Autism and Communication

A lot of an autistic person’s anxiety and trauma (often so bad that it is disabling in itself) comes from repeated experiences of communication going horribly wrong due to the different ways autistic people and non-autistic people communicate.

I often use the analogy that autistic people are using a different operating system to neurotypical folk, and that communication between them ends up being like trying to get a Windows computer and an Apple IOS mac to talk to each other. The will is there, but in practice there are loads of issues that pop up because we’re almost speaking different languages: at the very least, we view aspects of language, like body language, implication and sarcasm, very differently. And the onus is placed firmly on the autistic person to make up for this shortfall. We will, after all, be more aware of it, and we know that non-autistic people tend to be pretty oblivious to the need for compromise on this. As such, the autistic person in the conversation shoulders the burden of ‘translation’, which is hard work. It’s exhausting, and things will start to go wrong. Not least because the unwritten rules we’re trying to follow are so opaque and strange.

Non-autistic people seem to be able to communicate with each other on a kind of automatic-mode. We autistics, in comparison, when trying to talk to non-autistics, are very much on manual. We have to think carefully about every word, every sentence, as we know how changeable and hidden the rules we’re having to adapt to are. Nothing comes automatically; everything is hard work. Something is bound to go wrong, and when it does, it is almost always seen as the autistic person’s fault. After all, our communication style is labelled as an ‘issue’ or ‘deficit’, as ‘atypical’ or ‘challenging’. Its pathologised.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a situation where an autistic person has accidentally interrupted a non-autistic person. The non-autistic says “hi, can I help you?’, their voice coated in sarcasm. The autistic person sees this as an invitation and begins to talk.

Now, this isnt an autistic person not knowing what sarcasm is. It’s an autistic person not recognising it in the moment. Two very different things. Now the autistic person will be blamed for not picking up on the implied meaning. They will likely be viewed as ‘weird’ or ‘rude’ because they missed the sarcasm. All responsibility will be shouldered by the autistic person who is *already stressed by following rules they don’t understand*. The sarcastic neurotypical will be blameless. The two communicative operating systems have clashed and the autistic person suffers as a result. And it would not be a one off. This kind of misunderstanding is happening *all the time*. On a bad day, I have definitely had 4 or 5 of these incidents occur, often in quick succession. Multiply that over and over to get a sense of how much blame autistic people are expected to take on.

By the time an autistic person is 25, they will have been blamed for hundreds, if not thousands of miscommunications. These may have resulted in lost friendships, bullying, lost opportunities, arguments, fights…

They’re traumatised. And a lot of this comes down to ignorance. The neurotypicals are blissfully unaware that there is a problem. They just carry on as always. If educated, then things can change. If educated on the basics that they are sharing a world, a school, a home, a workplace with people with a significantly different communication style, then maybe they can start shouldering the burden of compromise.

Maybe then they will work as hard as the autistic person does to make sure the communication works and meets in the middle. Maybe then the colldctivd autistic trauma will begin to lessen. Maybe

2 thoughts on “Autism and Communication

  1. Well said.

    If you want evidence try this from Dr Catherine Cromptom of the University of Edinburgh.

    A diffusion chain (previously known by the non-PC Chinese whispers) were used by 3 groups, 1) All autistic 2) non autistic 3) mixed. The results from groups 1 and 2 were equally accurate whilst the mixed group were significantly less accurate and less clear.

    Simple version:

    Full version:

    Thought you might like to see the evidence to back up what you said (although with three groups of N = 21 more research is needed).

  2. Loving your posts here Pete, and learning more and more around some of the nuances I thought I already understood. Thank you!

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