Metaphors and the Spectrum

No two people on the Autism Spectrum experience it in the same way. There are however common tendencies that are nonetheless present in many such people.

One of those common (not universal) traits is difficulty with metaphoric language. The use and interpretation of metaphors can lead to confusion for many on the Spectrum, even those like myself that are in the so-called “high functioning” camp.

For example, in conversation one might say that today they are “blue.” Some on the Spectrum would have difficulty with this, seeing as how the person speaking is obviously not the color blue. Even once it is explained to that person that blue is a metaphor, and that it stands in for feeling sad, the problem isn’t solved. Plenty of people on the Spectrum would then ask why the other person didn’t just say they were “sad.” Sad after all is literally the truth. “Blue” is simply not true, metaphor or not. What’s the point of saying one is blue then?

This isn’t the case for me, as I not only understand the definition of a metaphor, but understand their application. I have no way of knowing if this is due to my being a writer, and making use of words for so long, or if it just happens not to be a situation with my particular ASD. I can only say that that this specific difficulty isn’t present in my mind.

Or perhaps it is.

I picked up a used book last week. I’ve not had a chance to sit down and read it proper yet, but I was skimming through it a few days ago. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden is exactly what it sounds like. While I skimmed it, my eye fell on a question the book asked at one point.

It asked the author to consider if they were using simile when metaphor would be better, or metaphor when simile would be better. The question was still on my mind during my next revision session on my upcoming novel. That’s it when it occurred to me; I use simile much more than I do metaphor when I write. Rough guess, 5 to 1 ratio, or higher. Enough to be noticeable.

Not only that, I recalled at that point how often I have, in previous manuscripts removed similes, because I deemed I’d used too many. Only part of the time did I replace them with a metaphor.

Quick high school grammar review. A simile is a symbolic comparison that uses “like” or “as.” “Tight as a drum,” is one cliched example.

“My heart froze like a hot dog dipped in liquid nitrogen,” is another, (albeit asinine ) simile.

A metaphor is a symbolic comparison directly applied but not literally true. “There was a storm brewing in Sarah’s eyes.” (That should vary enough to avoid a lawsuit I hope.) No literal storm, but the point is made.

Back to the realization about myself. When I write symbolically, especially a first draft, I default to simile. Why? As I realized, I do in fact experience a slight resistance, barely perceptible, to metaphor. I use metaphor when I speak as often as anyone else, and I can follow metaphor when reading. Yet it finally occurred to me that in the sometimes mile-a-minute nature of writing a first draft (or second), a metaphor registers in  my mind as de facto “bad writing,” even if it is not.

A sub-conscious calculus is made. Some part of me says, “there’s no storm in a person’s eye. Fix that.” The most direct way to save the symbolism, the visual, is to then say, “Her eyes light up like a storm.”

The presence of “like” stamps the ticket for the sentence to get past my subconscious. Anything can be “like” anything else. That’s writing. “You may pass.”

No doubt my work has ended up with fewer metaphors than otherwise it might have. Some might have even been good writing.

Could this small resistance to putting metaphor down in writing be a watered-down version of metaphor difficulties experienced by plenty of people on the Autism Spectrum? My version perhaps confined that particular trait to one tiny office in the corner of my mind, but an office with some power under the right conditions.

I can’t prove this, of course. Makes sense, though.

Whatever the exact reason, I’m determined to use metaphor more often. It can be overdone of course, but to me, pound for pound metaphor is the stronger symbolism. It’s more direct and in the reader’s face. “Like” or “as” put a barrier up between the reader and the text. In most cases a simile has an authorial subtext of, “but not really,” embedded in it. A metaphor provides nowhere to  hide, and hence carries a more forceful punch.

Metaphor requires more trust for your reader as well, don’t you think? As long as the concept of, “it’s only like a wrecking ball, but not literally so” seeps in, we don’t give the reader full control. We hold their hand a little longer. (I think I’m in the clear with that example too.)

It also requires me to trust myself more. I need to believe in my ability to compose a useful, interesting, effective metaphor in order to do so. No crutch.

So I’m making a conscious decision to make greater use of metaphor. The change won’t come overnight; it’s like a marathon. But I’ll get there eventually.






  1. Karen Elligers

    I like the way you think. It’s like you explore each nuance of your thought process, and lay it bare for the rest of us to read. Even about something mundane. It’s fascinating! I hope you won’t stop and instead be encouraged that you HAVE an audience (even a small one, who doesn’t always comment). Best, Karen (Virginia)

    • Thank you, Karen, for your comment, and I am glad you enjoyed this post. Be well!

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