Autism Awareness Month: Literal Language

How are your words being understood? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I remember growing up being often confused about what was being said. I would be riding with my Dad in the car and he would be driving, naturally, and have something like a cup of coffee with him. Why? That’s wrong. After all, I had seen enough commercials that said to not drink and drive. Why is he doing just that?

I used to also hear about plays that took place on Broadway and all these performances. I never saw them. I didn’t understand it. Fountain City was an area that was about half an hour away and the main road going through it was Broadway. How come I never saw any of these performances going on there?

Now some of this could be the way children think, but it’s also a tendency I have to deal with from time to time even as an adult. It is surprising to some people I am sure since many of my interpretations of Scripture are “non-literal.” My mind tends to read statements in a very wooden sense.

Sometimes, I can do something like this for fun. A pizza restaurant I used to go to had a sign in the bathroom that said “Employees must wash hands.” I had some fun with this and went to the counter after going one time and said, “I just wanted to make sure about something. I was waiting in the bathroom after I saw your sign and no employee ever came in to wash my hands. I went and did it myself. Is that okay?”

Sometimes when Allie would ride with me, I would see a sign that said something like “Watch for falling rocks” and I would immediately start looking around me and saying that I didn’t see them. Also humorous would be the billboards that would say something like “McDonald’s. Exit now.” Sure. There’s a forest right there and no road, but the sign says to exit now.

For me, it’s humorous, but it’s not humorous for a lot of other people who have a much harder time separating literal from figurative language. As a Christian apologist, one area I definitely want to be aware of this on is our Christian language in a church. Too many of us speak in what is called Christianese. This is the inner circle language Christians understand, but doesn’t make much sense to others.

Imagine if you have someone who is on the spectrum and doesn’t know Christianity well, but a friend they have has invited them to church. Someone speaks to them and says “Tell me friend, are you washed in the blood?” Now imagine the many horrifying scenarios the visitor has going through their head.

This isn’t just good for reaching people on the spectrum, but reaching outsiders period. We can often speak like we’re in a clique. If we’re in a private Bible study and everyone knows everyone, this can be fine, but if we’re in the main service, we should try to act as if our person we’re interacting with we don’t know won’t know what we’re talking about.

If you are with someone on the spectrum, keep in mind their natural inclination will be to take what you say literally. Watch what is said in a church service. It couldn’t hurt everyone really to take some time to explain what you mean when you say XYZ. This is also not to say that language should never be taken in what is understood as a “literal” meaning. It is just saying to watch what you say because it could be taken that way when you intend nothing of the sort.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)
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