It’s now clear to me that allistics communicate in a totally different way compared to how we autistic people do. I saw a report about how autistics communicate well between themselves, and my first thought was, No shit, Sherlock.
I feel like an outsider in the neurotypical world because I process things in a different way; conversely, you will feel the same in our world. Our issue is we are not understood and are a minority. We’re not without tact and grace, it’s just that we have a different internal “code” about what it means to communicate and relate.
I am part of an autistic social group that meets weekly in an autism-friendly pub. The group is totally autistic, but there are a few allistics who come as a part of the National Autism Service (NAS) and a few support workers. The allistics struggle with our conversations as much as we do with their conversations.
We have difficulty in their world, but as it turns out, NTs have at least as much difficulty navigating in our world. Our difficulty is that we are unable to change but allistic people are able to adapt to help us. I have added a few hints at the end of the article that are easy for allistics to use and will help us immensely.
I am writing this from my own autistic point of view and personal experience. This means it is from one Autistic’s view (among a spectrum of views) and my understanding of allistic and autistic communication is limited. This is not intended to be a guide to how to communicate with all autistics or how all autistics interact, but to reflect what has been my personal experience.
1. We use no– or very limited– initial small talk. The conversation may start with a hello or similar greeting, but there is usually no other small talk. Everyone is just who they are, and we get straight to the meat of interaction. We have all ages, all genders, etc.
2. We don’t have a group you need to prove you belong to. Just being or suspecting that you are autistic is enough.
3. Allistics often get upset, offended, or annoyed with honest answers; but if you ask an autistic how they are, expect a full medical history– and unless you want the truth, don’t ask if your bum looks big in this or how we like your new haircut.
4. We don’t communicate to establish a social pecking order or consensus. Allistics seem to vie for power within the allistic group as a part of their social dynamic. They are always looking for confirmation bias about their thoughts and beliefs. They seem to need to know others are on the same page with them.
Autistics don’t do this. If we have an opinion, we will state it and can often be shown to be wrong via another more-factual opinion. This is great because it allows us to move through conversations fast without useless argument. Even better, it helps us to refine and improve our worldviews.
5. We don’t spend much time stating the obvious. We don’t talk for half an hour about the results of a football or other sports match. After all, it has already happened and the result is clear. We also don’t talk about things like the observable state of the weather.
6. We have a different idea about opinions and facts. All opinions are valid, but you have to back them up with facts to demonstrate why you have that opinion. We buy and have things we actually like. We don’t buy things to impress other people via their financial value or rarity. The only people we try to impress are ourselves.
7. Practical utility means more to us than status symbols. Your designer whatever means nothing to us. We don’t care how much it cost, only if it functions well; in fact, we are more inclined to be impressed with finding something quite useful for a low cost.
8. Partial information is not good enough, and fact-finding becomes a collaborative social exchange.
On the wall of the place where we meet, there is an odd black and white photograph. We started discussing it, and the allistic said it’s very strange and suggested we just filter it out and dismiss it as a strange picture.
That wasn’t enough for the autistic people of the group.
All together, we went on an information scavenger hunt, and 20 mins later we had found out it was a photograph of Picasso with a bit of his strange art, found the date and location where the photo was taken, the name of the artwork, where the artwork is now, etc.
It was a temporary special interest, and sharing that with other autistics is a deeply-personal and highly-enjoyable social experience; however, it totally confused the allistics observing us.
9. Everything is yes or no. There is no grey. Facts and truth are very important to us. Opinions exist, but they live or die on other facts people present. This isn’t to say we can’t think in abstract, appreciate metaphors, or make intuitive leaps; however, we agree to leave things in the air if its up for interpretation.
Allistics often argue about things with what-if arguments about possibilities that have already happened. They think about what people’s social motives were and what their intentions and emotions were when they did something.
For example, if someone bought a new car and started going to the gym, allistics might guess that they were having an affair, going through a midlife crisis, or came into money somehow.
Autistics don’t care why someone does something unless they tell us in blunt language, and we expect the answer to be honest. That’s how we communicate and why blunt and direct is a priority for us.
Life is not about what could have happened if… It’s about the future; hence conversations take a few minutes, not hours.
10. We are, or can be, very blunt. If you ask us what we think about something, we will just tell you. This shocks allistics and can be seen as being very rude, but we are just being truthful.
What allistics don’t understand is that we usually don’t care about someone’s new haircut or if a bum looks big in this. We care more about what people say, what they do, and who they are– not so much in how they look in something.
11. We experience sensory and social overload and take time out, even from autistic conversations.
When we stare out the window or look at our phone, etc., we still are listening. We need distraction to stay regulated and avoid being overloaded, often due to the fact we cannot filter things. We are still listening.
This can seem rude to allistic people who depend on eye contact as confirmation that we’re listening, but we are not being rude. Looking away actually helps us stay focused.
12. If you are talking shit or being dishonest, we will tell you and why we think this way.
13. Our conversations very often are not linear. They branch out in very unexpected directions, often related to the special interests of our conversation partners. All points in the conversation can and will be revisited during and after that conversation has ended, even ones from the conversation at the start of the meeting or previous week’s conversations.
To be totally honest, we do not know how or what you are thinking of or how you’re feeling. Because of this, we are classed as mind blind. There is another side of this. It works both ways. You are also mind blind to how we think and feel. To solve this, clear communication is needed.
If you are talking with an autistic person or joining a conversation between autistic people, here are a few hints to help the conversation and communication work well.
1. Autistics have problems reading body language and facial expressions. If you are using them, assume the autistic person will not be able to read them. It’s not that we can’t interpret them, but we don’t feel confident that we have interpreted them correctly. Also, don’t pay much attention to our body language. Focus more on the literal meaning of our words.
2. Don’t hint and imply things. These will often either be missed or misinterpreted. Direct language is the way to communicate with us. Avoid imprecise language like perhaps, possibly, soon, etc.
3. Tell us how you feel. If you are happy, sad, annoyed, angry, then please say so. Also, tell us why. We don’t always understand why something matters so much to allistics.
4. Don’t expect an instant answer. We process everything in a different way, and it takes us time to fully understand and process the highly-nuanced language of allistics and then translate our reply into allistic language. Sometimes, especially if you use hints and veiled language, we are still thinking about what you meant weeks later. This is why we revisit previous parts of this or other conversations at later times.
5. Don’t expect our facial expressions and body language to match how we are feeling. We look out the window, look bored, look at the phone, etc. but we are still listening.
6. If you have opinions, it’s good to be able to back them up. If an autistic shoots down your opinion, it’s a reflection of how the fact is wrong and not a personal attack; conversely, please be happy to challenge an autustic’s opinion (with applicable evidence/facts).
We often wish people would explore why we arrived at our opinions, but neurotypicals don’t do that because they feel they are being impolite.
7. If we just walk away or go quiet, there is a good possibility that we have become overloaded. This happens because we cannot filter out input. It can be too much for us to handle, and we need time to reset. If you have upset us, we will have said so before we leave. If we make ourselves stay, we are likely to not make much sense, become confused, or become distressed.
8. If we ask the same thing again and again, we don’t fully understand it. It’s often because neurotypicals leave out details, or we have different expectations about what things mean. We don’t always make the same connections. Please take time out to go over it with us in full detail so we better understand what you’re telling us.
9. Do not expect eye contact with the person you are talking to. Some can manage this but others find it painful. The autistic person you are talking to is likely to be looking somewhere else, this is normal for us and nothing to worry about.
10. Don’t expect us to be impressed with possessions, status. We either like or dislike objects depending on our interests, not monetary value or social status. The same is true with people. There are people we like and dislike. Our value measure is set within ourselves and not by social norms.
11. We might stim visibly during conversations. They could scratch their arms or head, move their arms in a repetitive way, fidget with an object, make sounds, etc. This is normal for us and helps us to regulate the input we intake.
12. We might repeat what you’ve just said. This is normal for us, too. Many times, allistics think this is a ploy to be sarcastic, manipulative, or to ask for things to be repeated.
We are just processing auditory information, and saying it out loud helps us differentiate meaning and sound. It helps us to separate the words from all the background noise and to buy time to process them.
To communicate with each other is possible, but it takes practice and learning a new way to relate for both of us.
We try to accommodate neurotypical people, but we inevitably misinterpret or miss meanings when they are implied. Autistic people have no choice but to accommodate for non-autistic communication because autistics are the minority, but when what looks like a compliment is sometimes an insult and what might be a hint is sometimes a warning… we don’t always get it right.
What we can both do to better communicate is to ask lots of questions for clarification, speak clearly without subtext, and not assume that a direct statement is an insult (or even a compliment) but rather a simple statement of fact.
While it might be hard work at the beginning, many allistics will find our style of communication to be refreshingly honest and interesting when they get used to it.