Differently abled children and their use of metaphor

It’s a clunky term (‘differently abled’), but it best explains the situation here. The research I’ve found so far suggests that children with paritcular learning dis/abilities have unique relationships with metaphor (abilities/difficulties). I need to do more research, but that is interesting!

Gold and Faust studied brain function in young adults with Asperger Syndrome encountering novel metaphors. They explain: “Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by social impairments, difficulties in communication, and a set of circumscribed interests and/or a rigid adherence to routines. Although there is no significant delay in language or cognitive development, people with AS often exhibit difficulties in comprehending specific linguistic forms, mainly nonliteral language (Gillberg and Gillberg 1989), such as metaphors, irony and indirect requests.
Previous research indicates severe disabilities in processing figurative language in people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (e.g., Dennis et al. 2001; MacKay and Shaw 2004). However, this aspect of language comprehension in AS specifically has rarely been the subject of formal study.” (Gold and Faust p.800)

In their review of the research, Gold and Faust write: “Both cerebral hemispheres have access to word meanings. However, comprehension of semantic relations differs in the RH and LH. …The accumulated evidence from neurologically intact, split-brain, and brain-injured participants indicates that when a word is recognized by the LH only the most strongly related meanings are activated, whereas in the RH a broad set of meanings, including distant, unusual, nonsalient, subordinate and figurative meanings becomes available.” (Gold and Faust p.800-801)
“The idea of a RH dysfunction in persons with AS (e.g. Ellis et al. 1994) may account for their observed difficulties in metaphor comprehension. Indeed, studies show that AS participants perform poorly on metaphor comprehension tests, similarly to people with disabilities associated with the RH, such as NLD (Gunter et al. 2002). Their findings suggest that the persons with AS were not impaired in processing either literal language or written and pictorial well-known metaphors. However, this group was severely impaired on the unusual metaphors comprehension task. The specific difficulties in understanding unusual metaphoric expressions experienced by persons with AS is consistent with recent findings that suggest enhanced RH involvement in novel metaphor comprehension and thus may reflect RH dysfunction in persons with AS. Recent behavioral…, imaging…, and TMS…studies show that the two hemispheres are differentially involved in the processing of conventional versus novel metaphors and that RH involvement in metaphor comprehension is much more pronounced for novel than for conventional metaphors.” (Gold and Faust p.800)

They found that: “[the findings of their study] confirm[ed] the main hypothesis, showing RH [right hemisphere of the brain] advantage for novel metaphor processing in the intact brain, and a lack of RH advantage for novel metaphor comprehension in persons with AS [Asperger’s Syndrome]. These findings support the hypothesis that RH dysfunction may be the underlying neurolinguistic mechanism associated with difficulties in metaphor comprehension. Furthermore, the reduced RH involvement during NM comprehension may reflect a disruption of the pattern of inter-hemispheric coordination during language comprehension in persons with AS. Thus, the findings suggest that the difficulty in metaphor comprehension in AS persons may have a neurolinguistic, semantic basis, in addition to the well documented pragmatic deficits in these persons. Specifically, by testing the RH’s semantic processing out of social or linguistic context, it is clearly demonstrated that the ability to understand two-word novel metaphoric expressions is deficient in AS. Moreover, the results demonstrate the well-known difficulty experienced by persons with AS to comprehend metaphors, even frequently used conventional metaphors.” (Gold and Faust p.808)

Of ‘gifted’ children, Deborah Fraser writes: “Creatively gifted children have an extraordinary facility with metaphor, using these expressions in ways that reveal advanced metalinguistic ability. In addition, the metaphors they create reflect a wealth of ability from profound emotional and spiritual dimensions to playful and humorous insights into the human condition.” (Fraser, p.180 – part of the abstract)

(NB Fraser doesn’t actually clarify how she perceives giftedness in this article, so these statements may seem a little open-ended here, but you get the idea.)

“Gifted children have the capacity to understand and create unique and evocative metaphors which convey pithy insights to the human condition.” (p.184)

“The everyday, colloquial use of metaphor has sometimes led to common phrases that no longer cause intrigue, such as ‘he’s a star’ and ‘she’s a sweetie’ (although such colloquial use can cause confusion across cultures). Such well known metaphorical expressions become taken-for-granted aspects of language, devoid of novelty and surprise. Winner (1997) argues that language is the graveyard of old metaphors (like these), but also the birthplace of new ones. Some metaphors seem to resist erosion by time… and the birth of many new metaphors can revitalize language and human perception. Moreover, ‘a metaphor is often the only way of communicating precisely and efficiently what one means’ (Winner & Gardner, 1993, p.429).
Creatively gifted children with a strength in language have a special facility with metaphors, using them in ways that are highly novel and original. Metaphor can also be a vehicle through which they reveal and develop their advanced cognitive, social, and emotional skills. In addition, metaphor can enable such gifted children to reveal insights, personal issues and reflections on their worlds in relatively unthreatening ways.” (Fraser, p.180)

“The intellectual exercise of constructing metaphors is a cognitive process that enables people to explore ideas, develop insights and communicate complex concepts in ways that can be accessible to others. As Winner (1997) states, ‘metaphor’ is at the root of the creativity and openness of language’ (p.16). Metaphors can also assist the creator to grasp a difficult and seemingly elusive idea.” (Fraser, p.181)

“Salovey and Mayer (1990) state that emotional intelligence includes knowing one’s emotions, managing feelings, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships. It seems that metaphorical analyses of emotions of import in a child’s life can assist in the development of these social and emotional skills.” (Fraser, p.183)


Deborah Fraser (2003) From the playful to the profound: What metaphors tell us about gifted children Roeper Review 25(4), Summer: pp.180-184

Rinat Gold and Miriam Faust (2010) Right Hemisphere Dysfunction and Metaphor Comprehension in Young Adults with Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 40: 800-811

Studies referred to in above

Dennis M et al. (2001) Inferential language in highfunctioning children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 31(1), 47-54

Gillberg C and Gillberg IC (1989) Asperger syndrome – some epidemiological considerations: a research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 30, 631-638

Gunter HL et al. (2002) Asperger syndrome: test of right hemisphere and interhemispheric communication. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 32(4), 263-281

MacKay G and Shaw A (2004) A comparative study of figurative language in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Child language teaching and therapy 20(1), 13-32

About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in differently abled learners, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, The concept of gifted learners and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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