Perhaps one of the most commonly recognized characteristics of autism is difficulty with communication — at least the way neurotypical people communicate. Oftentimes, struggling with neurotypical language development is what alerts parents to seek an autism evaluation for their child. Even as adults, many autistic people struggle with communication when interacting with neurotypical individuals.
Many misunderstandings can happen when, as neurotypicals, we expect or assume verbal autistics can understand us using the same patterns of communication we are used to. Maxine Share, who is on the autism spectrum and also works as an autism consultant, told The Mighty that, “regardless of verbal ability or intelligence, autism, at its core, is a communication difference.” It is important to note that expressing language can be a challenge, whether someone is a verbal or nonverbal person.
“When we are anxious or unprepared, our communication differences stand out, leaving us out of sync with social expectations, misunderstanding intentions, instructions and expectation, and literally lost for words,” Share added. She explained the result often leads to autistic people being shamed for the gap in understanding.
Related: Why I Am Glad I Have Autism
It shouldn’t be on autistic people to close the communication gap. To truly honor neurodiversity, neurotypical people must take steps to understand how their autistic friends, peers and children communicate best and learn to think outside of the narrow limits of a neurotypical view of communication. A conversation, after all, is a joint effort.
To gain additional insight, we reached out to our Mighty community of autistic individuals and asked them to share what they want people to understand about their communication differences.
These were their responses:
1. New Situations Make Communication a Challenge
For many people, talking with your best friend is a lot easier than having a conversation with someone you just met. This is definitely true for many people on the spectrum. A lot of neurotypical people may have never spoken with an autistic person before, so it’s more likely there will be communication difficulties at first. It may just take some time to adjust — for both parties.
As a person with Aspergers syndrome, I find it a challenge talking to new people one-on-one and can hesitate, be wary and stammer. For example, I am used to having the same support workers and can happily speak to them but make no eye contact, but if a new carer is brought in it takes a while to adjust and I can be wary and unsure, not talking much — change to routine is something I dislike. I communicate better with those I know and close family. On the phone I find it hard to talk to people and can get upset as people get impatient when I hesitate. — Sarah B.
2. Don’t Assume Abstract or Hidden Meanings
According to autistic people in The Mighty’s community, you don’t need to do gymnastics looking for hidden meanings or abstract thoughts when you’re in conversation with someone on the spectrum. Make sure you hear everything the person has to say before jumping into the conversation and keep everything concrete. And don’t get offended if a message comes out very direct.
I very rarely have a hidden meaning behind what I’m saying, if ever. It’s better to not read too much into what I’m saying. — Emmie W.
It is hard for guys with autism to think on the abstract, please take your time and listen to what the whole idea of the message is before thinking that you already know what they are trying to tell you. You kind of have to decipher the message. — Mario B.
3. Be Specific About What You’re Saying
While it might seem simpler to use a shorthand phrase to convey meaning, it’s often best to be specific with what you say. This could mean making sure to provide all the relevant details, such as what time to meet, when, where and what time an event will end. Don’t be vague — be concrete and literal. If you’re not sure you were direct enough, ask if there’s anything you can clarify and make sure to leave space for thinking time.
Clarify everything. For example, ‘We are going to mall today’ does not have enough information, you should add exact details of when, how, with how many people, how long it will last etc. And please don’t ask open ended questions. If we talk too much about our interest, you can kindly say to stop, but please don’t roll your eyes or make jokes about our interests. — tesla
I have difficulty understanding vague directions. Please be precise, specific, and direct when talking to me. And please be patient with me. Often times, I don’t understand something the first time around, and will need a little time to ‘translate’ the information so that it makes sense to me. — lemonpoppyseed99
4. Talking About Feelings Isn’t Easy
Emotions are hard. While a lot of people have trouble explaining how they’re feeling, this is magnified for many people on the spectrum. Feelings and emotions are usually vague or abstract concepts, so translating that into words isn’t intuitive for many autistic people who prefer direct, concrete forms of communication. (And just because feelings are hard to talk about, it doesn’t mean autistic people don’t have feelings or empathy.)
Just because I’m verbal does not mean I can explain my feelings. I do not understand why I am different but I know I am. Inclusion is my right but not necessarily something I am able to easily do. — Toryann
5. Respect Nonverbal Communication, Too
There are many ways to communicate, and words are only a small portion of the equation. The exact numbers vary, but up to 80 or 90% of all communication is nonverbal, whether someone is considered verbal or nonverbal. Accordingly, pay attention to nonverbal forms of communication, which could include everything from tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures. This goes both ways — autistic people use these clues to help understand meaning too.
People need to understand that just because someone with autism isn’t speaking words doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating. Communication isn’t only verbal, it’s also nonverbal. It doesn’t mean they don’t understand you. — Samantha B.
6. Eye Contact Isn’t Everything
Holding eye contact is taught in almost every public speaking class, but it might just be overrated. Sustained eye contact with someone, especially someone new, is very difficult. So just because someone isn’t making eye contact does not mean they aren’t listening or they don’t care. Dropping the expectation for eye contact is a simple thing that can make communication more comfortable.
Just because I’m not making eye contact doesn’t mean I’m not listening. — The Bid
7. Be Patient When Communicating
Getting a message across as fast as possible is useless if the other person doesn’t understand what you are trying to convey. Be patient. People on the spectrum may need a few extra quiet moments to process what you said, especially if communicating in a setting that isn’t ideal, like in a large group or on the phone. Value truly sharing or receiving the message, even if it takes a little longer or looks different than what you’re used to.
Please understand that I’m often very nervous. So be patient. — Alyona
What I need is for people to take long enough to give me a chance to process their comments and react. It is very hard for me to participate in group conversations with people talking over each other, so I don’t think I come across well in those situations. As a grade school teacher observed, I am great with one-on-one interactions but less good at getting my point across in a group. It helps if there is relative quiet and few, if any, interruptions. The kind of parties I like are ones where you can have real conversations with one or a few people. I am a good communicator. I communicate best in writing. If you take the time to get to know me you will get to know a wonderful person. — Lindsey H.
8. Talking Can Be Hard Work
Communicating in a neurotypical world can be exhausting for autistic people, so respect if your conversation partner is overwhelmed or just flooded and can’t speak for a bit. You can honor this by being patient, using direct language with details, leaving process time in the conversation and understanding that breaks and silence have a place at the table too.
Please understand that sometimes I shut down… just draw a blank. If I don’t answer a question or continue to contribute to the conversation it’s because I, temporarily, cannot. — Phyllis P.
Speaking is hard work. Hyperverbal autistic persons might mask that, but it is still hard work. — Delphine D.
9. Meet Autistic People Where They Are
One of the best ways to conceptualize the communication differences between people on the spectrum and neurotypical people is that autistic people communicate differently. For this reason, just like in any other setting, it’s important to meet people where they are and get educated on how to be more accommodating to people with neurodiverse communication styles.
Autism is like speaking a different language. We don’t understand things all the time because ‘people’ isn’t our first language. Even when we understand, most of the time it’s exhausting to constantly be speaking in a different language. When our emotions are high, we revert back to our own language. It helps when people try and learn ‘autistic’ so we can sometimes speak our native language with someone. — Eden
The greatest challenge is getting the neurotypicals (NTs) to know there is a challenge in the first place. We (the autistic) know that we’re misreading NTs and missing things they want us to understand. Many NTs assume that they can understand us, using the communication skills that have served them so well communicating with other NTs. Generally speaking, they’re usually wrong. This is where things like the myth of the emotionless or unempathetic autistic come from, people who don’t realize that they don’t understand us. — lostithacan
The challenges go both ways. People with neurotypicalism don’t understand us either. They think they do, but they have challenges in understanding autistic communication. For example, my direct, honest, clear communication will be taken as a personal attack and I will be accused of ‘being mean’ by people who claim they understand autism, yet demonstrate that they don’t by using functioning labels and person first language (both of which most autistic people hate) and by doing this very thing when we point it out to them. Google ‘Double Empathy Problem.’ — Cat B.
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For more on autism and communication, check out these Mighty articles:
- Why Your Verbal Autistic Child Sometimes Cannot Speak
- I’m Not What People Imagine When They Hear ‘Autism’
- New Study Agrees Harmful Autism ‘Functioning’ Labels Are Harmful
- Why My Autistic Teen Struggles to Chit-Chat