Literal Style of Thinking

Autistics are often quite literal and concrete when it comes to understanding words. One of my dear friends on the spectrum was going for a walk with her 9-year-old autistic granddaughter who kicked off her sneaker, carried it for a time and then put it back on. When she stuffed her foot back into her shoe she was left hobbling along and said her shoe hurt. As she was pulling on her shoe trying to adjust it her grandmother said, “Pull up the tongue.” The little girl stopped struggling with her shoe, stuck her tongue out of her mouth and pulled it upwards with her fingers while trying to ask, “Like this?” 

I once was called into a school where a mild-mannered little boy on the spectrum had all of a sudden started stealing things from the teacher’s desk. When they asked him why he was stealing he only said, “I don’t know.” This stealing tended to happen whenever the boy left the room. He had pullouts for Speech, OT, reading group and adaptive PE. In cartooning with this student to get the sequence of events in the right order it was discovered that his teacher often said, “Take care,” when he left the room. In all sincerity he confided, “I do try to take it, Miss Judy. Every time I do.”

Turns out his literal thinking caused him to take whichever object he thought might be “care” when his teacher said, “Take care.” The behavior was due to his neurology having a specific literal and concrete manner of processing words others say to him. So, all in one day he went from being thought of as a budding thief to becoming an endearing little boy trying to please his teacher and follow what he perceived to be her instruction (Endow, 2019)!

Take What?

“Take care,” my teacher

says to me

each time

I leave

her room.

I’d do

what she wants

if only I knew


of all of

the things

on her desk

the name

of “Care”

goes to.

Each day I watch

her eyes to see

if I can tell

just where

they might come to look,


she’ll kook at “Care”

so I might

get a clue

of just

which item

she wants

me to take

every day


I leave

her room (Endow, 2006).


Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology. Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.