The Symmetry of Communication ‘Deficits’ between Autistic and Non-Autistic People
‘Everyone Knows’ that Autistic people have a ‘deficit’ in social communication. Which would be really useful knowledge if it were not, at best, half the truth. The reality is that non-Autistic people are equally bad, if not worse, at understanding Autistic communication. This framing is a result of the conversation around autism being almost entirely shaped by non-Autistic people. One could easily conclude that the most obvious way to ‘fix’ this ‘problem’ is to change Autistic people’s behaviour. Such an approach is bound to fail. Many of the communication issues lie with non-Autistic people, and are outside the power of Autistics to ‘fix.’
Example 1, Autistic People Unsure How to Read Implied Meaning:
I am sitting at my desk when a colleague passes by, pauses, and says “we’re all going to lunch now.” I thank them for letting me know, and go back to my work.
My colleague likely goes off thinking “why is he always so anti-social,” and I may well be thinking “I wonder if they will ever invite me to join them.”
I presume at this point many of you are objecting “but they just did invite you, why were you so rude about it?” And the answer is as follows. A non-Autistic person might very well ‘read between the lines’ and, with no thought at all, just grab their coat (if they need one) and join in. To an Autistic person, though, there was no invitation issued. If you look back at the words, and take them literally, you will see that this is true.
I can ‘solve’ this by engaging in a fairly heavy-weight mental analysis in which I try to interpret what was meant. I might even get this right a lot of the time. But doing this is exhausting, especially relative to the effort of the other person to simply add “would you like to join us?” And, I know that I could ask “is it ok if I join you?” But this opens up a whole other minefield because many non-Autistics will tell me a polite lie in the hopes that I will realise the answer is “no” rather than be honest with me. So if you respond, “of course, come along” I am left feeling awkward because I don’t know if I am really welcome. As a result, Autistic people will generally wait for an explicit invitation to be issued to them directly before joining in.
Example 2: Non-Autistic People Assuming Meaning is Implied:
On the flip side of this, here’s a scenario which hasn’t happened to me, but has happened to other Autistic people I know. An Autistic employee spots some ways in which their team could be run better. To the Autistic person these improvements are obvious. To their manager the problems are invisible. The Autistic person approaches the manager and offers their suggestions. The manager rejects the suggestions without giving a clear reason for doing so. Since Autistic people care far less about social hierarchies than non-Autistics, the Autistic employee now takes the suggestions to their manager’s manager. In many cases the two non-Autistic people will immediately start “reading between the lines,” interpret what the Autistic person has said and done as pursuing some hidden agenda, and get upset at the Autistic person for trying to undermine the manager.
The Autistic person spotted a way to help the team work better, and offered constructive suggestions. What was heard was “I know better than my manager and I think you should consider replacing him”.
This is because non-Autistic people have to work to hear what was actually said (I suspect that this issue is strongly analogous to the difference between how artists see and how non-artists see). The interpretation of what is said to you is as hard-wired into your brain as the literal interpretation is into ours.
Does it really make any sense to you that this ‘problem’ would be addressed by trying to coach the Autistic person to change their behaviour to avoid annoying everyone in the future? I presume the absurdity of asking your Autistic colleagues (or friends, or children) to figure out how to speak in the indirect manner generally used by non-Autistics is clearly bonkers. Yet that is how most people approach this ‘problem.’ In case it isn’t clear, Autistic people are often very keen observers of what is going on around them, and can often spot ways to streamline processes which can benefit everyone. Sadly, because we often can’t navigate the politics of a business to have these suggestions heard, Autistic people can end up fired or side-lined for genuinely trying to help. Plus businesses miss opportunities to benefit from this Autistic ‘superpower’.
Autistic People Are Blamed For Both Sides Of This Symmetry
In general, any social interaction where non-Autistic people commonly use implied meanings and ‘white lies’ is likely to result in misunderstanding. The half-truth about this being a ‘deficit’ in Autistic people creates a status quo where we are blamed not only for failing to follow your social rules, but we are also blamed for you failing to follow our social rules. For example, in Autistic communication plainly telling someone there is a better way to do something is considered polite and is welcomed. Autistic people get endless coaching in how to try to follow the non-Autistic rules. Non-Autistic people don’t seem to even consider the possibility that we might have rules they should be learning.
Now project all of this onto kids at school, and you will start to see where some of the Autistic community’s resistance to behavioural approaches comes in. The whole premise of behaviourism is that the way non-Autistic people behave and communicate is ‘right’ and the differences exhibited by Autistic people are ‘wrong’ and the solution is to ‘fix’ the Autistic people.
It should also be pointed out that part of the challenge for Autistic people is that non-Autistic people are often not truthful when they tell people what their rules of social interaction are. Lying is bad, we are told, yet we get ridiculed or punished for being ‘too truthful,’ a concept which simply makes no sense to us. We are told that we need to consider other people’s feelings, yet others, in general, pay no attention to our feelings. In fact, they consider it acceptable to ridicule us, or punish us, because that is easier than understanding us.
To Autistic people, non-Autistic people often seem imprecise, dishonest, and obsessed with social status. I like to point out that we wouldn’t have such a long and rich tradition of literature were it not for the fact that most non-Autistic people are not so great at communicating amongst themselves anyway. Imagine how much of Shakespeare wouldn’t exist if signals were never crossed.
And this is why you will find pushback from Autistic people to any approach which does not recognise that many of the challenges we face, and will face, in life, are not things that we can fix without non-Autistics partnering with us to find middle ground. And this is part of why we react so negatively to psychologists, therapists, etc. who derive their practices and beliefs from ideas and theories which are completely divorced from our lived realities.