Why Autistic Children and Adults Do Not Understand Hypothetical Situations in Speech

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A guide to understanding why adults and children on the autism spectrum do not understand hypothetical situations in the context of speech.

Have you ever used a hypothetical situation to explain something to an autistic individual?  Did it turn into a fight about a different topic or induce a meltdown?

If you’ve been in this situation before, it’s important to note that the autistic individual was not trying to be difficult or infuriating.  They were simply attempting to wrap their mind around a concept that does not innately make sense in their mind.

The autistic brain does not deal well with metaphors or hypothetical situations.  You will never make progress by demanding, "How would you feel if I did that to you?" or  “What if I broke your favourite toy?”.  If you ask a question along these lines you will likely get answers such as, “I wouldn’t care”  or “You don’t play with toys”.   Autistic individuals will miss the mark when asked hypothetical questions because they cannot understand their function in speech.

Autistic people view words in a much more literal way that neurotypicals do.  They are frequently incapable of suspending reality, the act of “glossing over” details that don’t make active sense.  The autistic individual cannot look at the point of a hypothetical situation, they only see the hypothetical as its own story, which includes any flaws within it.

If a hypothetical situation is introduced, the autistic individual may feel that the other person is changing the subject.  They may get frustrated and attempt to steer it back to it's original focus, by interrupting or ignoring the speaker. 

They may also get wrapped up in the hypothetical conversation and misunderstand your point.  They may defend points within the hypothetical context or fail to see how it relates to the issue at hand.

Solutions:

1. Use real world situations rather than hypotheticals.  Say, "remember when Sally stole your iPod? That's how Greg feels now because you stole his favorite rocket ship."  The real life situation may help some autistic individuals grasp the concept you’re trying to convey.

Make sure if you use this that the situations are nearly identical.  Autistics have a hard time relaying a general meaning to a different situation.  If the explanation can be short and with only changes of nouns (Greg instead of Sally, the iPod instead of the rocket ship) the concept will likely be accurately conveyed.  Some autistics will still be unable to grasp your meaning.

If you try to relate two loosely related real life situations, you will likely get defensiveness or confusion in response.

2. Don't use hypotheticals.  Explain how you feel.  Don't try to get an autistic individual to understand why you feel the way that you do.  The important part is how you feel, not that they can truly know what it's like in your shoes.  Many people with autism struggle with connecting words and emotions.  Sometimes when it seems like the autistic person doesn’t understand how you feel, they actually do, but don’t know how to accurately explain it.

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