Question: How Does Autistic Communication Work?
Do you have any tips for communicating with an autistic person?
Answer: Use Autistic Communication
Autistic communication is different from allistic communication. When you look at how autistic communication works and meet us on our terms it becomes easier for you to communicate with us and reduces our stress allowing us to communicate more effectively with you.
Autistics are often viewed as “literal” when it comes to interpreting communication and communicating in return. This is a misnomer. More accurately, autistic communication is explicit; we say what mean with no intent to ambiguity and we expect the same in return.
This creates problems for us, especially because everyone relies on implicit communication. For example, I often look angry when I am intensely focused on something, including when I focus on a conversation I am having with another person (I probably look angry as I write this).
If you ask me, “Are you angry with me?” and I say, “I am just focused on this conversation,” I am not lying. I mean that I am simply focused on the conversation, even if I sound angry. Even Wife sometimes asks me if I anything is wrong when I am messaging someone online.
Most people rely on implicit communication and body language. Autistics have poor skills with implicit language, including body language. In the example above I sound angry, my body language is angry, but I am not angry.
Autistic communication requires you to learn how to stop relying on your perception of implicit communication. This is a hard for most people and it can take practice. Work at it and have patience with yourself, especially during conversations that involve intense emotion.
As a general rule, just take what an autistic says at face value and work from there.
A problem that many autistics face with implicit communication is that we either miss the communication or we must have clarification. At best that clarification is given to such a degree that we can guess intended communication. This is often guess-work for us. At worst we guess wrong or we ask for more clarification, more clarification, and so on.
For autistic minors this is often viewed as talking back or somehow being antagonistic to the person communicating with them.
This is where we need patience from you. If there is a string of clarification needed it is because you failed to communicate in a clear and explicit way. Use these moments as learning moments so you can improve your communication.
Ideally, you will reach a point where you stop relying on implicit communication and start relying on explicit communication. This is extremely important.
Let’s look at an example for a minor. If you write a note that says, “Clean rooms,” and stick it to the refrigerator for an autistic child to see then you might run into a lot of problems.
A first possible implied communication is, “clean your room.” A second possible implied communication is “today.” This can also include a third possible implied communication, “when you read this.”
For an autistic minor this causes communication conflict.
Expanding the example, let us assume that the autistic minor knows guests are coming later. Because of implicit communication in the message, the autistic minor might clean the living room and bathroom, failing half of the task in doing so.
If the autistic minor knows which rooms to clean they still may not clean the proper rooms in time because the lack of a time frame. This may happen even if the autistic minor knows when the guests are coming over.
To phrase the note according to autistic communication needs you might write, “Please clean your bedroom and bathroom by 5.00pm. Guests arriving at 6.00pm but may arrive early.”
A similar problem occurs in work environments when managers say something like, “I need you to do the report for me.” As with the note example the solution explicit communication. State the exact report needed, even if it is always the same report, and specify whether the report needs prioritization.
The autistic communication version of this may sound like, “I need you to do the inventory report before working on your other tasks, and I need you to complete it and return it to me by the end of the work day. Prioritize this task even if it takes all day or someone else asks for something else.”
Next, I want to you think about eye contact. Most autistics do not like eye contact (though some don’t mind). If the autistic in question does not like eye contact then please tell them it is okay and that they do not need to make eye contact. If you do not know if they like eye contact you can simply ask them and then tell them the same.
From there, you simply follow their lead. If they look down when they talk and look up when you talk, then do the same in return. Echo their behavior and I promise you they will be far more comfortable.
One of the most important things about eye contact is that often includes a need for the autistic to look at something active or take part in active engagement. Popular examples include fidget toys and games on a smartphone.
This does not mean the autistic is not engaged in the conversation and as long as the autistic engages in the conversation do not worry about what they are otherwise engaged in.
Why is this?
In many cases the activity the autistic is engaging in is a natural coping tool that helps the autistic center their sensory awareness close to themselves. By doing this we exchange All The Things in our sensory environment for one thing; the activity we actively engage in. This allows us to filter and focus on the conversation at hand.
There is a lot to autistic communication; more than I can cover in one answer. What I covered here accounts for most of the issues we face when people ignore autistic communication and expect us to meet them fully on their terms.
It is difficult for us to constantly meet people on their terms with no reciprocity. It stress us, tires us, and often leads to meltdowns or autistic burnout. Reducing our stress loud by using autistic communication yourself is not only a blessing for us, but it shows that you are actively interested and engaged in our personal wellbeing and mental health.
I cannot cover everything involved in autistic communication in a single ask. That said, what I covered here accounts for the overwhelming majority of the difficulties we face and how you can meet us on our terms. It isn’t 100% on our terms, but anything over 50% is what we need from society. For more information you can view the tags #AutisticComminication, #ExplicitCommunication, and #ImplicitCommunication on Candidly Autistic and watch the same tags on Sparrows and Penguins for future #AutismQA answers about autistic communication.
Thank you for this question. Please feel free to share it with other people.
NOTE: This advice is given with the assumption that autistic in question is verbal or semi-verbal, including speaking, signing, texting, messaging, text to speech, AAC, communication cards, and any other means of communication.
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