Typical Communication Difficulties
When autistic and non-autistic people come together to converse, our different communication styles can often lead to misunderstandings ('The Double Empathy Problem’ Damian E. M. Milton, 2012). Knowing what these communication difficulties might be will help you to spot and attempt to resolve them.
Not knowing when to talk. One on one it can be easier to get the point across, but it can be a bit intense. Some autists prefer when there are a few people in a conversation as there is less pressure to talk, but don’t always know how to read cues to speak up.
Not knowing what to say. General chit chat is not usually an autist’s strong point and having to make things up without preparation can be stressful and exhausting. For many, it’s worth the effort, but socialising can be tiring. The spoon theory is helpful here. You have ten ‘spoons’ a day. Every action costs a number of spoons.
For example, a difficult conversation with your boss could cost two spoons, whereas a normal conversation doesn’t really cost any. For autistic people, however, that normal conversation, even with someone they are comfortable with, could cost a full spoon. Or more if it’s in a difficult environment, or with someone they don’t know well. They will run out of spoons more quickly, and that can be very tiring.
Worrying about social interactions after the event. Many autistic people replay conversations over and over in their head after. Autistic people are accidentally quirky sometimes. It happens. Many autists often worry about it even decades later.
As noted above, autistic people can talk at great length about their special interests, sometimes talking at people rather than with them. Talking about a special interest is great, but some autistic people aren’t always the best at recognising when the other person isn’t interested in the latest all absorbing interest. This can make it hard to make and keep friendships.
Eye contact. First off, not every autistic person hates eye contact. For some it’s painful, but for others, it’s more that they have unusual eye contact. Which eye do you look at? Some autistic people may have learned to fake eye contact by looking at eyebrows or some other facial feature rather than eyes. Sometimes autists give people far too much eye contact. This can make others uncomfortable and end social situations quickly. It’s also very cultural – not every culture promotes eye contact, so it’s not as natural as some people think.
Don’t assume that an autistic person is not listening to you because they are not looking at you. For many autistic people, we can either look or we can listen – you can’t always have both. With video calling it is almost impossible to make eye contact anyway, so we hope people learn that it is not essential for good communication.
The content of our words is often more important than our tone. For many autistic people, our tone may not necessarily match how we feel, and we are likely to say what we mean without a hidden agenda. Non autistic people may hint at things, or use the tone of their voice to suggest something. Autistic people are much less likely to do this, and you can mostly take what an autist says at face value. Some autists may not read between the lines of a conversation the same way their peers do.
Facial expressions can also be tricky. It is not unusual for us to be asked why we feel angry when in fact we are just focusing and may be perfectly content. Many autistic people have been known to practice pleasant facial expressions, rehearse sounding happy so they don’t convey the wrong meaning unintentionally.
Lack of understanding. Many autistic people feel more comfortable socialising with other autists because then we don’t feel like they have to behave in certain ways, and can be our authentic autistic selves – gush about special interests, stim, and know we will be understood. This is great. But autistic people need to be able to socialise out-with the autistic community as well. Many autists feel social pressure to fit in with non autists but many non autists don’t understand why autistic people do certain things, talk in certain ways, react to things in the way we do.
Feeling like we aren’t understood doesn’t encourage autistic people to socialise, but others knowing who we are and understanding and accepting us for being ourselves helps.
It is important to remember that autistic people cannot help being different. We just are, we are built differently. Letting the autistic people in your life know that it is ok to be themselves, whether you understand their quirks and differences and difficulties or not, will help.
Autistic people can often take communication very literally. This is because we process things differently – many of us are capable of understanding metaphor and sarcasm, indeed many are masters of sarcasm, but sometimes need a little more explanation of when people are likely not intending things to be literal.
In addition, many autistic people might not apply the same assumptions to words – for example a word or phrase that has a time component to others, such as, ‘stop that’, doesn’t necessarily have the same associations to some autists – some autistic people may not realise you mean right now. “Do you want to share your work with the class / help me with the dishes / do me a favour” may result in being told no. This could well be because they are not interested in those things, but that does not mean we won’t if you ask us to.
This level of honesty can be a major strength, but it can create issues if those around us do not realise that we are not necessarily intending to be rude.
Making mistakes is often difficult for many autistic people. Autists don’t like to think we have failed and failing socially is tough. It can knock confidence. Not being wrong (as opposed to being right) can often be a large driving instinct for autists, which can often lead to not making any decision at all, or choosing not to participate in social situations. If we aren’t taking part, we can’t make a mistake. For many, it can be easier to do nothing than risk getting it wrong again.
Not understanding social niceties is another issue. Some autistic people may not realise that when most people say, “how are you” that what they really mean is “hello”, and that you may not be looking for an honest and in depth answer. You might not actually want to hear that they are disappointed the latest season of their favourite show is finished, but if you ask how we are, and that is how we are feeling, that could be the kind of response you’ll get.
There are many more things we could add to that list. Autistic people don’t often pick up non autistic social skills naturally. Some autistic people need to be taught that it’s polite to ask other people questions about themselves, or that staring is not polite rather than learning from observation. Being patient and understanding will help. Don’t make the autist feel silly or daft if they don’t know things automatically. Autistic people can learn non autistic social skills, and will learn them best when supported.