Autism is a complex condition at the intersection of many social and psychological factors (just like being ‘normal’!). What you need to know for the purpose of communicating effectively with an autistic is this: 1) our bodies tend to register stimuli below, above or based on a completely different pattern of thresholds than the allistic or neurotypical (basically, non-autistic) commonly agreed upon standard; this results in many hypo- and hypersensitivities (visual, auditory, olfactory etc.) 2) our bodies work differently than allistic bodies; while many functions and states are on ‘auto-pilot’ in an allistic body, they are not in ours; basically, while allistics drive automatic, we are driving stick shift; this means we are monitoring many internal states while trying to be attentive to and engage with external stimuli (hence why autism, from the Greek ‘autos’ for self) – the truth may be that our bodies are simply not built to be receptive to things that allistics find self-evident and we have to be in a state of permanent manual-override, constantly observing what others take for granted and trying to default to it. These two aspects result in us feeling, thinking, perceiving, and overall being different from allistics. They also result in large differences between ourselves and other autistics, because no two autistics will have the exact same embodied experiences (just like allistic people!). This has its ups (e.g. we are more likely to have unique perspectives on life, perhaps be academically gifted and possess unique talents that we can drive to perfection) and downs (we have difficulties registering and interpreting social cues, facial expressions etc. being different means we are not regularly offered the proper means to learn sociality and this is commonly conceptualized as a failure on our part).
This results in many miscommunications and misinterpretations during allistic – autistic communication! How to get around them? Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Privacy first! Some autistics are more open about their status, some aren’t. Most of us, however, will be selective when it comes to who we are out to. Please keep in mind that autism is still perceived as a mental illness or a developmental disability and that there is huge stigma associated with it. It can lead to discrimination and exclusion so do not out us to anyone without permission no matter how open we seem to be about it. If you want to talk about us as autistic, please ask for our permission and for confirmation that the person you want to talk to about us has our permission to know our status.
- Be explicit! I can’t stress this enough. Do not assume we will read your social cues, respond to standard friendship invitations, read between the lines etc. Word everything even if obvious (e.g. instead of saying, ‘Some of us are going to a bar later’ say ‘Some of us are going to a bar later, do you want to join us?’). Keep in mind this needs to start from the beginning. If you want to be friends with an autistic person you need to explicitly say so (e.g. ‘Do you want to be friends?’). Even if we pick up on the social cues, many of us are aware that we are different from others and will not respond to invitations that seem allistically formulated because we will assume they are not for us. Also, many of us have been bullied, mistreated, rejected, abused etc. for misreading social cues and will not initiate friendship. This does not mean we do not want to be friends, it just means we are looking out for those messages intended for us, just like allistics do. If you are explicit from the beginning, chances are we will enjoy interacting with you and become friends.
- Understand the effects of allistic space! Almost every social space is, unfortunately, allistic space. It can be a sensorially overstimulating environment (a brightly lit classroom, a busy coffee shop or bar with a lot of background noise etc.), the meeting place of a social group with a complex hierarchy and many social rules (and when I say complex do not look further than the workplace, school, a group of long term friends etc.) or both. Do not assume our behavior in those spaces reflects who we are at all times. Understand that those spaces require more work from us and do not hold it against us if we avoid them. Get familiar with the term ‘autistic burnout’ and understand this has a profound effect on us.
- Allow time for accommodation! Since we use alternate means of determining and interpreting feelings (context, verbal cues, logic, even statistical likelihood!) we may need a lot more time than a regular allistic person to accommodate to the way you communicate. This accommodation time will be longer if we meet you while also accommodating to a new environment because we need to build the contextual structures that we use to understand you while getting to know you from scratch. The same goes for whether we meet you as a part of a large group because we will be simultaneously doing work to understand the others as well. Please be patient and helpful during this time, make it easier for us to learn about you by being explicit, sharing details about your communication style, your preferences etc.
- Be prepared to not be recognized if you meet us outside of the spaces we regularly interact! Unfortunately, many of us have a bad memory when it comes to human faces which we supplement with contextual information. Be prepared to not be recognized if you meet us unexpectedly and/or outside of the spaces we normally interact or if you make changes to your appearance. This could still happen many months after we have met, even if we have interacted extensively. Please don’t be upset if we double-check who you are and be ready to provide the information.
- Be prepared for a different interaction schedule! You may notice that sometimes we spend a lot of time with you while other times you will hardly ever see us. This is because our social needs differ from yours and so we will follow a different pattern and schedule of interaction. When we like someone, we express it by wanting to learn about them, their interests and opinions and not by exchanging emotional content (e.g. jokes, emotional support, group identity etc.) – although it does not mean we will not accept or enjoy engaging in the latter. This simply takes longer and may result in more in depth engagement especially during the beginning of our friendship. Once we establish a friendship, we will give it attention and cherish it and so we will not like to make many of them at once but we will also return to socializing according to our schedule (and socializing tends to receive limited time slots in an autistic’s schedule). Sometimes we might just make ourselves more available to you at the beginning of our friendship because we are learning about your needs and how to communicate with you, including how to let you know we need to attend to our alone time without offending you. Please consider that we may spend our leisure time pursuing interests on our own and usually recharge by limiting social contact or even isolating ourselves. Keep in mind, our social time is not your social time!
- Learn how to initiate proper conversation! Advance warning that a conversation will be initiated is ideal. This may come as an email or text message such as ‘Hi! I would like to talk to you about X item, Y item, Z item. I will come to your workplace/house/etc. at this specific time’. Advance warning gives us time to make accommodations for you and will result in a good interaction. However, if you cannot warn us appropriately, please make sure not to surprise us! Approach slowly, knock lightly on the door, even if it’s open and wait for us to accommodate for your arrival. Definitely do not: touch us (unexpected hugs, taps on shoulder etc.); approach unannounced; announce your presence verbally and loudly e.g. HIIII!!! I CAME TO SEE YOU!!!!! (if you must do so, please speak quietly). As I said, we perceive stimuli way below your threshold. Any of these behaviors can result in physical pain, disorientation, inability to respond appropriately etc. This will not just ruin the conversation but likely the autistic person’s entire day. Once we are interacting on a regular basis, we may be able to make accommodations faster and not need to place these constraints on you. Please keep in mind that even if we end up developing a very flexible social relationship with you, our sensorial sensitivities will remain the same. Please continue to be mindful of them.
- Learn about our communication style! We can be direct, honest, straight-up blunt to the point of appearing rude and our presence may be uncanny at times. There are two sides to this. Firstly, we do not always give standard social cues. We might be having a friendly conversation without appearing friendly, we might be giving you our full attention while looking like we are not even listening to you, tell a joke without laughing, appear rude while trying to be nice to you, say how excited we are about something while appearing bored etc. and when we do give correct social cues, they may still appear uncanny. Please understand that many of us have learned to give social cues later in life and/or by alternate means than allistics and so we will always be just a little different, even at our best moments. If you agree to take what we say over what we look like we are saying, you will take the pressure off for us. This will allow us to focus on the conversation rather than on appearing ‘normal’ and will be beneficial to you as well, you will get to see our true selves, hear our honest insights and even our jokes! (we can actually be quite funny!) But if you tell us we are not trying hard enough, you will just hurt our feelings because our alternate means of producing cues are usually more elaborate and require more effort than allistic ones. If we fail to produce social cues completely, it likely means we are burned out or in sensorial distress and so we are simply unable to despite our best intentions. Secondly, we are object-oriented. We communicate to exchange information not emotional content and so our patterns of communication will be very different from allistic ones. We will engage with the information provided and not with its social significance or the relationship that other interlocutors have with it, which is why we sometimes offend interlocutors without even realizing it. We will follow different conversation patterns or approach topics others do not, which may appear surprising to our interlocutors if they are not used to them. Please understand that many of us may continue to engage in this way occasionally, even after developing an awareness of the emotional aspects of conversations. This is because for us, these emotional aspects may continue to appear strange or even marginal to the information being exchanged and putting them at the forefront will require a constant, conscious effort. Also, keep in mind that we tend to value other forms of communication like text, email, social media just as much or even more than face-to-face so they usually play a big role in our social lives.
- Learn how to follow up conversation with us! Please let us know if you liked/ disliked the conversation or if it was effective. This can happen at the end of the conversation or in a follow up message. We like to hear about these things! Many of us use the data to script future conversations with you and others. It will be weird at first but soon you will learn to be honest about it without being overly critical, personal or hurtful (e.g. ‘I liked that you mentioned this’, ‘I didn’t quite understand what you meant there’, ‘I would like to talk to you again’, ‘were you joking when you said this?’ and not ‘in the future, don’t do this’ or ‘this is wrong’ etc.). Conversation is not a one-way street so please do not default to placing the blame on us if a conversation did not go well and be prepared to receive input from us as well.
- Learn how to joke with us before attempting to do so! Allistics like jokes and keeping things light-hearted. Dynamics like friendly banter usually create or strengthen bonds. This is not the same with autistics. Since we may not pick up on cues and subtext, there is a chance we will take what you say literally and this will be confusing, upsetting or triggering. Also, since many of us have been abused, mistreated, rejected etc. for being autistic, we tend to not enjoy any kind of teasing. Getting at the level where teasing is acceptable can happen but it may take a long time (see above).
- Be respectful of us and treat us as equals! It is easy to internalize the idea that autistic people are lesser than allistic people and treat them accordingly but you are really not doing us or yourself a favor by doing this. There is much to be gained from interacting with autistic people. We are likely to give insights that you will never get from anyone else and form unique connections with you. Don’t deprive yourself of these experiences for an ableist reason!
Do you think I am asking too much of you? Autistic people have already worked hard in order to interact with you, why not acknowledge and honor that by doing the same for them?
This post was written by an autistic person in the Asperger’s range. You are encouraged to seek advise on this topic from other autistics, including nonverbal individuals.