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Published: 25 November 2013

Hitting the nail on the head for people with autism

Physics undergraduate Michael Barton unlocks the mysteries of everyday expressions for those on the autistic spectrum.

‘Laughing your head off’, ‘breaking the ice’, ‘his ears are burning’: everyday expressions that pepper the English language. But to someone on the autistic spectrum, metaphors like these are frequently confusing. This experience has led Michael Barton, a Physics student at Surrey with high-functioning autism, to raise awareness – in a humorous and engaging way – about the challenges faced by those with autism when it comes to language.

A regular speaker on the positive aspects of autism at events such as the annual Autism Show, Michael recently published a guide into the hidden meanings in our language: ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs – An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions’.

The guide was born of Michael’s own frustrations with language while at school. On being told to ‘pull your socks up’ by a teacher, he obeyed, only to receive a swift telling-off for being cheeky. Incidents like this prompted him to start drawing pictures with explanations to help him remember what the phrases meant. “Before long, I had filled a whole folder and people started asking for copies,” he explains. “When I was older, I started writing a column for the Bromley Autistic Trust newsletter, which proved very popular, and people suggested that I put all the pictures together in a book.”

Published earlier this year, the book is designed both as a useful and fun guide for children with autism, and to help adults who deal with autistic children to understand them better. It also provides a hilariously funny insight into literal thinking, prompting readers to consider the often bizarre meanings of everyday expressions.

While autism presents its challenges, Michael strongly believes that it also has many positive aspects, and is keen to communicate these to a wider audience.

“The ability to stick at things, combined with logical thought processes, makes us ideally suited to the modern technological world, whether it be in science, computer programming or mathematics,” he says. “Communicating science concepts is easy – everyone speaks the same language.” Michael’s own skills – computer programming and analysing data sets, while also playing jazz piano to a very high standard – are testament to the many positive attributes autism brings.

Michael’s guide has given him the opportunity to raise further awareness about autism, writing articles in the New Scientist and the Huffington Post to coincide with its launch earlier this year. While on a work placement at the Brunel Innovation Centre in Cambridge, he was also invited to give a special talk at Cambridge Waterstones, held to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day and hosted by renowned academic Professor Simon Baron Cohen, one of the world’s leading figures in the field of autism.

 “I hope that my book will help those with autism to understand that not everything in the world is to be taken literally,” says Michael. “I think it’s also an essential resource to help others to understand those with autism, especially as using idioms and metaphors seems to be second nature to many people, and to be more understanding towards such individuals as a result.”

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