If you visit the DSM 5 or the ICD 10 diagnostician criteria for Autism, probably the first thing which you will see is something about Autism being a deficit in social skills and communication. Many people think Autistics are poor communicators – well, it is in the diagnostic criteria so that isn’t particularly surprising. I struggle with all sorts of communication methods: body language, eye contact, tone of voice, flirting, manipulation, sarcasm, and some idioms confuse me completely. The only communication which I can rely on in life (at least when communicating with those rather baffling non-Austic people) is my own – the words I say, the words I write. I am terrible at communicating in the ‘traditional;’ neurotypical way. I don’t know what my face is doing to the point that people have thought I was a creepy stalker for staring at them, while in fact I was thinking about something and they were in my line of sight. I was unaware that they were even there! This sort of thing has always been picked up on, particularly by mental health clinicians and Autism professionals.
For me the notion that Autistic people are poor communicators is rather fraught. It also relates to some concepts around empathy.
One thing I have observed is that Autistic people are actually very good at communicating with one another and having empathy for one another. This suggests to me that we are actually more of a different ‘culture’ – complete with our own communication language and empathy and emotional language. When the DSM 5 talks about deficits in social communication, I think it refers to deficits in social communication with neurotypical people. I find that when a bunch of Autistic people get together, there is a lot of mutually understood communication and empathy going on.
Conversely, if Autistics are a separate culture, then so are non-Autistic people. So while the Autistic individual struggles to communicate with the non-autistic, so the non-Autistic individual struggles to communicate with the Autistic. The deficit is perhaps not that one style of empathy or communication is ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ – rather that there is a difference. When communicating with a group of Autistic people, a non-autistic person is the one who probably has ‘deficits’ in their communication.
If I moved from Germany to Australia and was learning English, English speakers would say my communication was deficient. Put me in Germany with other German speakers and I would communicate just fine. It’s more a difference than a deficit. If the entire world were made up with Autistic people, I imagine the concept of communication deficits would be redundant.
So what do I do about this? I like to be understood by my audiences and when I speak or write and often my audience is made up of non-Autistic people as well as Autistic ones. I have to somehow work out how to present my information in a way that both groups understand and can relate to. I learned long ago that non-Autistic people and their quirks and nuances confuse me. I can hardly ever work out what neurotypical people’s motivations are, even on television programs or movies. I decided when I was younger that I couldn’t work out what the non-Autistic people meant with all their nuance and subtlety, but I would at least ensure that I could express myself in a way that they could understand . This might at least address issues of being misrepresented and misinterpreted. It has taken me a long time to get to this point but I think now my communication is very ‘NT-friendly.’ I still find being in interactions with Autistic people a lot easier and less confusing but I can usually make myself understood to a fairly high granularity of meaning by my non-Autistic peers.
Some things can get in the way of communication, even after the cultural differences between Autistics and non-Autistics are taken into consideration. One of these is that nasty little thing called ableism and along with it, all its little friends; assumptions, prejudice, paternalism. I was at an event last year at Parliament House in Canberra. It was one of those ‘get dressed up and shake hands with politicians’ sort of things. A non-Autistic colleague and good friend, an Autism advocate friend and I were talking to some high-achieving person in the finance sector. She spoke to me for a bit. After we stopped speaking she said quite loudly to my non-Autistic friend ‘Oh, she is articulate isn’t she?’ I’m not sure what she was expecting of me as a three times published author, career public servant and Masters graduate but I don’t suppose those were the lenses through which she viewed me, an Autistic women.
Another challenge can be when people use communication methods other than speech. There is a long and shameful history of people – and more importantly service providers and clinicians – seeing those who are non-verbal as having a low intellect or intellectual disability. While this is true for some people, a lot of Autistic people who don’t speak all the time are viewed as lacking in intellect and tragically sometimes left out of decision-making and actions which impact on their own life. In fact, lots of Autistic and other people – including me – cannot speak in certain circumstances. When I am very unwell with my mental illness I am often non-verbal for some time or when I do speak it is garbled and non-sensical. I can assure you that almost everyone who sees me in that state treats me like I have some kind of intellectual disability. In fact a large proportion of Autistic people who are non-verbal are highly intelligent. Even so, I have heard stories of clinicians or even family members taking away someone’s communication device as a ‘punishment’. Just think about that for a bit. ‘Jeanette, you are really stressed and having a meltdown from overload, so I will make your behaviour better by removing your only means to work through what you are going through and ask for help.’
So communication is not just as simple as ‘Autistic people have deficits….’ We all speak our own language and neither the Autistic or nn-Autistci is ‘better’ they are just different.