On Asperger’s and Communication

Gray stick figures walking downstairs. One red one climbs upstairs

Communication is complicated.  The average person communicates not only with their words, but with body language, inflection, and sub-text as well. We are expected to “read” others for clues in understanding what they mean by how they say it.

For aspies, this is particularly hard because we are hardwired to take communication literally.  This often causes our neurotypical counterparts to think we are being purposefully uncaring, when really we just don’t understand what it is they are communicating.

An animated woman with 4 question marks next to her, increasing in size as they go down. Text in green box at the corner reads: "WikiHow to stay out of an argument"

Liam and Charlotte:

Liam and Charlotte have been dating for six months. Liam is neurotypical while Charlotte is neurodiverse. Recently, Liam feels that he cares more for the relationship than Charlotte and isn’t sure things will work out.

A (not so) Simple Conversation:

Liam: My parents are flying into town to visit me this weekend.
Charlotte: Are you excited to see them?
Liam: Yeah. I haven’t seen them since Christmas. I’m looking forward to spending time with them.
Charlotte: I’m glad you get to see them. Let me know when they leave.
Liam: Why?
Charlotte: So I can see you.
Liam: So, you don’t want to see me while my parents are here?
Charlotte: I know you’ll be busy with them. It’s okay. We can just hang out when they leave.

What went wrong?

Liam leaves the conversation feeling frustrated and dismissed. He told Charlotte his parents were coming into town because he wanted to introduce them to each other; however, Charlotte didn’t get his hint.  He now thinks that Charlotte isn’t interested in meeting them and probably doesn’t take their relationship seriously.

Charlotte noticed that Liam seemed upset, but doesn’t understand why. She leaves the conversation feeling confused and worried. She decides it is best to give Liam some space.

What would have helped?

Liam could have avoided feeling frustrated by directly asking Charlotte if she wanted to meet his parents. Charlotte expects open and direct communication and relies only on the information given to her. She thought Liam was giving her important information, not implying a question.  She decides to give him space because that is what she would want, and she believes he will tell her what he is really feeling.

If their relationship is going to work, they will have to learn how each other communicates. Liam will need to try to be direct and not take Charlotte’s requests for clarification as passive-aggression, and Charlotte will need to ask questions when she senses that the other person is angry about something.

2 yellowish orange stick figures facing each other. The one on the right has a blank chat bubble above its head, the one on the right has a red question mark above its head.

Stacy and Lora:

Stacy and Lora have been good friends for a couple of years. Lora is an aspie who recently found out she is pregnant. Stacy offers to throw a baby shower in her honor, but Lora politely declines.

Thinking Lora was just trying to be a low-maintenance friend, Stacy plans her a surprise baby shower anyway. Lora arrives to a restaurant one evening thinking she is just meeting Stacy for dinner, but finds a room full of guests instead. She tries to put on a good face, but is obviously upset for the duration of the party.

Stacy feels hurt and unappreciated, while Lora feels overwhelmed and disrespected.

What went wrong?

Because people often don’t say what they mean, Stacy didn’t take Lora’s claim to not want a shower seriously. Her intentions were good; she simply wanted to make her friend feel special and help supply needed items for the baby.

Lora did not elaborate on why she didn’t want a shower or emphasize that she was serious because she didn’t realize she needed to. Lora is naturally inclined to believe exactly what people say, and forgets that others often imply truths or hint at their desires.

What would have helped?

Lora could have explained to Stacy that being the center of attention makes her uncomfortable and being in a party environment causes her to become overwhelmed. Stacy could have asked if Lora were sure and inquired if there was another way she could celebrate the happy news.

While neurotypicals and aspies have many differences in how they think and communicate, they can each benefit greatly from forming relationships with one another. These relationships, though, will take a conscious effort.  It is hard for both of them to go against the grain of what is wired in their neurology, but the effort is worth the depth of friendship that their differences can generate.

If you have a friend who is or may be on the spectrum, you can help by asking about their communication style and being forward in your requests. Remember that aspies almost always mean what they say, and exactly what they say, with no subtext or subtlety.  In the moment, it’s hard to believe that someone so similar to you might not be on the same page in communication.  They are feeling the same way and wondering what is causing the disconnect, too.

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3 Responses

  1. I have experience in both of these situations. With the first one, I was afraid of asking directly because sometime in my life I was chastised, by a friend or my mother for coming out and asking. It probably wasn’t the appropriate time for me to ask but that was never explained to me. Therefore, I went away thinking I did something wrong and consequently wouldn’t ask directly. Great post!

    1. It’s good to see these kinds of situations illustrated with clear examples. The part that resonates the most for me is where you say “it is hard for both of them to go against the grain of what is wired in their neurology”. This is so true and definitely applies to the long term relationship I’m in. Even though my partner and I understand each other very well, we still have regular disagreements that are essentially founded in these kinds of misunderstandings. On my side, I find it very frustrating that my partner now has a strong understanding of Asperger’s yet still continues to fundamentally miss what’s going on at the basic level of how I think. I don’t read between the lines well, so please be more explicit and say what you want! Of course, I am also guilty of not being able to bend my thoughts down typical neurotypical pathways and expend a lot of energy trying to look for underlying patterns and logical solutions to situations which just require a bit more care or emotional foresight. These are issues in any relationships, but I think where Asperger’s is involved they can be more fundamental. It’s hard to brush them off as a momentary bump in the road and not see them as indicative of a deeper underlying problem. Whatever the issues, I think we all benefit from seeing exactly how we misunderstand things, as you describe here!

  2. I’ve read a few of these “Autie/Allie transation” articles on theAspergian and they’re very much what I need right now. I just learned that I am autistic only 6 months ago and at my age I have no time to lose to figure out how to navigate this new(ly discovered) disability of mine.

    Which brings me to my concern with this article: autism is a disability. I find it compares well to color blindness, but for social stuff. Allism, if you will, is not a disability in the same sense. There are incomparable differences between the neurotypes that you cannot even label as “good” or “bad,” too, but autism distinctly involves the lack of certain senses and the ability to sense subtext is one of them.

    What this article does is try to split the difference 50-50 between both neurotypes and I think that’s misguided. In an attempt to be unbiased, it ultimately ends up recommending that, in order to balance the “unnatural” directness that an NT would give them, they should somehow be…more ambiguous? But the problem is, and this is particularly stark to me as I read your examples (evidence of good examples), no matter how hard you WANT to know what those unspoken messages are, you can’t! Because you don’t have that receptor in your brain.

    So for Charlotte, she had enough sensibility to know her partner was upset, but she didn’t know about what. She’s in the double bind that when Auties ask NTs directly to explain things that NTs think ought to be obvious, they can often be rewarded with abuse along the lines of, “how are you so uncaring that you can’t just TELL?!?” So Charlotte has really done all that she can do. Her partner is sending a message that she is incapable of receiving. All the improvement in communication there must come from the partner.

    Likewise with Lora. Her literal brain received a question and then answered it. While she may be aware that NTs often say what they don’t mean and don’t say what they do mean, there is only one way to say exactly what you mean and an infinite number of ways to say something else. So how should Lora know exactly which way her friend is misinterpreting her very clear and direct response?

    You’re basically suggesting that Autistics need to guess what Allistics mean when they are talking, and also they should guess right. That’s just not possible. That’s like saying a wheelchair bound person ought to climb the stairs if their able-bodied partner is holding the door open for them just so that they divide the work evenly. No. Those who are able have a moral obligation to accommodate those who are disabled. All people have a moral obligation to self advocate and to do their best to care for themselves and for others, but you can’t come at this like NT and ND are somehow “separate but equal.” They are separate, overlapping, and different.

    So, I guess to sum up, I think you have some really good insights here about how and where breakdown in communication across neurotypes can happen. I think you stumble when you, perhaps subconsciously, try to say that NTs and NDs bear equal responsibility and equal capacity for resolving the misunderstanding. You would make a much stronger claim if you acknowledged that NT and ND are NOT equal and that when the default is NT, it is in fact the NT who is morally obligated AND in the greatest capacity to bridge the divide. I think you need to own that and then try again. It will be better. Very better.

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