The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity
Autism neurodiversity

“That’s SO RUDE!” Is It, Though? (Helping To Bridge The Gap Between NT & ND Communication Needs)

A cartoon of a woman and a man talking. A thought bubble over the woman’s head hasquestion marks and exclamation points. A speech bubble over the man’s head shows interlocking brain teasers and lightbulbs. His speech bubble is overlapping her thought bubble.

As an Autistic (Neurodivergent, or ND) adult, I often hear Neurotypical (NT) people say that I am being rude if I interrupt them when they are speaking or if I happen to talk over them. According to NT social norms and communication rules, such behavior is considered impolite and inappropriate. NT folks often also share with me their opinion that my Autism is just an excuse for bad behavior. But, I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth!

Declaring an absolute such as “that is rude” places a Neurotypical value upon a particular thing, that thing being interpersonal verbal communication. When Autistic people (or other neurodivergent individuals, such as someone with ADHD or a TBI, for example) interrupt, it is often involuntary and has a lot to do with our cognitive function, our memories, and our relative inability to read pauses in conversation accurately.

Rather than insisting that Autistic/ND folks *always* adapt to Allistic/NT expectations based upon Neurotypical values, how about Allistic/NT people at least meeting Autistic/ND folks halfway?

What would that look like?

A few examples are:

  1. Pausing one’s own verbal communications once in a while to ask if the other person is following the topic or if they need space to respond or share something. It may be that the other person only has the stamina and attention for listening to a few sentences at a time.

2. Actively acknowledging that the other person, who happens to be Autistic/ND, has limited cognitive flexibility, executive functioning, and energy with which to follow a thread of conversation for very long.

3. Remaining conscious of the fact that your conversation partner has limited cognitive flexibility, executive functioning, and energy with which to maintain hold of what they may need to share (or how it is they are going to reply).

4. Remembering that verbal communications, and all of the social rules and conventions that go along with them, are often quite exhausting for Autistic/ND folks, on many levels.

5. Making sure that the cadence ~ the give and take of the conversation ~ is brief, with shorter stretches of each person talking in turns.

6. Being mindful of the fact that what is being talked about will impact the energy levels and concentration of Autistic/ND individuals. Small talk and gossip tend to drain us. Personal stories, if we are fairly close to you, will likely not drain us but how focused we can be might depend upon our current levels of sensory stimulation or other stresses. Practical communications might need to be communicated like a list of bullet points without a lot of extraneous detail or elaborate context.

These accommodations are not only polite and considerate, but they are also EXTREMELY helpful for the Autistic/ND people one encounters and engages with, in one’s life. Autistic/ND folks would experience this way of communicating as an empowering and affirming change from the demand to comply with expectations that they simply cannot meet, either at all or not without doing harm to themselves.

And trust me… it costs a lot of energy (spoons) and causes harm to mask and to try to suppress every impulse or try to guess at the right actions at the right time according to criteria we don’t understand— so as to make the Neurotypical people around us more comfortable and less stressed.

My own friends, family, peers, my therapist, and my colleagues all make use of the above-recommended techniques when communicating with me, with great success and resulting in easier, more pleasant, more effective exchanges for everyone.

If you are an Allistic/NT individual, making reasonable accommodations for another person who is challenged by things that are relatively easy for you, such as an equal exchange of time and attention in conversation, would be the kind, compassionate, and empathetic thing to do.

I urge NT people to resist the urge to call interruptions by Autistic/ND folks “rude” and to examine the situation a little more deeply. Ask what challenges your Autistic/ND conversation partner might be experiencing and adapt your own approach so as to reduce or eliminate those challenges. One might ask, “I seem to be doing all of the adapting now. How is that meeting Autistic/ND people ‘halfway’?”

And that is a fair question to ask.

My reply: Autistic/ND people are already working so hard, in ways that you often can’t see, just to remain present during a conversation: thinking about making eye contact or not making eye contact, trying to keep track of the cogent topical points, caring about the other person’s meaning and intention, wondering if they are interpreting the words correctly, being distracted by what they are feeling in their body or by other sensory input, and so much more… just participating in a conversation is an incredible amount of work. Allistic/NT folks taking on responsibility for a more balanced give-and-take and allowing for some grace around all of this, which Autistic/ND individuals experience while trying to hold a conversation, may not even be half of the load.

So, my Neurotypical readers, the next time it is tempting to label an interruption from an Autistic/ND friend, co-worker, family member, or casual acquaintance as “rude,”pause. Check in. Assess the challenges that are present. Give a little less at one time. Offer more time for digestion and processing. More than anything, let your conversation partner know that you know they want quality communications, too, and you are wanting to do your part to make sure you both get them.

And chuck the Neurotypical expectations in the trash bin, along with the labels for misunderstood behavior.

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18 Responses

  1. Yes, ND people get accused of being “rude” a lot when we “interrupt” a conversation. But I’ve noticed that NT’s talk over me and one another all the time. So I don’t understand how they decide when it’s “rude” and when it’s okay; or if they think they’re allowed to rudely interrupt at will, but ND people are not.

    1. There really is quite the double-standard, quite a lot of the time, yes. Whenever I read something that tells me that Autistic people do not have “theory of mind”, I think of how unaware and unconscious many NT folks are about what they do, how they act, the way in which they communicate and have to laugh (sometimes with genuine humor, sometimes with bitterness) about the irony of that assumption. I am hoping that, with repeated messages from the entire community, NT individuals learn to practice (and then master) willingness, diligence, patience,and discernment when communicating with us. There needs to be more “give” on their part and less “take”.

      1. those without theory of mind are not nerotypical fully developed peorsons. You might be confusing this with sociopathy. aka I dont give a damn about you.

        1. Autistic people DO have theory of mind, thank you very much, and we ARE fully developed persons. Autistic manifestations are not clinical sociopathy. Kindly take your eugenics-flavored bigotry somewhere else. We don’t really give a damn about you or your opinion, either. Thanks. Have a good one.

        2. But can’t I be BOTH sociopath (learned from being dehumanised) AND Autistic (the cause for being targeted for dehumanisation in the first place)? 😛 My family members are arguably both Narcissist and on the Autism Spectrum, but are too cowardly (and spoilt) to get diagnosed. They’re too busy scapegoating me who has the diagnosis. I pity the bitches, personally, but why does my life outcome have to be worse than theirs? I refuse to lie to cater to others’ delusions about the world, and do so specifically because I am burnt-out from playing their sick games (I’m a destroyed square peg, I guess). I agree about the empathy issue and theory of mind, but also believe it can be learnt somewhat, and empathy has multiple facets and types, ultimately. There are also horrendous double standards about Empathy Gaps. Most support services I’ve used are severely ignorant about this and abuse me in some way, from the tolerable since they don’t know any better, to the wilfully-ignorant and psychologically intentionally-abusive. People take the money whilst not being up to the job, shamelessly. Who’s the fucking sociopath in that equation?

  2. Honestly, I think the autistic communication style is threatening to a lot of NT people, which is why it’s so often labeled “rude.” We don’t have the social instinct, or sometimes even the ability, to tell polite “white lies” or talk around certain topics to avoid making other people uncomfortable. This can sometimes be a legitimate problem, as when we hurt others’ feelings for no good reason because we didn’t realize how our words would be taken, or discourage a good-faith contributor to a conversation by cutting them off accidentally. But it can also mean that we point out things that really need to be discussed but that no one wants to bring up for the sake of politeness, or interrupt someone who’s dominating the conversation and leaving no room for others to speak. Rigid adherence to these unspoken rules is not always the most effective way to communicate, and I hope more NT people start to see that.

  3. I have traveled a lot and lived in several countries. There are so many different social/communication norms depending on where you are in the world. Most of the time you get a bit of a break as a traveler because local people understand you come from another place and might not be aware of all the rules. I suppose being on a spectrum might feel at times like being a “traveler” in your own country. Thank you for all the tips on what works when it comes to communication. My 7 year old son is on spectrum and I find myself often asking him to listen and not interrupt until I’m done conveying an idea. I feel like it is harder to understand when the idea is fragmented. That is how my brain works. I will try to implement your suggestions and allow more interruptions and check in with him. I love this guy so much and I definitely get frustrated when he refuses to cooperate when he needs to do homework and the 15 minutes homework turns into 90 minutes struggle of wills…

    1. Izabela, thank you so much for your response to the article. I genuinely appreciate the time you took to do so and appreciate, even more, the obvious love and care you have for your son. I do hope that some of these suggestions help you both to have easier, more graceful, less conflicted communications. If I may, I would love to add a few thoughts here for you to consider.

      Your son is 7 but he may have needs that are “younger” than his biological age. What I mean by that is: Autistic or Neurodivergent children often respond to outer stimulation, rules, schedules, and expectations in ways that “read” as if they were significantly younger than they are. This is not necessarily indicative of a developmental delay nor a lack of maturity. This is due simply to brain wiring. Neural hyper-activity means more sensory overwhelm and fewer connections with which to develop coping mechanisms for that overwhelm. The outer behavior can look like resistance or a temper tantrum but it is not usually those things, at all. It is often that an Autistic child of 7 will have the sensitivity of a 3-5 year old and little impulse control and likely not many words with which to say they are tired, cold, their clothes are scratchy, they are hungry, they need to focus on their special interest because they feel ungrounded, they need to stim because they are overloaded, or that they can’t process the demand or expectation that they perform in a certain way at that moment. With this in mind, perhaps asking your son what he needs when he is fussing over homework is a way to figure out what the unment needs are and then you can meet those needs and return to the homework once he has settled into a better andmore comfortable place. I am betting that what looks like a refusal to cooperate is something else entirely most of the time. In any event, it doesn’t hurt to ask him what he needs. Keep trying, keep asking… because Autistic/Neurodivergent kids need new patterns anchored before they really trust them and follow your lead.

      Secondly, Autistic/Neurodivergent kids might need more time to complete tasks than their Neurotypical peers. Homework that “should” take 15 minutes might realistically take 30 or an hour, or more!! Releasing expectations around how long a task takes would be incredibly helpful for your son. I know that, in school, there are rarely accommodations given to Autistic/ND kids around this and they are expected to perform in the same amount of time as their NT peers but that is a mistake and does harm. If you can give him the benefit of more time to complete the task, without the demand or expectation that it “should” only take “x” amount of time built into it, I am guessing that you will see a vast improvement in his performance.

      If you still see behavior that looks like defiance or resistance, consider having him assessed at some point for PDA, which is a fairly common Autistic Profile. Demand Avoidance is tricky to work with and work around but it can be done in ways that are gentle and nurturing and will set your son up to succeed.

      I do hope this is all a positive and that you and your son thrive!! Thank you, again, for being so open-minded and so willing to shift your approach so as to improve life with your amazing son.

      ~ Adam

    2. Izabela, I neglected to add that your son may also simply be exhausted and burnt out from school and the need to mask all day long. The need to then focus on homework might be more than he can handle after school. Giving him plenty of downtime/personal time to ground, restore his energy, and to refill up his cup would go a long way towards helping him be in the right frame of mind to focus on homework. Asking for accomodations for a minimal or adapted homework schedule, on his behalf, night become necessary as he gets older and advances through the grade levels. If you are familiar with “spoon theory”, it makes sense. Just the act of being at school costs your son spoons. Having to mask costs him spoons. Trying to focus while likely overstimulated and overwhelmed on a sensory level costs him spoons. Having to navigate unspoken social rules costs him spoons… By the time he gets home, he may be at a sever deficit of energy and attention. Home becomes a place where he needs and wants to not repeat what he just spent all day doing because it cost him so much.

      Ok. I’m done now! Best to you and your child. Thank you again for reading and responding.

  4. Adam, so much good info! Thank you! It totally make sense, I think my son is a little “younger” than his biological age. We allow him to complete projects at his own speed. I think that my frustration is often due to the fact that it takes 45 min or an hour to convince my son to do his work and then the actual homework does not take so long sometimes 15 minutes. I feel a little at lost, the 45 min includes me offering rewards, verbal positive feedback, telling him I’m going to take some toys away or sitting out while he protests…or pushes me…in other words…not a good time. Ask any 7 year old if they want to do homework and most likely they would rather play at the playground or do thousand other things so that part is pretty typical…the level of protesting and resistance is something else. Can you tell me a little more about PDA? What is that?

    Just to clarify he has few hours of therapy a week. We don’t do hours of therapy everyday, we spend a lot of time playing or hiking in nature. We have a great time when we play especially when he gets to decide what we should play. He is a little more resistant to other peoples ideas. I feel like he is very capable and I don’t want him to miss educational opportunities and growth and development that comes with it. On occasion he does the work with out resisting and he says oh it was so short today (the homework is the same length) on those days we avoid this super draining hour. How do we do this everyday? I thing the whole family would be so happy.

    1. Izabela, you are asking so many good questions. This is great. So, one thing that I can offer is that, with Autistic kids, rewards and punishments, positive feedback, and taking toys away are not likely to be effective tactics in motivating them to cooperate. I know it is frustrating and can seem like nothing will work in those moments. But there ARE things that will work, I promise. It is a matter of trial and error in order to find what works for your one unique and specific kid. Of course, no 7 year old wants to do homework. LOL! You are absolutely right. I kind of think homework for a kid that age is silly and pointless but that is a whole ‘nuther issue. Autistic people, in general, are really focused on the practical purpose of actions and deeds and quite often they see through the busywork nature of some things and can resist what feels like it serves no actual purpose at all. That could be one thing. Even at 7, your son may be thinking: is this REALLY helping me learn? Or at least intuiting that it might not. Just offering that as a possibilty. Do you feel that his homework actually helps him learn or do you feel like it is just a responsibility he has to fulfill because it is expected of him by his scohol/teacher(s)? Depending upon what you feel and think about that, maybe offer him your persepctive. For example: “Hey, (name), I know this feels pointless but this is work you need to do anyway so that you can show the teacher what they need to see so that they can do their job and record what it is they know about what you know.” ~ or something to that effect in age appropropriate language. In the moment tactics are offering self-soothing/stimming items or activities for just a short while (let him know he has a minute to do or use “x”, set a timer) so that he can ground or do something that satisfies a need and then you can redirect him to homework. That might work, with some trial and error).

      PDA (pathological demand avoidance) is a profile of traits and characteristics that can be part of one’s Autism. I don’t like the word Pathological (lots of us don’t) and that is slowly being eliminated as a part of the diagnostic criteria. But all that word really means to suggest is that the demand avoidance is not a choice. It is an autonomic neurological response. Something in the PDA-colored Autistic brain resists demands and commands and expectations. Anything that feels like a “should” or an “ought” or “I have to” sparks intense and involuntary resistance and this even applies to things that the person likes, enjoys doing, and wants to do, if there is any expectation or demand built into it. Working around PDA flares is tricky. For me, I log anything that I need to do as a routine into my google calandar: meds, exercise, appointments, important phone calls, visits with my significant other, taking food out of the freezer to thaw for dinner… EVERYTHING has to be listed so that I don’t even think about them. If I don’t THINK about them but just do them when the alarm goes off and see the things listed on the calendar, I don’t have the same tendency to resist or avoid doing them. I am accountable to the things and not my own “shoulds”. I hope this is making sense.

      PDA also generates, for some, intense reactions to sensory triggers. REALLY intense. Some kids can’t stand those tags on clothing. PDA-flavored Autism can cause a full-on meltdown of epic proportions in reaction to the sensation of an unexpected tag rubbing against skin. It is the sensation AND the sensitivity to the sensation AND the unexpected presence of the tag that all cause the meltdown. PDA makes our brains want, need, and crave order and predictablity to a very high degree. There is a superb blog called “Our Nuerodivergent Life” (they are also on FB) which describes PDA in young children and parenting PDA-ers very well and with a lot of compassion and gentleness. I highly recommend following that, regardless of if you think your son might have a PDA profile of Autism.

      Those good days when he just does his work and it seems so effortless are a joy, I am sure!! I am guessing that those are days where he didn’t experience many sensory triggers or meet up against feeling out of control or maybe he just had a clear head and no internal obstacles in the way. Maybe keeping a little journal of what his day is like ~ from your observations ~ leading up to the homework time will help map out what makes the good days good and the challenging days so challenging. That and asking him throughout the day what he needs or how he is feeling might assist in making ti clear what kinds of experiences help him be ready and eager to cooperate and which things deter him.

      I hope some of this helps!!

  5. Also he is doing distance learning so school is about 1.5 to 2 hours a day. In my opinion zoom has some advantages and disadvantages. Students are muted so less sensory overload and easier time listening to the teacher, during discussion however students voices come through with unpredictable volume which can be difficult.

    1. I hear you about the advantages and disadvantages of zoom! It is so good to hear that he is doing distance learning and that the school schedule seems very minimal. I was not sure if he was back to in-person learning in a classroom setting yet. I still struggle with unpredictable volume and people speaking out of turn, even via video meetings and calls, so I can empathize with him and with you, as I presume you are present with him or nearby when he is attending a virtual class.

  6. Adam when you say “having to mask” do you mean by that trying to act neurotypical for example trying not to make sounds when he feels overwhelmed? Just want to make sure I understand correctly. I totally agree with the need to restore and rebuild energy as well as following his interests.The homework at least for now is pretty minimal.

    1. Izabela, hello again! Yes, that is what I mean by “having to mask” and your example is a good one. He spends all day suppressing his natural inclinations and repressing his needs ~ such as to make sound or stim or try to behave like his neurotypical peers. That suppression and repression is what we mean when we talk about Autistic masking. Exactly. I am very glad that the homework is minimal for now. He is in an early grade and that likely means fewer demands on him at home for school-related things.

  7. Adam thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to me. There are so many awesome suggestions that I have read it few times (and I’m sure I will read it again). Can’t thank you enough!

    1. Izabela, you are so very welcome! I hope for the very best for you and your family. You are clearly a very loving and attentive mom. Be well.

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