Autistic Communication: Getting Past Misunderstandings
Autistic communication is a defining symptom of autism spectrum disorders. I’m not speaking diagnostically, I’m speaking blogger-ly as a neurodivergent person who sees themes and patterns. Social engagement and communication are perhaps the most consistently visible symptoms of autism. We experience the world differently so that impacts how we speak and engage with people.
Stereotypes surrounding autistic communication often include assumptions that autistic people are nonverbal, don’t enjoy social settings, and don’t value friendships. Are some autistic people like that? Yes, but so are some neurotypical people. In reality, we just communicate differently.
Nonverbal Vs. Verbal
I don’t want this blog to be some cheery autism blog about how we’re not disabled, we’re just differently-abled and other hyper-positive takes. Obviously, it’s important to spread autism awareness and expand people’s understanding of it. But, I think many with low-support needs who are recently self-diagnosed are losing sight of some realities. Some autistic people will be nonverbal their entire lives. Others are nonverbal until age 5 and then make age-appropriate progress with little support. Other kids will learn to speak only after years of regular speech and occupational therapy.
Some of us are hyperverbal, especially while talking about a special interest or in a social setting. For many of us, it can be more of a pendulum. Sometimes I seem to have an endless stream of babble. Other times it takes every ounce of my energy to get a few words out to respond to somebody. This is not because the words aren’t there or because I don’t care enough to give more of an answer. It’s because there are too many words inside my head.
Too Many Words to Choose From
For many years, misunderstandings around autistic communication led to autistic people being abandoned to institutions. If they were nonverbal, people basically assumed there was nothing behind the eyes and didn’t bother. As the use of assistive technology has grown, many were amazed to learn just how much was actually going on in the minds of those who had been so dismissed.
With so much sensory input and so many tracks running in our brains, it can be hard to pick out what to say verbally. When someone asks me even a basic question, my brain responds by immediately launching at least three tracks of possible answers. I then have to assess which one makes the most sense. Pick out where in the thought train to start my sentence or if I’m supposed to weave them together (and then decide how best to do that so they make sense outside of my head.) And then my brain (You know – the one that has a neurological disorder(s) and loses things in the synapses? Yeah, that brain.) has to convert all that into executive function and the physical things required to speak. All while you’ve been staring at me, wondering why I haven’t responded with what I want to drink.
Speaking Different Languages
I’ll save discussions of language-based learning disabilities or foreign language skills for another post. I do want to talk about how autistic communication can feel like a different language sometimes. We tend to talk at people and struggle with back-and-forth conversations. We may struggle with asking other people questions about themselves. This doesn’t mean we aren’t interested or don’t want to know. Many times, the questions are right there on the tip of my tongue but something just happens in my brain that I can’t get the question out.
Research has found that people with autism struggle with prosody and matching pitch. Prosody is the change in pitch, tempo, rhythm, and loudness used to convey different meanings in speech. For example, “I’m shocked” can convey a variety of meanings based on how it’s delivered. Matching pitch is important for social connection as it shows reciprocity and interest.
These struggles with executive dysfunction, prosody, and matching pitch often lead to difficulties with personal relationships. Our struggle with tone is often misperceived as disinterest or worse, condescending. When we can’t quite match prosody with those we’re attempting to socialize with, we come off as varying levels of intense, weird or self-interested.
Oftentimes, an autistic person will say something blunt and straightforward, and non-autistics will read into it for a passive-aggressive meaning. This is neurotypical nonsense and I wish people would just listen to the actual words we are saying. Neurotypicals do a lot of accusing us of not being able to communicate. That’s annoying because half the time they can’t even say what they actually want to say, so I’m really going to need people to start meeting us halfway here.
Anecdotes of Autistic Communication
I was inspired to write this post because of two recent moments that happened with my husband. We’ve been having an ongoing conversation about how he feels rejected when he pulls me in for a cuddle and I make a disgruntled noise. I had no idea what he was talking about and asked him to start pointing out when I made such noises. This made me more aware of them but still left me confused.
I made the noises all the time, for all different things. Most often related to moving. But I maintain they’re not good or bad noises. As I write, I’m realizing they may just be a vocal stim my brain does while moving for whatever reason. Regardless, they were hurting my husband’s feelings and I wanted to work on it. Then I realized something else.
The other day he teased me for doing it when he pulled me in for a hug. I realized in that moment that I thought I was making a cute “mmm yes I love how you pull me in for affection” kind of noise. It made me wonder how many times in our years-long relationship I thought I was making an affectionate noise, he felt rejected, and we both felt a bit off after the disconnect with no understanding of why.
Another example of the autistic-to-nonautistic signals getting scrambled was an incident involving pickles. The other day I opened a jar of pickles on my first try. This is a rarity and I was pleasantly surprised. Got out a couple of pickles, wondering why my husband looked so bemused. I asked if it was really that surprising I opened the pickle jar myself and he said, “No, I was just laughing to myself that I wish you looked at me the way you looked at that pickle.” This was again, confusing to me because when I had gotten the pickle out, I noticed the end had been torn off with an over-aggressive forking attempt and I felt disappointed by that.
It dawned on me how often what I think I’m emitting is perceived as the opposite of how I feel, especially by non-autistic people.
Communicating Through Autistic Communication Struggles
In times past, before all the therapy, I don’t think either of us would have communicated well enough to connect these dots. We’d have just felt whatever little slight we felt, get carried away with assumptions until things built into a big fight that we weren’t entirely sure what it was about. Now, he takes a step back from assuming malintent or reading too much into my tone (or grumbles) and asks me to clarify. I’m slowly becoming less defensive so he can bring my awareness to things more easily and we can work through it together.
The pickle incident also made it abundantly clear that when autistic people are communicating with non-autistic people, it’s like throwing all the social signals in a box and shaking it around. You’re left with weird fragments of things and pieces that have been warped from their original intent that you’re somehow supposed to piece back together at a pace that meets normal conversation. The best thing we can do for ourselves and each other is to give one another grace.
Tips for Getting Past Miscommunications
First off, don’t assume someone you love means the worst version of what they said. Recognize that you speak slightly different languages and that there will be some misunderstandings and missteps. Use that autistic problem-solving brain to find solutions that help you avoid or work through misunderstandings.
When you already struggle to communicate, it’s easy to feel under attack if the communication you can muster up isn’t effective. Remind yourself that it’s not something wrong with you, just different languages that you need to work through. Rather than letting it be a battle between people, look at it as a problem to solve together. And I know you love solving problems.