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Understanding and Supporting Autistic Communication

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

by Ruth Jenks

During a recent webinar, I was discussing Autistic communication. I was explaining that Autistic people can experience burnout because we spend so much of our time communicating in what is essentially our second language. In an exchange between an Autistic person and a neurotypical person the Autistic person typically takes the majority of the steps needed to bridge the communication gap and it is exhausting for us.

One of the attendees asked what a neurotypical person could do to help share the workload more evenly. It was such a good question I wanted to share my thoughts.

If your communication is in real-time, either face to face or online, allow for follow-up

Autistic brains process at a different speed than neurotypical brains. It’s not uncommon for us to think of further points, comments and questions, hours and even days after the initial communication. If we know we can contact you again and continue the conversation it takes some of the pressure off.

Give the option for non-verbal communication

Some Autistic people are also verbally apraxic, some are situationally mute and some find they can express themselves better or use less energy by using other forms of communication. In a face-to-face setting expect some people to need to communicate non-verbally and respond with humility and patience. If the only way to contact you is by using verbal communication you are not accessible to some people. Equally, if you can use other communication forms but don’t respond, delay responding or respond sporadically, you are reducing accessibility.

Be clear and honest in your communication whilst still showing sensitivity to our humanity

Even Autistic adults who mask well can be confused by invisible social rules and expectations. Clear and honest communication can alleviate certain elements of social anxiety that some Autistic people experience. There is a difference between clarity and brutal honesty. Autistic people are NOT devoid of feelings and are particularly sensitive to rejection. “I am really interested in what you are saying but I am aware that we only have 15 minutes left and I wonder if there are any questions you would like me to answer in person?” You can be clear without being harsh.

Autistic people share knowledge as a gift and receive it with enthusiasm

A difference I have noted between Autistic communication and allistic (non-Autistic) communication is our attitude toward knowledge. Autistic people instinctually feel joy around knowledge- both in learning new things and in sharing our knowledge with others. Allistic society appears to view knowledge as power- having knowledge gives you power, and needing to receive knowledge makes you weak. If an Autistic person is sharing knowledge with you they do it as a gift, to share their joy, not as a power play.

This leads to my last point - for the most part...

Take our communication at face value and accept us as we are

Where you may expect to read between the lines when communicating we are very unlikely to be inferring a hidden message - believe our words. We may stim, our facial expression and vocal tone (if we’re communicating verbally) may not be what you expect in relation to what we are communicating, our body language may not be what you are used to - ask us for clarification if you need it - but allow us to just be!

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