Zoë Blade's notebook

Communication

I only figured out I'm autistic in 2022. I'm still learning. Writing these articles is how I learn things. They're all works in progress, to various extents. No-one can speak for an entire minority group. These are just my personal experiences, things I've found out from talking to my friends, and discussions I've seen on autistic forums. Please don't take me as authoritative. I'm not.

In my experience, autistic people and allistic people are both good at communication. We just speak what essentially are two very different dialects of the same language.

I speak plainly and directly, clearly and to the point. I might throw the odd simile into a story for flavour, but I avoid metaphors and synecdoches, I think for the same reason I find it uncomfortable to lie — after all, you're calling something something else.

I also see everything very analytically, and as valid. I have to consciously work out and remember what's considered taboo. What's plainly obvious to me may seem odd to you, and vice versa, so I can probably sometimes come off as alternately arrogant and obtuse.

These days, I can usually tell when two allistic people agree about something but are talking at crossed purposes, and will point this out to help smooth over their own communication... yet I haven't memorised the full list of what's taboo. So I can appear to be both diplomatic, yet also blunt and rude.[1]

Talking to allistic people is very tiring. As we're the ones in the minority, we're expected to talk to them using their conventions, not ours. So they carry on speaking naturally, while we make a great conscious effort to learn to imitate their style. I never did work out how to speak indirectly, as my various screenplays' "on the nose" dialogue can attest to.

But I make a conscious effort to mimic the tonal and emotional inflections when I speak, intonating the words. Manually modulating my speech style like this makes it harder to concentrate on what I'm saying, which makes it harder to talk, and is emotionally exhausting. It's called masking, and is basically acting, like working in a cusotmer facing job... every day.

If you're allistic, and get frustrated talking to autistic people, bear in mind we're essentially talking a foreign language. We're trying our best. We don't know all the subtle rules. And we're bending over backwards to suppress our natural speech patterns and mimic yours instead, to make you feel comfortable. This is probably one of the reasons it takes us so long to decompress after getting back home, if we even leave the house at all.

Learning how to talk to me on my own terms should be pretty straightforward: I'm direct. Simply say what you mean. I won't be offended, and you needn't be embarrassed. Don't hint at something, I'll just take you literally.

If you point out when I'm wrong, I don't mind. Quite the contrary, I appreciate being nudged towards being right. In my experience, autistic people love correcting each other as this helps us all move together towards becoming correct overall. As a result, in my experience, we hardly ever argue. If we disagree, we can simply work together to find out the most correct answer or most optimal solution. We're reasonably objective and unbiased like that.

In summary, it's time to put to rest the myth that autistic people are bad at communication. In a society where we were the majority, the myth would be the opposite, that allistic people have trouble being direct and always talk in strange, coded messages.

In reality, neither method of communication is better or worse, they just aim for different goals. While allistic people seem to be minimising offence and embarrassment,[1][2][3] autistic people seem to be working together to find out what's right and what's best. It's important for us to remember these differences, and try not to get too frustrated at each other. We're all trying our best.

Quotes

The Double-Empathy problem conclusively demonstrates that the communication breakdowns that Autistic people experience are not one-sided. In other words, it is not the case that autistic people have a communication deficit; rather, it seems to be the case that the more two people diverge in terms of the way they experience the world the less able to understand each other they both become.

Because most people in the world are not Autistic, it seems "obvious" that Autistic people have a communication problem; what's really mind-blowing is the realization that it's not a property of Autism, but rather a property of expectation mismatch between Autistic and non-Autistic communicators.

— Mykola Bilokonsky[4]

When you tell me a story about something bad that happened to you, I will most likely respond by telling you a story of the time something similar happened to me. If you are also Autistic, you will understand that this is me showing you that I understand what you're going through, and can relate to your challenges. But if you're neurotypical, you will likely interpret this as me making the whole thing "about me"; you may assume I'm choosing to decenter you to cater to some narcissistic tendency I have to make everything center on me.

— Mykola Bilokonsky[4]

A more accurate and less biased way of looking at it is that the communication difficulties between autistics and non-autistics run both ways: autistics have trouble understanding and communicating with non-autistics, and non-autistics have trouble understanding and communicating with autistics. This makes perfect sense: of course it's challenging to understand someone whose mind works very differently from one's own.

But because autistics are very much in the minority and hold less power in society, communication difficulties between an autistic and a non-autistic are always attributed to a deficit on the part of an autistic person. One rarely hears it pointed out that a non-autistic person suffers from an impaired ability to understand autistics. As the political scientist Karl Deutsch once noted, power is "the ability not to have to learn."

— Nick Walker, Neuroqueer Heresies, 2021[5]

I married another autist, it's heaven. I always know where I stand, she is direct and forthright in her choices and decision making.

— Samantha Davies, 2021[6]

References

  1. "Have Any of You Ever Argued With Another Person on the Spectrum, Then Thought 'Holy Shit, This Is Why People Hate Arguing With Me'?" tuoder, Reddit
  2. "Have Any of You Ever Argued With Another Person on the Spectrum, Then Thought 'Holy Shit, This Is Why People Hate Arguing With Me'?" tuoder, Reddit
  3. "Just a Little Help" purple_baron, Reddit
  4. "How To Talk About Autism Respectfully" Mykola Bilokonsky
  5. Neuroqueer Heresies Nick Walker, 2021, ISBN 978-1-945955-26-6, p. 89
  6. "Anybody Else's Parents Become the Bloody Sphinx?" Samantha Davies, Reddit

Communication: Body language | Implicature | Pragmatics | Saving face | Scripting | Shavian | Socialisation