Why Many Autistic and Otherwise Neurodivergent People Explain Things in Analogies

Man with dark skin and blue eyes looking intently into the camera and counting on his fingers. Text reads, "Why autistic people speak in analogies".

Very rarely can I explain anything without using an analogy. It’s the way I speak and communicate, and it’s as natural to me as breathing. I literally know no other way to communicate what I perceive as complicated or multi-layered information (which is most things, if I’m honest). It’s how I understand the world and how I help others understand it. In fact, it’s what I do almost every single time I write a blog.

However, my analogies, like many neurodivergent ways of communicating information, have often been misconstrued. See, I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. Words have literal weight and meaning to me. Unfortunately, this is not how the majority of the neurotypical world communicates. There are nuances and tones and subtleties that are still lost on me and probably always will be.

Analogies are my bridge. I don’t know when I discovered how to use them, but I bet it was at some point in my confusing and frustrating childhood where I was just like, “When I hear this noise, it’s like someone took an ice pick and shoved it into my ear” or something of the sort. I just remember a look of dawning comprehension appear on someone’s face once, and it was the first time I was ever understood, so I’ve been using analogies ever since.

Usually, they work well. But, as I said, sometimes they are misconstrued.

Here are the most common misunderstandings around my use of analogies:

  • Insensitive

My analogies have been seen as insensitive because I have used one group of people to help others understand another group of people. For example, I’ve said on multiple occasions, “Not understanding jokes or sarcasm is just like being in a wheelchair without the use of one’s legs. Nobody would ever get upset with the wheelchair user for not getting up and walking up a flight of stairs, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to get upset with someone who doesn’t understand jokes or sarcasm and expect them to change.”

My point is, one disability (or difference) is visible, the other is not, but both are 100% valid and should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, some have seen this analogy as insensitive. I don’t understand why, and I don’t think I ever will. People have tried to explain to me why this would be insensitive, but I don’t understand, and I’ll never stop making comparisons like this unless someone can explain it in a way I can understand.

Also, it’s usually not wheelchair users (or blind or deaf people) who get upset about this, and it’s pretty rare that anyone does, so I will continue because it’s so helpful and useful for getting people to understand that I feel the “social risk” is worth it.

  • Unrelated

I’ve also had people get hung up on my analogies so much so that the point is missed entirely, and it feels like the person is gaslighting me. Gaslighting, if you’re unfamiliar, is a psychological method of torture whereby you get people to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, and memories. One way this is accomplished is by purposefully “missing the point” of a statement and zeroing in on the way someone has phrased something, their tone, or their misuse of a single word.

I used to make an analogy to an ex of mine that mentioned Stephen King. I have no idea what the analogy was at this point, but I think it was about needing time to be alone and write and trying to use him as an analogy, and my ex would be like, “Oh, you’re comparing yourself to Stephen King now?”

Black and white photo of horror master, Stephen King, shrugging his shoulders.

No, of course, that’s not what I was doing, but them acting as though what I was saying was unrelated to my point got me completely off track and explaining what I meant, which got me confused and them off the hook.

My analogies may sound unrelated or like I’m trying to bring up another topic at random, but that’s never the case. I’m trying to communicate to be heard and understood. There’s no hidden agenda in it.

  • Talking Down

Every once in the while, and this happened a lot more when I was younger, people will think that my using an analogy is an attempt to talk down to them. Since people often use analogies and stories to help children understand things, they mistakenly believe I’m trying to talk to them “like they’re stupid”. Not at all. Again, this is just how I communicate, clarify, and connect. No hidden agenda.

  • Shifting Focus

This one really baffles me, but I’ve also been told that when I use analogies from my own life when someone tells me something they’ve been through that I’m shifting the focus to myself. Not at all. Again, I’m just attempting to communicate, clarify, and connect. It isn’t about me, it’s about making sure both of us are on the same page. If we’re not, then I can’t understand you. If I can’t understand you, I can’t really connect with you. If I can’t connect with you or your story, I can’t empathize with you, and that’s what I’m trying to do and what I think you would want when sharing something about your life.

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The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

The Takeaway

I use analogies to communicate, clarify, and connect.

Very likely, the autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person in your life is doing the exact same thing when they use analogies, but the intention of those analogies may be misinterpreted and therefore dismissed or discouraged.

If my ability to use analogies were taken away from me tomorrow, I would lose 80 percent of my ability to communicate with neurotypical people. It would have just literal language, and that’s it, and that, to me, is terrifying. You might as well cut out my tongue and cut off my hands. I would be hobbled.

And that analogy, as graphic as it is, is the only way I can communicate the horror of what that would feel like for me.

If your ND loved one is using analogies, don’t stifle it, encourage it, and USE THEM BACK. For many of us, analogies not only help us to communicate better, they help us to understand better.

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2 Responses

  1. cactus says:

    YES! THANK YOU! *excited hand flapping* This is so important because analogies are one of my only ways of explaining.

    About the wheelchair analogy:

    People see being visibly disabled as a huge thing and see neurodivergent traits as fake or something you should “work harder to overcome.” So when you compare the two by saying that you, an autistic, have a similar problem to a visibly disabled person, some people will think you are exaggerating your problem in order to get their sympathy and escape the criticism or awkward social situation you were facing for not understanding sarcasm. It looks to them like comparing yourself to “poor, tragic wheelchair users” is crocodile tears and something you are doing for selfish personal gain.

    They then are upset that you are “using the struggles of wheelchair users for selfish personal gain” and feel like you are disrespecting them.

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