Being Autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome) and Understanding Idioms or Common Phrases

In the English language there are many idioms (common phrases) that most people use every day.  Some we hear often, and usually understand their meaning, others throw us off guard as we haven’t heard them before.

Idioms have two different meanings, a literal meaning and a figurative meaning.

The literal meaning is the easiest to understand.  It is simply to true and basic meaning of what is said, without thinking about or picturing it any more than that.   The way out autistic/Asperger’s minds work is that we automatically process this basic meaning and take it for what it is.  The problem is this is never what the person who said the idiom meant by it.  They picture something else in their minds as to what it means.  This is what we need to be able to work.

The true meaning of an idiom is the figurative meaning.  Something which people, like myself, with autism/asperger’s rarely understand.  The figurative meaning is kind of a hidden message within the words and they often use things like metaphors (which is meant to give us a picture of what something is like by comparing it to something else.  For example a blanket of snow or he is a chicken).  The person that says these idioms instinctively and naturally understands this hidden meaning where we need to method to understand them.

The way I get around this with my autism (Asperger’s) is to hear it and remember it by thinking about what it literally means.   Then over time I hear it again and again and also come across the same idiom in books or reading on the net.  Once I’ve heard a few different examples I can normally work out a rough figurative meaning from that.  Once I’m confident that I’ve understood the idiom I will even use it myself occasionally.  There are times when I really struggle to understand the figurative meaning so I will look it up on Google.

Below I have put together a collection of idioms with their literal meanings, figurative meanings and examples.

Idiom (common saying) Literal meaning (what autistic/aspies think of and understand) Figurative meaning (what the person saying it actually means) Example
The straw that broke camel’s back. Similar is: ‘the last straw’. A piece of straw broke a camel’s back. The last of many small unpleasant things that makes a situation too much to handle or too upsetting. He was late for school every day this week, then on Friday he didn’t come to school at all, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Driving me up the wall.  Similar is: ‘You’re driving me round the bend’. You’re driving the person up the wall in a car or you are pushing a person so hard they go up the wall. Making someone infuriated and annoyed. The sound of the road works outside is driving me up the wall.
Barking up the wrong tree. A dog is barking up at a tree or you yourself are barking up a tree. To make the wrong choice or blame a person that is innocent. The teacher thought I had sweets in my pocket but he was barking up the wrong tree, it was George.
Once in a blue moon. It happens every time the moon is blue. It happens very rarely. Most of her family live in Australia so she only sees them once in a blue moon.
Call it a day. To call today a day. Stop working for the day or finish what you are doing on that particular day. We’ve worked on this garden for six hours now, so we’ll call it a day.
Larger than life. A person is very fat and is larger than life. Someone with a very strong outgoing personality and stands out from other people. Peter is larger than life, always making his friends laugh with his jokes.
Leave no stone unturned. Keep turning a pile of stones over until there are no more left to turn. Keep trying everything that is possible until you succeed. The detective will leave no stone unturned until he finds the person who committed the crime.
Go the extra mile. Keep going one more mile. To do more than is expected of you. She went the extra mile, I only expected her clean the kitchen but she cleaned the bathroom as well.
Bite off more than you can chew. Biting off so much food that you cannot chew it. Doing more than you can comfortable handle or cope with. I bit off more than I could chew when I decided to paint the whole house on my own.
Sitting on the fence. Sitting on a fence outside. Not choosing a side of an argument but being in the middle or agreeing with both sides.  Also means not making a decision. Some people sit on the fence when it comes to believing in god.  They don’t firmly disbelieve but they also do not truly believe either.
Turn a blind eye. Turning an eye that you cannot see out of. Even though you see something happen you pretend that you did not see it and if asked you will say that you didn’t see it. A child stole a chocolate bar from the shop and another customer turned a blind eye.
Penny for your thoughts. I will give you a penny in exchange for what you are thinking. Tell me what you are thinking. He sat quiet for a few minutes and his friend said “I’ll give you a penny for your thoughts.”
When pigs fly. You will be able to have what you want when pigs grow wings and fly in the air. There is no chance of it happening so don’t think about it anymore and give in on trying. You will be able to go on holiday to space when pigs fly.
Back to the drawing board. Sit back to where the drawing board is and then draw about what you are thinking again. When something is not working out, go back to the start and try a new way of doing it. I’ve changed the spark plugs but the car will still not start.  I have to go back to the drawing board.
Piece of cake. Having a piece of cake. Something that is very easy to do. Doing that test at school was a piece of cake and I got all the answers right.
Beat around the bush. Getting a stick and hitting it several times around a bush. Not saying something directly or not talking about the main point because it is embarrassing or difficult to approach. Stop beating around the bush and answer the question I asked you.
The ball is in your court. There is a ball (like a tennis ball) in the other person’s court. Leaving it up to the other person to make the choice or take action. The ball is in your court.  You tell me when you’re available to go out for the night.
Curiosity killed the cat. The cat died because it was curious about  something. Asking too many questions or looking into a particular subject too deeply can put you in danger. Don’t ask any more questions about his partner’s death, curiosity killed the cat.
Kill two birds with one stone. If you throw a stone at one bird it might ricochet and hit another, killing that bird too. You can get something else done whilst doing the first thing.  Two jobs for the price of one. While I go to the bank I will also go to the shop for some milk.  Killing two birds with one stone.
Your guess is as good as mine. If we both try to guess together we will come up with the right idea. I have got no idea. “Is it going to rain today?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Speak of the devil. Talking about the evil person who just walked in that is like the devil. When you are talking about someone with a friend and that person suddenly appears. “I heard Jane split up with her boyfriend the other day.” Then Jane walks in.  “Speak of the devil.”
You hit the nail on the head You hit the nail just right. You did something or said something perfectly correct. “That’s the solution I was looking for.  You’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Look before you leap Look before you jump from a high place. Don’t just rush into something without thinking as it will put you in danger. “Don’t just quit your job without thinking it over first.  Look before you leap.”
Don’t run before you can walk Don’t run until you learn how to walk first. Learn how to do the basics first and then go onto the more complicated things. “Now I know write a simple computer program I want to make my own android game.”
“Don’t run before you can walk.”
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Wait for the eggs to hatch to see how many chicken you have got. Things might not turn out as you expected.  Wait to find out what the reality is before building your hopes up too much. “If I sell my 10 Xbox games for £10 each then I’ll make myself £100.”
“Don’t count you chickens ‘till they hatch. You might not sell all the games.”
Keep your eye on the ball. Keep watching the ball at all times in case it hits you. Concentrate on what you are doing or what is happening otherwise things could turn out bad. “It’s fun to be going out and having a good time with your friends; but keep your eye on the ball.  Your exams start next week.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. I will put a big bet of a pound on this instead of a penny. Fully commit to something. “I thought you only wanted to come out for one drink but you’ve been parting with us all night.”
“In for a penny in for a pound”
Like a fish out of water. Think of a fish that is struggling to breathe out of the water. Being in a situation or environment that is new or difficult to handle and therefore struggling. “she looks like a fish out of water.”
“It’s her first day in this job.”

One thought on “Being Autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome) and Understanding Idioms or Common Phrases

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    November 27, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    My wife recently said “Why don’t you go jump in the shower?”, to which I replied “Because I’ll slip and fall!”. While I said this for the humor aspect, it was indeed the first thought that came to mind.


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