I recently attended an Autism conference. During a break I started talking to some lovely women from a Government programme who had a stand in the exhibition hall. They asked if I wanted a bag of goodies. Conscious of the weight limit on QANTAS and the size of my suitcase i said ‘No thanks. I’ve got enough crap.’ I immediately realised that I probably sounded quite rude and apologised. The women thought it amusing rather than offensive and once I discovered what was in their bag of goodies I took one. Had this not been a conference around Autism where attendees were mostly quite aware of communication differences, my comment could have caused a lot of problems. The important thing to be aware of here is that, although I sounded very rude, in fact that was not my intent.
These issues come up all the time for Autistic people. I had an Aspie friend say in conversation the other day ‘I have a genius IQ’. Once again, many people might have taken this comment as extreme arrogance but actually it was meant as a statement of fact, like having blonde hair or green eyes – a gift of nature that my friend had inherited through no effort on his part.
The reason these misunderstandings occur is usually a differences in communication styles. Non-Autistic people and Autistic people communicate in vastly different ways. The non-Autistic style is all about meaning and nuance. They communicate using more elements than we do – tone of voice, eye contact, hand gestures, body language, layers of meaning within words and other ‘hidden curriculum’ sorts of things, Autistic folks on the other hand, tend to use a more direct communication style. We communicate facts, knowledge an information. We are honest and communicate on one level. Things like sarcasm, manipulation and multiple meanings are often lost on us. There is nothing wrong with either of these styles, they are just different.
The issues seem to arise when one group interprets the other as if they were using the same style. So a non-Autistic person thinks than an Autist is communicating in a neurotypical way when they are not. This can give rise to accusations of arrogance, rudeness, stupidity and the like. Most Autistic people hate to be considered rude or arrogant, I have met only a handful of Autistic people in my life who are deliberately unpleasant. Sadly, due to these communication differences, we are often thought to be unpleasant when we are not. It is quite common to find an Autistic person agonising over some miscommunication or misunderstanding that has left them being judged or blamed. The impacts of these sorts of misinterpretations can be wide-reaching and affect a person’s career prospects, friendships, intimate relationships, family life and many other domains.
What needs to happen is for the world to gain a little more understanding about the differences. I often liken it to different operating systems on a computer. The Windows machine if more common. Most people have them and know how they work. The Mac is less popular and a smaller percentage of people have a Mac. The operating systems are certainly different and if you expect a Mac to behave like a PC you will be disappointed but both systems are valid and have their uses. Likewise, Autistic communication is not wrong or deficient, just different. We need to boost understanding of the differences or people like me and all my Auttsic friends and colleagues will have people thinking we are horrible when in fact we are not.
I’ll finish with one thought. I am a very kind and respectful person. The idea of upsetting or offending anyone fills me with horror. I want my impact on the world to be positive. I want to help people and make their lives better. I am respectful and inclusive to a fault. The idea of hurting anyone’s feelings appalls me. So how do you suppose I feel when through no fault of my own I say something which is deemed offensive or rude simply because I communicate differently? Well if you imagine that, multiply it by the one in 100 people having a similar experience due to Autism. It might go some way to explaining why Autistic people can be overly apologetic and socially anxious. And if someone says something you think is rude or arrogant and they are on the spectrum, hold that affronted anger at their words and consider ‘is this person being rude or do they just communicate a bit differently from me?’