Autistic Communication Is a Feature, not a Bug

There is a curious egotism about the psychological profession. A psychologist observes that a patient doesn’t pay as much attention to the psychologist as the psychologist feels they should. The patient is trying to pay attention to too many things, and can’t focus just on the psychologist. The patient feels that they have ‘attention overload.’

The psychologist labels them as having an ‘attention deficit.’ Autistic people communicate differently. Psychologists label them as having a ‘deficit in social communication.’

For decades, psychologists have ignored the fact that many autistic people have no problems communicating with other autistic people. As recent research shows, the problem isn’t that we can’t manage social communication, it is that our communication is radically different from allistic (non-autistic) communication. It isn’t that we don’t follow social rules of conversation, it is that we follow our own rules.

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Autistic communication tends to be more precise, more direct, unconcerned with establishing social order, etc. One could try to define the way allistics communicate as inherently better.

The amount of literature and filmed entertainment dedicated to communication going wrong suggests this would be wrong. We should be talking about negotiating the differences.

Unfortunately many allistic people don’t see this as a negotiation, they see this as autistic people doing things wrong. Few try to understand how they can communicate better with autistic people. Many offer us coaching on “how to do things correctly.”

To find more information about how autistic people communicate, I suggest Autistic Communication Differences & How to Adjust for Them. This piece both describes a number of differences in communication and offers practical suggestions on how to better communicate with autistic people.

If Zoom Fatigue is a Mosquito Bite…

I can mimic how allistics communicate accurately enough that people forget I am autistic. Clinicians call this`masking` or ‘camouflaging,’ and it is not a healthy thing for me to do. It is exhausting.

Recently many allistic people have been complaining about ‘Zoom fatigue.’ Spending time on video calls where non-verbal clues are hard to find is wearing people out. The amount of energy consumed by these calls is a small fraction of the toll that masking takes on autistic people. Masking isn’t just tiring, it also endangers our mental health.

Another problem is that whenever my masking is imperfect, the conversation always seems to be about what I have done wrong, and not about fostering greater understanding. My being direct in communication is bad. Others confusing technical conversations with emotions is ‘normal.’

Or so I have been told.

… Autistic Burnout is Being Eaten by a Tiger

It is really hard to articulate how exhausting masking can be, or how widespread are the assumptions of allistic people about areas where one should have competence (and thus should expend energy to try to fake) which aren’t really compatible with many neurodivergent people.

So-called ‘executive function,’ which includes prioritisation and organisation, is a neurotypical construct. The world poses a lot of challenges for people whose brains don’t have the ‘prioritise’ or ‘organise’ toolkits built in. Stop expecting us to develop skills for which we aren’t wired. Work with us and support us to help us function better.

For some more insight into autistic burnout, and how it can affect how autistic people might show up in the world, I recommend this piece from Psychology Today.

An example of how you could support the autistic people in your life is to think in terms of, “Are there things that are easy for me as a non-neurodivergent person, but very difficult for you because you are neurodivergent?” Then, see if you can find a way to help provide structure. Explaining to me the process you use to prioritise your to-do list isn’t going to be that helpful. Offering to occasionally help me prioritise my to-do list would be a much-appreciated gift.

Knowing How The Road Is Built Doesn’t Help Me Find My Way Home

In my professional life, I have often encountered challenges in communicating with other software professionals as so many of them think that code is communication. They will answer questions with a snippet of code, or will ask for code examples when I have proposed some project work in a written document.

My brain doesn’t work that way.

Instead of thinking of the implementation details, I visualise entire systems in a way which almost no one I have ever worked with seems to understand. I suspect that over the years, a lot of people have thought that I was just making things up.

People who have seen my TED talk might remember my describing my ability to give insanely detailed directions. I can see in my head both a video feed of my view as I walk a route; and I can envision a top-down view of that route drawn on a map.

Think of my view of software in a similar way: I can visualise the route from Shoreditch to Trafalgar Square (okay, I can visualise several such routes, and articulate the tradeoffs involved in each), and you are asking me to describe each individual step along one stretch of road.

I’m Not a Guest, I’m Here to Help You Rearchitect this World into Our Common Home

I really admire and respect the skill and talents of the people I’ve worked with over the years, and I greatly value the fact that they are able to contribute in ways that I cannot. I must ask though, are they more inclined to criticise me because I do not contribute in the same ways they do? Or do they welcome and appreciate how I can contribute in ways that they cannot?

I can’t be at my best when others are seeking to make me more like them.

I think one of the biggest asks of many people in any conversation about inclusion and diversity, would be this: don’t think of inclusion as helping us get by in the structures built by and for ‘not us,’ rather think of how you can help us change the structure so that it is ours as much as it is yours.

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4 Responses

  1. Great discussion of the differences between how neurodivergent and neurotypical people evaluate—and value—people. You value the skills and contributions of people who can do things you cannot do; but they don’t always reciprocate. That’s a sad fact in this world. The subtext that I think is helpful to bring into the foreground is that we live in a society where people are pathologically driven to attain a high social rank; and certain skills (usually the ones that give a quick financial payoff) are given higher social rank (along with certain skin colors, genders, etc); so when people find that they have these “more valuable” skills, they typically try to capitalize on this by colluding in treating other skills as less valuable. This pushes many of us to the fringes—which is exactly what is intended. And so the sad social ranking game goes on and on…

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