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

Idioms are the common phrases we use in our everyday speech.  One of the most common idioms is: ‘actions speak louder than words’.  Which basically means: it is much more important to actually do something, than it is to say that you’ll do it.

We’ll hear common idioms most weeks, so know their meaning from childhood.  But others idioms are rare.  As we are autistic/Asperger’s, we misinterpret their intended meaning.

For most people idioms are just a set of phrases that they use when they are in, or trying to explain, a certain situation.  It is much easier to say (or write) an idiom, that has already been created for a situation, than it is to think of your own sentence to describe what is happening.  They are often quite clever phrases, which often get the other person to think about their true meaning.

Idioms have two different meanings.  A literal meaning and an actual intended meaning which is called the figurative meaning.

The literal meaning of an idiom is what the phrase actually means.  Without giving it much thought or interpretation.  Autistic/Asperger’s people like us, will always jump to the literal meaning of an idiom first.  As this is what makes the most sense to us.  Such as if we had never heard the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ before.  It would not make sense to us, as actions do not speak, so how can they speak louder than words.

Unfortunately the literal meaning is never the correct meaning of what the person was trying to say.

The figurative meaning is kind of a hidden message within the words.  None autistic people understand these idioms instinctively. Whereas people like us with autism/Asperger’s, rarely understand them.

Good communication is already hard enough for people like us autism/Asperger’s.  So finding a solution for learning idioms is important.

If I’m in a conversation and someone uses an idiom I don’t understand, I will use one of my ‘get out’ clauses.  I will either say “I see”, “really”, or “right”.  These responses work if the persons says something positive or negative, so are ideal in all situations.  I will then look up the meaning on the internet at a later time.  Or if I forgot I will often hear the phrase again, and by hearing it is different situations I can roughly work out what it means.

I don’t use idioms that much in my everyday speech, as I prefer to use my own words.  This has helped me to improve my communication over the years.  But I do use them occasionally.

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 overweight 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 up 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 night out.
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 headYou 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 leapLook 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 walkDon’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 how to code 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 10 of my 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.”

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

  • 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.

  • May 23, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    I might be autistic, getting a diagnosis, and as I was reading through these I realised I didn’t know what a lot of these meant and sometimes took these literally, I learned what the meaning behind these idioms are now so thank you for posting this article.
    For some of these I took them literally but not necessarily the literal meaning that was provided, for example, ‘your guess is as good as mine’ I thought it meant you should guess too, it might get the right answer. For the ‘penny for your thoughts one, I thought it meant a penny is provided in exchange for the thoughts. For the ‘sitting on the fence’ I had absolutely no idea what that was meant to mean. I thought of literally sitting on a fence but then when I read it in the context of that example sentence I realised it doesn’t make sense and just had no clue.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *