Why do autistic and non-autistic people misunderstand each other so often?
Because our brains are wired differently, and the way we interact with each other and the world is different based on our neurotype.
Here are 12 of the most common types of misunderstandings that occur between non-autistic and autistic people:
When an autistic person asks why?, we literally mean it as a question. There is no hidden agenda. We are asking for more information so we can comprehend what is being said to us and carry out the task as requested.
For non-autistic people, however, asking why? can have a double meaning. It could literally mean they need clarification, but it could also be a purposeful sign of disrespect.
In the second scenario, the neurotypical person is not really asking “why?” for clarification, they’re questioning you or your abilities and/or what you’ve asked them to do in an attempt to be insolent. They are passively implying that an idea is ridiculous.
Most people on the spectrum don’t think this way. For us, “why” has only one meaning, and that is to gain clarification so we have a complete understanding of what is expected of us.
2. Meltdowns vs Tantrums
A tantrum is a purposeful attempt to get something the person throwing the tantrum wants. It is a tactic. A meltdown is an uncontrollable explosion of emotion that usually follows multiple experiences of sensory overload. It is a neurological phenomenon that can’t be controlled.
If you’re having trouble telling the difference, watch the next time a neurotypical child throws a tantrum because someone has told them, “no.” They will likely have minimal-to-no tears, and they will look up at the people around them to see if their actions are producing the desired response.
If, however, the child is careening into walls, sobbing, screaming, and banging their head, and if the child makes no attempt to look at others around them or even seem to perceive or recognize others around them, that’s a meltdown.
3. Details, Please!
The neurotypical brain is really good at filling in the gaps when somebody is telling them a story about their day or something that happened to them in the past. The autistic brain often has difficulty with this. Most of us need detailed explanations in order to understand what is being said to us in order to form a complete picture in our minds.
When a non-autistic person is in the middle of telling a story or describing a rough part of their day, and they keep being asked for details that they do not deem important (What time of day? Who were you with? Did this happen first or did that?), they will feel interrupted, interrogated, and unheard.
The autistic person, however, is asking those questions so they can relate to the neurotypical person. It’s not an attempt to cut the person off, it’s an attempt to connect.
Unfortunately, this is often misunderstood and can lead to communication issues on both sides.
4. Who Are You Again?
Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is common among those on the spectrum. Some of us have a really difficult time recognizing people out of context. For example, if we are used to seeing you at church or school, but we see you out in the grocery store or local park, we may feel we recognize you, but we can’t quite make the connection in our minds.
When an autistic person asks who you are or seems to struggle to remember you, this is exactly what’s happening. There are no hidden agendas. It doesn’t mean you aren’t important to them or they have not paid attention to you.
However, neurotypical people may take this behavior to mean that they are not worth remembering or not worth the bother. They may mistake the autistic person as being snobby, uppity, or acting “too good for them.”
Most autistic people need lots of alone time to recharge after socializing or working. We need to spend time on our special interests and stay in our routines to feel calm and centered. Differences in autistic brains make processing social input much more difficult and can become overwhelming.
Unfortunately, this need for solitude can be misconstrued as us not liking our friends and family or acting as though we are “too good for them.”
This is simply not the case. Again, there is no hidden agenda. We just need rest.
6. “Blank Face”
Many autistic people have what is considered a “blank” facial expression or, in more clinical terms, a “flat affect.” This is that far-away gaze, slack features, and mouth-slightly-open or expressionless look you’ve probably seen quite often.
Unfortunately, to someone who doesn’t have much experience with autistic people, a “blank face” can cause serious misunderstandings and misconceptions that can lead to hostility and even abuse.
An autistic person who appears to have no facial expression and a far-away gaze can be mistaken as disrespectful, purposely ignoring others, not being interested, not even trying to understand, or even contemplating murder.
Yes, you read that last one correctly. People who have little experience with individuals on the spectrum may mistakenly believe that someone without some type of facial expression is thinking dangerous thoughts and is, therefore, a danger to others.
This could be very harmful to the autistic person as it could prompt abuse from those who misinterpret and feel threatened by this lack of facial expression.
A face devoid of expression could mean many things, including, but not limited to:
- The autistic person is taking a sensory break to deal with sensory overload. It’s a mild form of disassociation that helps reset the brain and calm the nerves.
- We may be concentrating deeply on something. This means we are 100% into whatever it is we are doing, and we’re not holding a facial expression. (For many autistics, maintaining a facial expression takes concentrated effort.)
- Many autistic people have a lack of connectivity between the parts of the brain responsible for processing emotion and those responsible for coordinating facial expressions, so they might be extremely interested, excited, upset, or angry, but their face won’t reflect their emotion. Controlling facial expressions can be even more difficult when they’re tired.
- Some of us don’t use facial expressions until there is someone to use them around, so if we’re not aware you’re in the room, our faces may default back to expressionless. I know mine does!
7. Lack of Eye Contact
For many autistics, eye contact is almost physically painful. For example, in my case, any time I look someone directly in the eyes, it gives me that “stomach flip” feeling as though I have missed a step going downstairs.
I can’t maintain long-term eye contact with anyone, but that doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting the person, I have something to hide, or I’m not listening.
In fact, I listen much better when I don’t feel pressured to make eye contact because the sensory overload caused by the eye contact completely skews my ability to process auditory information.
8. “White Lies”
From a young age, most all of us are taught that lying is bad and unacceptable, and that we should be honest and speak the truth. Well, autistic people tend to take that moral lesson a bit more literally than neurotypicals.
This means, to most autistics, there’s no difference between a regular lie and a “white lie,” which are untruths told to spare someone’s feelings.
It seems this is something that neurotypical people can easily differentiate between without being told. Autistic people, on the other hand, need to have this explained because it doesn’t come naturally to us.
Furthermore, once we learn a social rule, it essentially becomes written in stone for us.
In other words: Don’t lie. Full stop.
We don’t realize there are exceptions or know when to apply them, which means if you ask us how your breath is, and we think it smells like the business end of a yak, we’ll tell you.
If you ask us how we liked your cooking, and we think it tasted like boiled slug, we’ll tell you. If you ask us what we think of your new haircut, and we think you look like Ronald McDonald after a 3-day bender, we’ll tell you.
As you can see, I really enjoy humor. Most of us probably won’t get that descriptive, but it also won’t even occur to us to not answer you truthfully when you ask us a question. After all, if we ask a question, we are expecting honest feedback and not seeking validation.
9. Observing Out Loud
Speaking of the truth, some autistic people make out-loud observations about our world with mixed results. For us, we’re simply pointing out what we are seeing with our eyes. It’s not meant to be, but some of these observations may be seen as intentionally rude or offensive.
Think of it this way, if a child of any neurotype pointed and said, “That dog has a lot of spots!” when referring to a Dalmatian, it wouldn’t sound offensive.
However, if that same child pointed and said, “That lady has a lot of spots!” when referring to her acne, that would sound very offensive.
The thing is, for many autistic people, there’s no difference in these two sentences. Both are just observations, no offense intended.
As with any type of social etiquette rule, this difference is something we can learn, but the understanding of it doesn’t come automatically to most people on the spectrum.
10. Tone of Voice
Many people on the spectrum have what is considered a monotone (flat) tone of voice or they speak a bit louder than those around them. This flat and loud tone can be mistaken for aggression or disrespect when it is neither. This is just the way the person speaks. Oftentimes, autistic people cannot hear the tone of our own voices and/or don’t realize how it sounds to others.
Personally, I used to have a very flat and monotone voice, but I’ve learned to add inflection and pitch changes as I’ve matured. I’ve also learned to lower the volume, but only after years of practice. I used to overcompensate by speaking too quietly, and this didn’t work, either.
This may be something the autistic person in your life can also learn to do, although not everybody on the spectrum is able to change the tone of their voice, and that’s OK, too.
If you’ve made plans with your autistic loved one, and they don’t show up when you expect them to, or they turn up in another part of the building completely, you may mistake this as lack of caring or attention or even think that the person is messing with you.
The truth is, vagueness can be quite confusing for many autistic people. When making plans with a person on the spectrum, give concrete information.
Instead of, “I’ll meet you at the restaurant downtown about 5ish,” give us more, otherwise we may have questions we’re afraid to ask. For example, “Is 5ish a little before 5 or after 5? Am I meeting him by the door? In the parking lot? In the building?”
These unanswered questions swirling around in our minds can cause us to panic and appear distressed when we finally do meet up, which may lead to even further misunderstandings.
Instead, try this, “I’ll meet you at Sam’s Restaurant on Main Street on Saturday at 5 PM, and I’ll be waiting for you inside at the bar.”
12. Autonomous Initiative
This is a concept I recently wrote about on my Facebook page. Somebody else came up with the phrase, and I expanded on it. Basically, autonomous initiative is the ability to see something that needs to be done and do it without prompting or reminders.
For example, you may wonder why the autistic person in your life doesn’t do the dishes, or put the laundry away, or take out the trash when it obviously needs to be done. The thing is, many of us can’t see that it needs to be done. Seeing those things might not prompt any response at all because it’s just background information to us like the couch or the TV.
It’s very easy to mistake this behavior for purposeful laziness, but it’s not. Autistic people often need to be told very specifically what is expected of them and given reminders either verbally or set on their phone. Once a chore becomes a part of our routine, it usually gets done without prompting.
However, everyone is different. Some may need more help and others may need less.
I want to thank The Aspergain Contributor team for helping me with this one. I couldn’t get past number 5, and I knew there were a LOT more.
Can you think of any misunderstandings to add? What misunderstandings have you experienced? Let us know in the comments.