Autistic Communication Differences & How to Adjust for Them9 min read

pub

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 one Autistic’s view (from 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.

The Differences

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 show 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 to just filtering 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 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.  We 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 nuanced 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 r,eflection 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 our 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 each other 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 are used to it.

45 thoughts

      1. Haha, that would have been a cool metaphor, like the tip about autistic people needing to leave when they’re overwhelmed. 

    1. Exactly my thought.  I wanted to share the article, but now I cannot because it is incomplete.

      1. I fixed it.  Sorry.  WordPress hates me, haha.  Strange things have been happening so many times like pieces going missing, paragraphs repeating, etc.  It’s there now.

    2. That was my fault.  Or the fault of WordPress.  It’s fixed.  My apologies to the readers and to the author.

    3. 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 each other 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 are used to it. 

      This the bit you’re missing?  Have copied and pasted.

  1. Astonished at how many of those points I solidly identify with.  I have never received a Dx, but I know who I am.

    1. Sharon,
      If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck then it’s very probably a duck 🙂
      I’m glad you have an answer to who and how you are.

  2. I have aspergers.  I have a question?  I have a group of neuro typical individuals I hang out with.  I’m never invited to activities.  Do you think they like me or just feel sorry for me

    1. Nathan,
      I don’t know at all.  ( Not knowing your social group )
      Personally I pick what I will do with how comfortable I think I will feel.  This excludes me myself, or people will not invite me knowing what will not join in.
      I’m now my totally autistic myself and people I know this, and adjust themselves to this and my bluntness etc.

  3. I love this article!  Especially this: “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.  We 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.”

    I’ve never understood all these nuanced assumptions based on behavioral changes.  It’s supposed to be “obvious” to me when somebody is doing something like having an affair, but I’m like…um…OK?  I care why?  Of course, that is to my detriment if it’s my person cheating on me because I’ll really have no clue until they bring them home. 

    *sigh*

    Wonderful article!

  4. I liked much of this article.  It’s a topic I’d like to see more on.  I personally couldn’t relate to a few things- for instance, I tend to often not have access to the correct words during a conversation, so I have to use “next door” words which may be similar but aren’t exactly right.  I try to remember to explain that I’m doing this ahead of time, or it can cause allistics to misunderstand my intended meaning and become upset with me (without telling me why).  As I’ve become older, I find that I speak more and more in metaphors and use comparative language, or skip words altogether and use images and gestures to try to get my meaning across for thoughts that I struggle to find words for.  Also, I may not say that I’m upset before I leave or shutdown.  Sometimes I don’t know how to express that. 
    I still very much enjoyed this article!

    1. Liana,
      This is just written from my personal autistic perspective.  I understand the incorrect words issue but do not have a solution to it apart from write, review it a few times and not talk.
      In the group though people really frown ( sort of 300%, so we can see it to show we don’t understand totally ) and give time for a re-worded answer.

  5. Thank you for this article, and thank you to all those who shared it so it came to me.  I found this extremely helpful and will help me communicate with others how to communicate with my son.  I have already shared with friends, family and others.

  6. This is so brilliant.  I’ve shared it in loads of places and they all say it’s awesome too.

    It’s as though you personally know me!  How could I have missed that I was Autistic for so long!

  7. Excellent and enlightening article.  Thank you for writing it.  I am a mom of a 12 y/o son with Asperger’s.  My question is: Did you and your social group friends have to engage in therapies to help you maneuver the “neurotypical” world and was it effective?  Do you think that the push to do therapy is useful or harmful?  Looking forward to your response and thoughts.  Regards…a mom who is wondering what is the right thing to do.

    1. I was diagnosed as ASD at aged 48.  The trying to fit into the NT world until this point caused me PTSD and other serious issues. 
      Trying to make an autistic seem like an allistic by changing behaviour of the autistic person to be like an NT in my opinion is very wrong and causes long term harm to the autistic person.  A bit of education to allistic people like I have said in my article etc allows autistic people to function well in the allistics world.

      1. Thank you for your response and opinion.  That is exactly what I was thinking.  Though, to what extent of behavior changing do you feel is wrong?  I am not talking about special interests, eye contact, stims, or blunt/to-the-point answers/conversations.  You mention some characteristics of conversation that may seem rude to allistics.  Again, that is not what I’m questioning.  It’s behavior that is disrespectful of people’s personal space, pushing people aside to get to a destination (such as in a store), verbally being argumentative loudly in public places.  Are these part and parcel of an autistics individuality?  How would those behaviors be conducive to being successful in the world?  We do not want to “change” who our son is or how he thinks or processes information.  We do not want to crush his creativity or special gifts.  Simply, we are more concerned with physical and verbal behaviors that are both inappropriate and potentially dangerous.  Looking forward to reading more articles on the blog.  Thank you!!

  8. Cheryl,
    I am often very blunt, especially around people who know I am autistic.  To me it’s not me being intentionally rude, for example very bluntly telling someone that their opinion is very wrong with added factual information of why it’s wrong.  But it can seem very rude to people.
    With arguements for example I use the thought “opinions are like arseholes, everyone has one and sometimes they are full of shit”.  This thought means it’s easy for me to just walk away and leave the person to their wrong opinion ( although if they can provide further information I will listen to it and see if I still think they are wrong). 
    As for personal space issues I don’t have a clue, I have very bad social anxiety so avoid crowded/noisy places.

    1. I have some suggestions on the personal space issues.  1) You need to not only tell your son that the behaviors are rude, you need to explain WHY they are seen as rude.  2) You need to point out to him what responses in other people mean he is invading their personal space He genuinely cannot interpret what a person drawing back means.  He has no clue why that person has that offended/appalled/disgusted look on their face, if he even notices it.  You need to specifically point out those reactions, and explain that they mean he intruded on the other person’s space in a particular way.
      Clear rational explainations go a long way in helping him understand what the problem is so that he can self-regulate.  Emotional reactions and vague hand-waving about the issue may let him know there is a problem, but without concrete explanations, he will not have a clue how to make it better.

      1. Absolutely, Chandra.  Thank you for commenting.  We have learned that our son needs concrete answers, detailed explanations, and we are working on seeing another person’s facial expression/body language etc.  He does not notice the responses of other people, so this work we are doing is difficult.  He often cannot understand why it is an issue to them.  I totally understand his perspective and how he sees things…still, we mustn’t bowl over the elderly gentleman in the store to get past him. 

        Thankfully, we have a wonderful support person working with him now who helps him notice other people’s behavior and reactions to things.  It’s very hard work and exhausting for him.  But he is beginning to get a better understanding.

  9. Great article, thanks.  It’s good to know I’m not ‘abnormal’; just a member of a select club 🙂

  10. Welcome to the club 🙂, there is a nice comfy chair for positioned for you exactly where you want.

  11. Thank you so much!  This is a piece of information I will definitely share with my new colleagues so they can hopefully understand me better.

  12. Great article, very important – to me a paradox (and that’s how life is XD ): allistics and autistics need to learn each others’ ‘language’ so they can ask each other questions to avoid misunderstandings.  Life can be so funny!

  13. This is great!  You’ve explained some of the nuances of autistic communication that I’ve been trying to make clear to people for years, but I couldn’t manage it.  I’ll definitely be using some of your points here, especially about how we don’t do small talk and why our conversations go in a million directions at once and everything circles back (I love that kind of conversation, personally).
    It’s a sad fact that autistics are the only ones expected to change for others’ sake.  If NTs would make a little effort for us, as you point out, we’d all get along better.

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