Apparently I get communication ‘wrong’ sometimes when interacting with neurotypical people. They tell me I am coming across in a way which is upsetting for them or confusing or a range of other things. However when I think about my intentions from the same conversations I am aware what the other person received was a long way off what I was intending to convey. This always leaves my doubting myself and feeling bad. In fact it shouldn’t. I expressed what I wanted to clearly but between Autistic me and the neurotypical person I was speaking with, the message somehow got lost in translation. I didn’t do anything ‘wrong’ and neither did they. It is just that we communicate differently. Autistic communication tends to not be understood as such. Instead we are viewed as if we were neurotypical people communicating really poorly.
This lack of understanding communication can result in discrimination against Autistic people. Neurodiversity is a relatively new concept. When it comes to communication differences, someone doesn’t only need to be speaking a different language like French or Japanese, they can ‘speak’ the langue of a different type of neurology. Not everyone communicates in the neurotypical ‘language’. In addition to this, every single one of us sees the world through the lens of our own experience. Autistic people do, neurotypical people do – everyone does. This makes it hard for people to see that someone else might be communicating from a different perspective. I find autistics tend to be better at being aware of this than neurotypical people. This is possibly because being a minority in terms of communication we have had to ‘learn’ the language of expressing meaning used by our allistic colleagues and peers.
Our different Autistic ‘language’ has almost always been seen as wrong. The basis of ABA and similar ‘therapies’ for Autistic kids is in this idea that we communicate wrong. Apparently, if we just looked ‘less autistic’ and ‘fitted in better’ our lives would improved. In actual fact these sort of ‘therapies’ are often really harmful and do a lot more to make us doubt and dislike ourselves than offer anything very useful in terms of communication.
Imagine a nation where there is a colonial occupation and the people in that nation are forced to speak the language of the colonial power – English, Spanish etc. I liken this to making Autistic people change their communication in order to be seen as communicating the same way as the others (‘The right way’ apparently.) I have huge issues with this. I’m happy to (figuratively) learn Spanish but it needs to be on my terms not because I’m forced to conform. There is really nothing wrong with my Autistic ‘language’.
Some of the key areas where communication and expression differences happen include:
- Honesty. Autistic people tend to be honest by default. Lying is difficult or impossible for many of us. In terms of communication style this means we tend to be very direct and upfront. Many neurotypical people see this as rudeness or us being needlessly blunt. Conversely many Autistic people dislike the ‘dishonesty’ (e.g. white lies, omissions etc) we see in our allistic peers which for them is just usual communication.
- Manipulation and subterfuge. Autistic people often operate only on one level. There is usually no subterfuge or hidden meaning beneath what we say and do. This is often misinterpret by neurotypical people who do tend to operate on more than one level so assume we do too. Not being aware of and respecting this difference can be really confusing and damage relationships.
- Nonverbal cues. Autistic people are often not focussed on others’ body langue. Many of us don’t really know what it is meant to be conveying. Non-autistic people can also misinterpret our own non-verbal signals. This can impact on things like the perception of empathy. I can’t really tell if somebody is sad unless they are crying, and even then I may miss it. I have a lot of empathy and if I know someone is having a hard time I will be there for them as much as I can but this can get missed leading to accusations that I am uncaring.
- Communication and alexithymia. This is also known as emotion blindness. Many autistics experience this and it can make life very difficult, including around perceived meaning. I sometimes don’t realise how forthright something I say seems until afterwards as I wasn’t aware I felt passionate, or angry or sad etc. When challenged on being too forceful on one occasion I advised I wasn’t and it must have come out wrong but afterwards when I interrogated my memory of the exchange I realised I had been quite upset, I just hadn’t noticed at the time. Imagine trying to explain that to somebody who didn’t understand the differences I was talking about? I think I was seen as being dishonest and making excuses.
It is hard to go through life being misunderstood and judged. It is one of the reasons that I value spending time with my Autistic peers – my tribe if you like. I am acutely aware that I am speaking a different language with non-autistic people but often they just don’t realise it.
This is a key issue for Autistic people navigating the world. There are solutions and I think a lot of these revolve around increased focus on the value of difference and basically applying the concept of ‘different not less’ in interactions between people, Autistic, non-autistic and everyone else!
I would love to support neurotypical people learn to ‘speak Autistic’ more. In fact I think a lot of my work falls into that category.
There are many ways to communicate. Learning the language of another person gives you views into their understanding, their culture and their being,