Hyperbole and Autism

One of the linguistic areas autistic people have particular difficulty with is metaphors. Sometimes that leads one to being fascinated by metaphors—I am thinking here of Nietzsche and of myself—but even in that fascination, even as that fascination helps one become familiar with metaphors and how they work, the fact is that when I hear a metaphor, I immediately make the literalist association, before jumping to the metaphorical meaning.

Hyperbole—that is, overstating things—is a kind of metaphor. For the literalist mind, hyperbole is itself difficult. You are more likely to say things as you literally see them rather than providing sufficient hyperbole to be polite. And heaven help an autistic trying to be romantic! That will require careful planning to figure out what hyperbolic statement to say before it’s said, meaning spontaneous romantic sentiments aren’t likely.

Our daughter, Melina, has a hyperbolic statement she uses all the time: “You’re the bestest.” She uses it all the time on her mother and me, and Daniel has taken to using it as well. So when Anna’s mother came to visit a few weeks around Thanksgiving, Melina started telling her she was “the bestest.”

One day, Daniel told his grandmother, “You’re the bestest,” and she said, “You really think so?” I’ll give you a moment to guess what he said. Of course, most children would have simply confirmed their statement, but Daniel said, “Well, no. But, yeah, I guess.”

Daniel had tried on hyperbole, but when challenged, he pulled back to literalism. He recognized that he meant the sentiment behind the statement, though, which is why he pulled back from the pullback, even though he didn’t mean it literally. It’s hard to say who Daniel may think is truly “the bestest,” but it turned out it isn’t really his grandma.

So if you get a hyperbolic compliment from an autistic person, the lesson here is not to challenge it, because you just might get the truth of the matter. Which is still amusing when the autistic person is eight, but not so much when you have a few decades under your belt.

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