Metaphors in autism–a failure of imagination?

As I noted in and earlier post, metaphors proliferate in the typed output that is extracted from autistic individuals via facilitated communication (as in “My senses always fall in love / They spin, swoon”, attributed to Deej).

But at the same time that the pseudoscience of autism attributes metaphorical language to autistic individuals, much of the science of autism would appear, perhaps a bit prematurely, to preclude it.

This is a topic I address in my recent book:

Here’s an edited extract on the topic from an old Out in Left Field post:

“I found it, hiding between bed and chest.”

Not a particularly remarkable statement, except that it came from a child with a neurological condition that supposedly makes this sort of language inaccessible.

The neurological condition, mild-moderate autism; and the language in question, the non-literal language the child used to depict his bathrobe as an entity that hides itself.

Personification is a subtype of metaphor in which a non-human entity is compared to a person. Metaphors are often claimed to be an area in which autistic children struggle—and there are even experiments that back up this claim (though more recent studies have called this into question). The problem, supposedly, is inherent to autism: autistic individuals are said to have difficulty with non-literal language in general.

So is this child really that unusual among his peers? Or might it be that a great many more people on the autistic spectrum have a much greater capacity for figurative language than we give them credit?

To see what it takes to grasp the figurative sense of “hiding,” it’s useful to divide instances of metaphor (and personification in particular) into three categories:

1. Frozen metaphors: phrases

2. Generalized, conventionalized metaphors

3. Novel, creative metaphors

Frozen metaphors are metaphors expressed in fixed expressions—“music to my ears”; “boiling mad”–that are used so often that they’re practically idiomatic. Indeed, some of what has been claimed to be examples of metaphor (see here and here) might just as easily be classified as idioms or idiomatic expressions: “an angel,” “a snake,” “a pig,” “a rock,” “bubbly,” or “sweet” (said of a person); “warm,” “cold,” “dark,” “light,” “up,” “down,” “blue,” or “sour” (said of a mood); “heated” (said of an argument); “spinning” (said of someone’s head); “loud” (said of colors); “reeks of” (as in “suggests”); “fishing for” (as in “seeking”), “a melting pot,” “a broken heart,” “the light of my life,” “the apple of my eye,” and “emotional rollercoaster.” Like idiomatic expressions, these phrases/usages can be learned one by one just as individual vocabulary words are.

Generalized, conventionalized metaphors are the ones that linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson talk about in Metaphors We Live By: standard, general metaphors that form the basis for more particular ones. Here are two sets of generalized metaphors from Lakoff and Johnson:


  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.


  • You’re wasting my time.
  • This gadget will save you hours. I don’t have the time to give you.
  • How do you spend your time these days? That flat tire cost me an hour.
  • I’ve invested a lot of time in her.
  • I don’t have enough time to spare for that.
  • You’re running out of time.
  • You need to budget your time.
  • Put aside some time for ping pong.
  • Is that worth your while?
  • Do you have much time left?
  • He’s living on I borrowed time.
  • You don’t use your time, profitably.
  • I lost a lot of time when I got sick.
  • Thank you for your time.

And here’s my elaboration of their personification metaphor: ENTITIES ARE HUMAN/SENTIENT/PURPOSEFUL The engine is tired.

  • My browser is confused.
  • The sunlight is dancing on the waves.
  • The river is trying to break through the dam.
  • The wind is wailing and howling.


  • My bathrobe is hiding between the bed and the chest.

While these instances of metaphor far outnumber their frozen counterparts (all sorts of specific mappings and wordings being possible), they can be mastered much more systematically. You simply learn the general metaphors that underlie them: e.g., argument is war, time is money, and entities are human, and, together with a little analogic reasoning, you have the tools you need to interpret them or to create them yourself.

Novel, creative metaphors are a different story. These include things like (courtesy TheEnglishClub and LiteraryDevices) “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” (from Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman ) or “She is all states, and all princes, I.” (from John Donne, “The Sun Rising”). Making sense of these involves a level of reading comprehension and sensitivity to speaker intention that autistic children may lack. Luckily, these more challenging, creative metaphors are mostly restricted to the sort of literary texts that are already difficult for autistic children for many other reasons.

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of metaphors that we hear, read, and utter in everyday life belong to the first two categories: frozen metaphors than can be memorized, and generalized conventional metaphors whose underlying principles can likewise be committed to memory–and applied using general analogic reasoning skills. A mild/moderately autistic, high-functioning child who is stumped by these instances of metaphor, I suspect, is a child who’s simply lacking in exposure and instruction.

When it comes to autism, where so much of the world is tuned out, and so much must be taught explicitly, it’s easy to confound teaching issues with deeper, conceptual issues. And sometimes what looks like a failure of imagination by children on the autistic spectrum may instead be a failure of imagination by those who assess and/or teach them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s