Picture this scenario: Someone with autism sees an approaching neurotypical carrying a giant purse, and says, “Just when I thought things couldn’t get purse!”
First, there’s the misunderstanding: “What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t like me here?” replies the neurotypical.
Second, there’s the attempt to clarify the misunderstanding: “Oh, um, I didn’t mean … I meant … it was supposed to be a pun,” the autistic person offers, awkwardly.
Third, there’s the presentation of the neurotypical’s offended feelings because of the misinterpretation: “Oh yeah, right, you think I make things worse!”
Fourth, the autistic person’s second attempt to clarify: “Nooo … it was your bag …”
And, finally: “Whatever, I’m out of here.”
We often hear about how to recognize a person with autism and how to treat them. But there isn't much out there about where to start when you're not familiar with autism, how to deal with your own discomfort, and what's considered offensive.
Consider this your all-inclusive backstage pass for how neurotypicals can relate to those of us living with autism.
First, let’s start with definitions
Aspie: Someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum.
Autism:a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive behavior, difficulties communicating, and problems establishing and maintaining relationships.
Autism awareness: A movement about spreading awareness and acceptance of people on the autism spectrum.
Neurotypical: A person who doesn’t display atypical thought patterns or behaviors.
Stimming: Self-soothing, repetitive body movements which autistic people do in response to over-stimulation or emotional stress. Common ‘stims’ are rocking back-and-forth motions, hand flapping, and arm and leg rubbing.
1. Be nice
Even if us Aspie’s make you a little bit uncomfortable, a little kindness can go a long way! We might behave in ways that baffle you, but trust me, you behave in ways that baffle us, too.
When people try to assume our mental capacity, it only serves to demonstrate their doubt of our condition. This causes resentment and we feel annoyed because it invalidates us — e.g. “Why can’t you do this now when you could do it yesterday?”
It forces our defense of “I’m autistic.” The differences between autistic and neurotypical minds are huge. Avoid questioning our capability, and instead focus on optimism and reassurance. A compliment or encouraging comment can set up the framework for a lasting friendship.
2. Be patient
We can't always tell you how we feel, because we don't always have words to express our feelings. If you're patient with us, you'll be able to tell what we need more quickly, because you won't be so panicked, anxious, or annoyed about trying to figure out what the problem is.
Patience comes when you realize that the only way to tell how we're feeling is to listen to us very carefully, and watch us for unusual movements at stressful moments. Don’t allow yourself to feel anxious or get upset when we’re experiencing symptoms.
It's better for all parties if you're patient with our communication skills — or lack thereof. That brings me to the next bit …
3. Listen carefully
We process communication solely on word processing and not subtle facial cues, so we might semantically misunderstand the meaning of the words you use, especially homophones. We also get confused by inflection.
For example, we have difficulty with sarcasm. My mom would always say “Thank you,” when we didn't do what she asked. So the one time I actually did clean my room, she responded with “Thanks!” and I replied, “But I cleaned it!”
This is where your listening helps both of us. Because you’ll probably notice the misunderstanding before we do, please clarify what you're trying to say if our responses don't match what you mean. My mom did that, and I learned what sarcasm is and what “Thank you” means.
We also might understand something differently because our emotional audio processing tends to get jumbled a little when we're trying to hear. We're not generally very good at polite conversation or small talk, so getting personal is okay with most of us. We enjoy connection just like everyone else.
4. Pay attention
You might notice if we start stimming. We do this when we’re experiencing an excess of emotion or sensory stimuli. It isn't always bad, and it isn't always good. It just is.
Most people with autism have free floating physical anxiety even when we're happy, and stimming helps keep that under control. If you notice that we're moving around more than usual, go ahead and ask us if we need anything. Another helpful tip would be to turn down lights and any excess noise.
5. Instruct us — but nicely
Are we offending you? Tell us. People with autism may experience avalanche-style misunderstandings. This hinders the formation and maintenance of lasting relationships, and can make for a very lonely life.
For us, cultivating social skills is imperative to bridging the gap of misunderstandings. We aren't born with these skills, and some of us weren't properly educated on social etiquette or coping mechanisms. Not knowing that stuff instinctively makes forming connections more difficult.
When we're processing social cues, we might miss something and accidentally say something that comes off as stupid, mean, or offensive. Without those physical emotional cues to guide our response, we're left with just the words, sometimes making it an awkward experience for a neurotypical.
To demonstrate the difficulties this imposes, try closing your eyes the next time somebody is talking to you. It'll give you an idea of how much we're missing out on. It’s believed that over half of all communication is nonverbal. If you're the neurotypical in the conversation, it's your responsibility to make sure you're clear in your meaning. Letting us know if we’ve offended you will get an apology from us a lot faster than making an offended face at us.
The bottom line
Neurotypical people form conclusions based on subtle emotional cues given by who they're with. If you notice that the person you're talking to isn't doing that, you might be talking to someone with autism.
Practicing these tips in the moment can help you be ready for complicated social situations when you interact with someone who has autism. Help them out and clarify yourself if they seem confused. By being mindful in the moment, you will feel more comfortable communicating with people on the spectrum.
Arianne Garcia wants to live in a world where we all get along. She’s a writer, artist, and autism advocate. She also blogs about living with her autism. Visit her website.