Don’t Confront Your Autistic Loved One About Concerning Behavior… Investigate Instead

In the process of posting and having discussions on my Facebook page over the past month, I’ve come up with another formula I think will help improve communication between neurotypical and autistic people.

Two of the things I’ve talked about in my latest posts are not assuming emotional states based on facial expressions and understanding that certain behaviors for an autistic person may absolutely be on purpose, but the intent behind those behaviors may be entirely different than what a neurotypical person would expect.

Because of these differences, misunderstandings abound between the neurotypes, and arguments, hurt feelings, and loss of relationships result.

This new approach might help.

Let’s say the autistic person in your life sighs a lot. I sigh a lot. Like, constantly. It’s how I breathe. For people with anxiety, PTSD, OCD, or neurological differences (I have all of these), sighing is an attempt to calm the nerves and achieve homeostasis in the brain. It regulates heart rate and breathing.

It’s automatic, and most people who sigh often won’t even realize they’re doing it until someone points it out.

Now, using this example, here’s how an interaction might go if a neurotypical person uses a confrontational method of communication with their autistic loved one:

Mandy and Dan

In this scenario, Mandy is neurotypical and Dan is autistic. They’ve been dating for a few months.

Mandy walks into the room where Dan is playing a video game. He’s absorbed in the game but is aware that his girlfriend has entered the room.

Dan: ~sighs~

Mandy: What’s wrong?

Dan (confused): Huh?

Mandy: What’s wrong?

Dan (still confused): What do you mean?

Mandy (getting irritated): You do that every time I walk into a room! Am I that irritating to you?

Dan (epic confusion): Wait. Do what? I don’t understand.

Mandy (getting tearful): I can’t even confront you about anything. You just deny it.

Mandy walks out of the room in a huff while Dan stares after her in abject shock.

Now, Mandy feels as though her new boyfriend is utterly uninterested in her, and Dan feels as though his girlfriend is emotionally unstable. They walk on eggshells around each other for a few more months until they inevitably break up.

Dan and Mandy: Take 2

OK, now here are Mandy and Dan again, only this time, both partners use an investigative method to communicate with each other.

Mandy walks into the room where Dan is playing a video game. He’s absorbed in the game but is aware that his girlfriend has entered the room.

Dan: ~sighs~

Mandy: Hey. I notice you just sighed when I walked into the room. Usually, when I sigh, I’m trying to communicate irritation. Are you irritated with me?

Dan: Oh, hi. No. I sigh all the time. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

Mandy: Oh, OK. Just checking in. I’m making a turkey and cheese sandwich for myself. Do you want one, too?

Dan: Um. Yeah. Actually, that sounds good. Thanks.

If note: I put the turkey and cheese sandwich question in there because it’s actually better than asking, “Do you want something to eat?” The more direct the question to an autistic person, the better.

Investigative Communication

So, here’s the investigative method of communication broken down:

  1. Get curious.

Observe the behavior and/or thing that was said and sit with any emotions that come up for you. Be sure you feel calm enough to go to the next step. If not, walk away, if possible, or tell the person you need a minute.

Autistic folks: allowing your neurotypical loved one to walk away when they need a minute or more is essential for this to approach to work.

2.Mention the behavior directly.

Start with “I notice(d).” For example, “I noticed that when I walked into the room, you sighed.” This way, you are mentioning the behavior directly instead of asking the dreaded and ambiguous, “Why did you do that?”

The reason this question doesn’t work for autistic people (and many other people, honestly) is that autistic people often have entirely different motives for words or behavior than a neurotypical person does.

Side Note: In fact, most people who are on the spectrum don’t have ulterior motives. We say what we mean and we mean what we say. So, if we sigh, we’re most likely trying to achieve homeostasis in our brains. It is not a subtle cue to indicate anything.

If we clear our throats, we’ve probably got something in it we need to knock loose. If we say you’re wearing too much perfume, your signature scent is giving us sensory overload, we are not trying to insult you as a human being.

3. Explain what the behavior means to you.

OK, continuing on.

After you’ve mentioned the behavior directly, so your autistic loved one knows exactly what you’re reacting to, tell the person what the behavior, phrase, sentence, or lack of reaction, etc., means to you when you do it or when other people have done/said it around you. This step is very, very important.

4. Ask the question.

After you’ve observed, mentioned the behavior directly, and explained what the behavior means to you, ask the question, “Is this how you meant it?”

There WILL Be An Emotional Reaction, Just Not for the Reasons You Think

Initially, you may get a completely shocked and dumbfounded reaction. Your autistic loved one may stare at you with an open mouth and wide, unblinking eyes. We may look at you like you’ve grown two heads. We may even get upset or angry. This will pass.

It’s just that, for us, when a neurotypical person ascribes a neurotypical motivation to an autistic behavior, it’s often very jarring because, if we hadn’t been told exactly how it was perceived by the neurotypical brain, we never would have even conceived of such a motivation on our own. Our brains just don’t work that way.

Also, please don’t mistake this shocked and dumbfounded reaction as having yet another hidden motivation.

There isn’t one.

We’re literally shocked and dumbfounded.

It’s the equivalent of somebody telling you that bringing them flowers is an indication that you hate them and slapping them across the face is an indication that you like them.

That is how much sense neurotypical motivations make for us when we are still learning about them. It can FLOOR us and take us a while to recover from the shock and assimilate the new information.

Eventually, however, your loved one on the spectrum should be able to explain their motivations, so the misunderstanding can end before it becomes an outright argument.

For the neurotypical people, I know this isn’t what comes naturally to you, but it’s something you can learn to do with practice.

Also, autistic folks reading this, you can and should use the exact same formula with your neurotypical loved one.

Non-autistic people aren’t the only ones who misunderstand things. For example, I have PTSD, and I’ve been very deeply traumatized, so I can be quite defensive and jump the gun even if the person who did or said the thing didn’t mean any offense by it.

I’m getting better, but I’m sure I’ll make the mistake again and again throughout my life.

By the way, what I’ve mentioned here is a modified version of something I learned in DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). I didn’t so much “invent” the technique as I modified it for neurotypical-to-autistic communication.

I do hope it helps.

7 Comments

  1. Do u think 2 autsts make a better couple than an autist and a NT? My hubby left me for a younger woman who happened to be autistic like him (I’m not)….in his long list of justifications he added that because she was autistic they would get on better. I wondered about that & reasoned it was actually ‘less’ likely they’d get on because at least I was able to ‘bend in the wind’ out of my comfort zone more (to accommodate his more rigid behaviour). If she was also rigid in her likes/dislikes then who was going to be doing the compromising.
    Interested to know whether u think 2 autists are more likely or less likely than an autist & an NT to get on better? (Of course personalities come into it: but imagine their basic traits of kindness, helpfulness, etc are similar)

    1. I’m very sorry for the pain you’ve experienced. I hate that for you (I am autistic and there’s no snark or hidden meaning there).

      I do think two autistics get along better… Much better. I’ve never been single more than a couple months since I was in my early teens. The long, healthy relationships and friendships I’ve had were with autistics. We’re not all rigid, like my husband. He’s a feather in the wind for the most part. I’m very rigid, which he finds to be mostly a positive quality.

      Mainly, he doesn’t think I’m weird or misinterpret me. He doesn’t care that I don’t want to go out and do things because he doesn’t either. He thinks it’s hilarious when he mentions an event, and I respond that I’d rather set myself on fire in a pool of malt liquor. He thinks it’s cute that I only drink out of Kerr wide mouth Mason jars.

      I don’t care that he doesn’t talk much. We don’t need to be doing the same things. I couldn’t care if he were less attractive, older, younger, healthier, sicker… I love his mind and his darkness and what makes him unique.

      What feels rigid to you feels like low-maintenance comfort and stability to me. I can’t keep up with NTs or meet their expectations, and even the best of them with the kindest hearts are burdened by my differences. Another autistic often feels endeared to them. It’s rewarding to me to be the strong one where my husband has profound weaknesses and vice versa. He’s okay with my weird gender issues.

      Mainly, we just get each other. It’s like being able to speak your native tongue.

      I don’t imagine that your ex left you because there was anything wrong with you or that he was “upgrading” to a younger model. We really aren’t very fazed by age and don’t pay much attention to those things (unless he was a rare jerk, but most of us aren’t superficial types). We just have a very small dating pool, so in that tiny minority of autistic adults, too, we also can’t really “play the field.”

      If you lived in a mostly autistic world and met a nonautistic man, you’d feel overwhelmed with being able to naturally relate for the first time without always having to guess and interpret and monitor your language.

      When I first met my best friend, we thought there must be some kind of quantum entanglement or cosmic synchronicity happening because we were so similar to each other and so different from everyone else. We even read books on those subjects together. We didn’t realize at the time we were both autistic.

      I hope this was a comfort to you and answered some questions. Dating is hard for us. It’s like all the social difficulties we have are magnified because we can’t keep up with the social batteries and the energy and the schedules of most NTs… even low-maintenance introverts. With each other, we don’t don’t have to try so hard. We don’t have to explain so much. We can spend 3-10 straight hours analyzing a problem or tell each other, “Okay I’m going to get alone time. Please don’t interrupt me,” and the other person gets it and doesn’t mind at all or take it personally.

      I can’t even begin to explain how much easier and what a relief it is to stop celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s day… And that’s something that most autistics would high five and most NTs would find terribly unromantic. That’s just one of a million things that are easier. There’s a very high tolerance for “weird” between autistics. My husband doesn’t care if I forget what I was monologuing about mid sentence and make a bird noise instead 😂. Like we’re really so strange. And I don’t care that about 1/3 of his jokes are hilarious and the other 2/3 are not funny at all and require ten minutes of explanation– and they’re still not funny. I have a photographic memory and he has the memory of a goldfish. We just don’t care. We have the same values– which are too passionate for most people. We like the same literature. We like to do deep dives into subjects that can last years– ten minutes is too much for most NTs who struggle to understand why most of those things matter so much to us.

      Honestly, we’re so dark and it reads as negativity to people when to us it’s funny and relatable. I don’t know– would you really want to be with someone this different, or would we disappoint and embarrass you eventually? That was huge for me– feeling like letting my guard down or showing my full self would be disappointing. I never want to be someone’s burden. Even if they’re great and they love me, I know they only can take me in small doses when I’m at my social peak of the day. They find my facts and pedantry overwhelming.

      I’m very sorry that happened to you, but I don’t think you should interpret it as the same as if it happened from another nonautistic partner. It just is pretty rare for us to even interact with another autistic, and it can feel very extreme and comforting and overwhelming in good ways, like magnetic, to have someone get you without explaining.

  2. This is brilliant and I want to cite it for every wikiHow autism article everywhere.

    1. Author

      You have my permission to cite it all over creation. The more eyes on it, the better. 🙂

  3. Absolutely brilliant!!

    I recently got dumped by a NT boyfriend with whom I was deeply in love. I self diagnosed while we were together and it helped a TON in our communication.

    But before I knew about being on the spectrum, I remember him jumping to conclusions about things I did or said and always feeling blindsided. I remember pleading with him to just try having a little curiosity about me instead of always assuming the worst.

    But the curiosity never came. He assumed the worst and left me because he thought I didn’t love him. And it ripped my heart out, but such is the life I am given.

    Anyway, I love your succinct examples. I have tried coming up with NT vs ND examples but I always get stumped when I try to guess what the NT would be thinking. It’s just too weird for me to fathom!



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