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Whose metaphor? Autism Spectrum Disorder and metaphorization

Updated: May 8, 2020

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication (verbal and nonverbal) and by restricted behavior and interests. The most recent diagnostic criteria for ASD (DSM-5, 2013) also recognize that autistic people tend to respond differently to sensory input. Bogdashina writes that although “autistic people live in the same physical world and deal with the same ‘raw material’, their perceptual world turns out to be strikingly different from that of non-autistic people” (2016: 55).

What are the consequences of such different perceptual worlds on metaphorization?

A number of studies have shown that autistic individuals have difficulties understanding figurative language (for overviews, see e.g. Vulchanova et al, 2015; Kalandadze et al, 2018). Such research has, for the most part, used experiments to study the understanding of metaphorical language. Significantly fewer studies have focused on the creation of figurative meaning by autistic individuals in actual communication and across different modes of communication, for instance by also studying the use of gestures and pictures (Hartman & Paradis, in press). Overall, metaphor research has focused mostly on “prototypical” and “normal” experiences and people (Littlemore, 2019: 49) and generalizations about metaphorization have been made largely with reference to shared human experiences.

Why do some metaphors fail to resonate with (some) autistic individuals?

Littlemore sees a need for metaphor research to “consider how embodied metaphors are experienced by people who do not fit [the normal/prototypical person] profile because by doing so, we will gain a deeper understanding of the different ways in which people perceive the world and, more importantly, the reasons for these different world views and the mechanisms through which they develop” (2019: 49). She points out that this would also “reveal more about the nature of embodied metaphor itself” (49). In my research, I take up this challenge by examining how autistic persons experience and make sense of the world through their own linguistic, gestural and pictorial expressions of meaning (Hartman & Paradis, in press).

On a blog devoted to experiences of autism and depression, invisible strings, one autistic person has described an “autistic experience” of spoken communication in the following terms:

when people talk, you hear the shapes of the words more than the content, at least initially. the word shapes form into rhythms and you like those, but the meanings get lost too easily. your own word shapes sound like meanings, but are mostly just the empty rhythms. (Kelter, 2018)

The author of this brief account portrays words metaphorically as containers that have shapes and content. Issues with the comprehension of speech are described by the author in terms of shapes and rhythms taking precedence over content so that meanings get lost too easily.

In his seminal paper on the “conduit metaphor,” Reddy (1979) proposed that the English language favors description of communication as a physical transfer of meaningful entities from one person to another. He suggested that in our “language about language,” meanings, ideas, and thoughts are ‘inserted’ into words and sentences by speakers and then, after transfer, they are ‘extracted’ by listeners (1979: 290). Reddy’s proposal was richly illustrated by expressions like “Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words” and “Try to get your thoughts across better” (286–287, italics in original). In Metaphors we live by, Lakoff and Johnson reframed Reddy’s insights in terms of the following conceptual metaphors that take expression in language: IDEAS/MEANINGS ARE OBJECTS; LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS; and COMMUNICATION IS SENDING (1980: 10–13).

In the account from the autism blog above, the blogger’s language reflects the conceptual mappings inherent in the conduit metaphor; words are portrayed as objects with shapes, and as containers of meaning, but the most poignant elements of the description arguably lie in its more idiosyncratic nuances, as it conveys both a puzzling flow of meaning and a lack of control over communication.

Metaphors are said to be embodied because they reflect our sensory experiences of the world. In one way or another, we all have experiences of shapes and forms, of containers being full or empty, and of actions, expectations, and emotions associated with containment. These experiences help us make sense of expressions like empty rhythms and the shapes of the words. People’s uses of metaphor are influenced (facilitated and constrained) by their bodies and by interactions with different environments (Gibbs, 2019: 34), but metaphors do not simply mirror previous experiences of the world, they also offer routes to (re)discovering the world (Gibbs, 2019: 43), to make sense of it through meaningful expression. If we reduce the account from invisible strings to being (just) an instance of the conduit metaphor, we miss an opportunity to discover another person’s world. Instead we could treat it as an act of metaphorical poiesis, meaning the act of bringing something into being that did not exist before (Polkinghorne, 2004: 115).

However, not all metaphors reflect all people’s bodily experiences, as suggested by research into the relationships between different bodies (e.g., left-/right handedness and body size) and the use of metaphor (see Littlemore, 2019 for an overview). At the same time, we should be careful not to treat metaphor as an all or nothing affair. We may find that many differences are found in the nuances.

If we want to understand autistic metaphorization, we need to consider a range of sensory perceptual, environmental, and situational variables that may influence the understanding and use of metaphor. We also need to be aware of the ever-present neurotypical bias in research (and communication) and we need to invite autistic persons’ own experiences and voices into our research.

The questions we ask determine the kinds of answers we end up with. When we investigate the capacity for metaphorization in people whose sensory perceptions allow for extraordinary experiences of the world, we need to be careful to make sure that our questions help us understand more about these people’s capacity for metaphorization and not their capacity for neurotypical perception and expression, which may well be foreign to their experience of being in the world.

Do not miss the next blog post, in which Umeå University’s Elena Glotova will write about metaphorical ghosts.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publ.

Bogdashina, O. (2016). Sensory perceptual issues in autism and Asperger Syndrome: different sensory experiences—different perceptual worlds. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Gibbs, R. W. (2019). Metaphor as dynamical-ecological performance. Metaphor and Symbol, 34(1), 33–44.

Hartman, J. & Paradis, C. (in press). Figurative meaning in multimodal work by an autistic artist: a cognitive semantic approach. Language and Cognition.

Kalandadze, T., Norbury, C., Nærland, T., & Næss, K. (2018). Figurative language comprehension in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a meta-analytic review. Autism, 22(2), 99–117.

Kelter, M. (2018, June 1). A very incomplete list of autistic experiences; no particular order. Invisible strings.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Littlemore, J. (2019). Metaphors in the mind: sources of variation in embodied metaphor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Polkinghorne, D. (2004). Practice and the human sciences: The case for a judgment-based practice of care, SUNY Press.

Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor—a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (pp. 284–324). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vulchanova, M., Saldaña, D., Chahboun, S., & Vulchanov, V. (2015). Figurative language processing in atypical populations: the ASD perspective. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9, article 24.

The research reported on here has been made possible through generous support from The Kamprad Family Foundation.

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