People with Autism often get confused by metaphors. Literal interpretation means they simply don't pick up hidden meanings in idioms and every day expressions, so when we say "his ears are burning" they think of a man with his ears on fire. "Breaking the ice" would bring up an image of a person with a hammer bashing ice cubes, while "in a pickle" would to their literal mind mean the person referred to is actually inside a huge pickle.
"Not understanding the way Autistic people interpret things is a cause of learning problems and can lead to some awkward situations", explains mother of high functioning Autistic student Michael Barton, "the important thing is to be very clear and see the humour in these situations".
"Idioms and every day expressions were beyond Michael's comprehension as a child", she explains, he got in the habit of drawing his own interpretation of these and adding a brief explanation of "what the idiom really means". The funny drawings put a smile of people's faces and the book Its Raining Cats And Dogs - An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions was born.
Now studying physics at the University of Surrey, Michael takes time to share his life experiences as a high functioning Autistic with others. On 2 April, marking the sixth World Autism Awareness Day, the young student will be speaking at a special event in Cambridge Waterstones. He will be introduced to the audience by renowned academic Simon Baron Cohen, one of the world's leading figures in the field of Autism.
Professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Cambridge, Baron Cohen is the author of The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain, Zero Degrees of Empathy and Prenatal Testosterone in Mind among many other noted publications and the free Waterstones event presents a not to be missed glimpse into this intellectual's brilliant mind.
Michael, currently on his work placement year at the Brunel Innovation Centre in Cambridge will take the opportunity to speak of how he has over the years used his strengths to overcome challenges posed by his condition. He will also present his book It's Raining Cats and Dogs where his childlike illustrations provide a hilariously funny insight into literal thinking and the Autistic mind.
I meet Michael for a chat about the book and what life with high functioning Autism is really like.
Q How did the book Its Raining Cats and Dogs come about?
A I started drawing pictures like the ones you see in my book from the age of seven so that I could understand and remember what idioms meant. I was first told the idiom, then I drew a picture of it, then I wrote the explanation below. When I was older I started writing an article for the Bromley Autistic Trust newsletter. This proved very popular and many people suggested that I put all of the pictures together in a book
Q How do you find university life ?
A I'm at the University of Surrey studying Physics. As I'm taking part in a 'sandwich' course I'm currently working for the Brunel Innovation Centre (BIC) in Cambridge for a year. I'm doing what I'm good at (computer programming and analyzing data sets) and I'm making new friends up here.
Q Looking back at your school days, how would you describe the school experience? Did you feel like an outsider?
A My school days weren't easy. I did really well when it came to Maths and Science lessons, however I really struggled with English and also found it hard to make friends. However as I got older my social skills improved and I made more friends. I wouldn't say that I felt like an outsider because I was quite happy to only have a couple of friends.
Q How do uninformed teachers cope with a literal thinker such as yourself?
Teachers may have found it more difficult due to my literal thinking. For example if they asked me to 'pull my socks up', I would have literally done just that, without meaning to be cheeky or insolent. However if the teacher wasn't aware that I was merely obeying instructions they would have told me off instead of re-phrasing their original statement.
Q How does literal thinking manifest itself in every day life? your mum mentioned a funny incident on the tube?
A I was about to go on an escalator when I spotted a sign saying that dogs must be carried up the escalator. I was worried as I did not have a dog to carry. There was also a time when while standing on a platform waiting for a train, an announcement instructed passengers to stay behind the yellow line. I just coudn't figure out how I am meant to get on the train with the yellow line still there.
Tuesday 2nd April 6pm. Waterstones, 22 Sidney Street, Cambridge. 01223 351688.