem comes in receiving those messages.

The ADHD brain works in overdrive. They think fast and in multiple directions at once. They get distracted, and they don’t stop long enough to realize that they missed those social cues and underlying messages until much later when they’re replaying conversations in their heads. Understanding literal messages takes less time, energy, and focus so it’s easy to understand why the ADHD brain speeds right past the more subtle implied messages.

The big difference between ADHD thinkers and autistic thinkers is that those with ADHD often realize their mistakes later on when they refocus or when the person speaking repeats themselves or draws attention in some way. Remember many of my ADHD friends feel things very deeply, and that includes the embarrassment that comes from those awkward situations when they realize their mistakes. For a few examples of that, you can read my previous blog “I Can’t Believe I Said That!

If you’re a neurotypical thinker struggling to communicate with a literal ADHD thinker, try making sure you have their full attention if you need them to catch your implied message. They usually get it if they can slow down and focus. Be gracious when you have to point out a literal thinking mistake and when they become dramatically embarrassed. Learning to laugh at these literal thinking mistakes takes a lot of practice.

Wait… What?

A few days ago, the literal thinking trap caught us all. My kids were invited to a friend’s birthday party, and at the last minute, I had to wrap a gift. After a thorough search, I realized my tape was gone, but I found a gift bag that was the right size. That’s when my ASD thinker came into the room.

Me: Can you bring me some tissue paper?

Him: Sure!

He disappeared and returned a minute later with toilet paper.

Me: No, not toilet paper. Tissue paper.

Him: Oh, right.

He disappeared again and came back with a box of facial tissue. I held up the gift bag.

Me: No, I’m trying to wrap this gift. I have the bag. I just need the tissue paper from the wrapping box under my bed.

Him: Oh, I get it!

He disappeared again and came back with wrapping paper. I let out a sigh. At that moment, my ADHD thinker came racing through the room and yelled, “I used the tissue paper to make doll clothes last week!”

Me: Well, I can’t wrap it in wrapping paper because my tape grew legs and walked off!

Ten minutes later we were all in the car headed to the store when my little ADHD thinker finally calmed down, got quiet, and then said, “Wait, your tape grew legs?”

Living & Working with Literal Thinkers

The number one way to live and work with a literal thinker is this: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Most people don’t stop to think about all the idioms, slang, and figurative language they use until they’re forced to stop using it when they’re communicating important information. Save the implied messages for casual conversation.

If it’s important, just say what you mean.

Be ready to give explicit instructions or explanations and be gracious and understanding when miscommunication happens. Having a healthy sense of humor and being understanding goes a long way. If you’re joking or being sarcastic, say so. If you’re being serious, say so. Don’t assume anything.

Feel free to share your own stories of the literal thinking trap or advice for communicating with literal thinkers in the comments below.

Find out more from Neurodiversity & Faith at :

Amy writes Think a Little Different Book series

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