The communication divide between the autistic perspective and the neurotypical** or normal perspective.
If only God, the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us. Robert Burns
There's a common phrase attributed to Churchill that the Americans and the English are two peoples divided by a common language.
It occurred to me,as someone who is autistic, the same phrase could be applied to the difference between neurotypical (NT)** people and autistic people.
(A Neurotypical or NT is an abbreviation of neurologically typical, is a word used in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum.)
Two people can be using the same language but not understanding each other at all.
How do you start to define the differences?
One of the autistic traits in the DSM5 ( The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is that autistic people take things literally.
But what does that mean exactly?
As an autistic person,who is used to being defined and labelled by a majority, what could be said of the normal conversation everyone else has?
Is it social communication? What purpose does it serve?
How should that be defined?
Literal and Emotional
I came up with a word that highlights that difference.
Literal communication - is taking meaning from the words alone.
Autistic people can easily miss intent and meanings as there can often be a hidden meaning or expectation within a conversation.
How can we define that meaning ?
The idea is encapsulated in the word 'ememe'
- Any emotional message implied or inferred (metamessage) contained within communication, which is commonly recognised within a specific group of people or culture.
When communicating, there is the literal meaning and the emotional meaning - the ememe.
Often people are communicating an emotion, to make someone feel good about themselves or for other reasons.
An autistic person does not naturally pick up on this and interprets what is being said, as only that. The meaning is the literal meaning.
Communicating in ememes is so natural in most people in society ,who grow up communicating socially. It is one of many ways emotions are communicated. Body language,facial expressions etc.
Autistic people tend to build their impressions of the world individually.
In order to understand autistic people better. I thought it interesting to view the ememe as a foundation or starting point to understand an essential communication difference.
Take this literally.
In order to know others, you have to know yourself. Yet it seems the majority have neglected to label their own conversation style before defining ours.
Now it’s our turn.
This may be, in part, as the majority grow up socially. The emotions within conversation are communicated naturally and subconsciously. The ememe is an example of the autistic community defining the neurotypical in order to promote further understanding on both sides.
How can you understand us if you don’t understand yourselves?
The idea of the word ememe can be used as a more inclusive foundation to further understanding between the different styles of communication — autistic and neurotypical.
If the majority, or neurotypical, people can label and identify their own form of communication ,which is often at a subconscious level, then perhaps the idea behind the word ememe can help to grow that understanding.
As Robert Burns would no doubt have agreed.
I shall end this with some text from my co-inventor, Margaret Shields, who gives a good general example.
An ememe is an emotion meme which is carried by a commonly known short statement of question. When people communicate with each other, it’s often not just the words they use, but they are also transmitting an emotional message, often a feelgood vibe or they may be trying to manipulate the person’s emotion in some way. For example, when people ask “how are you?” they often aren’t really asking how you are, it is serving a social function, a greeting, a kind of social grooming that transmits a feelgood vibe to the other person, it’s a communication about social status and the relationship between those two people. For us, when we hear this, it is a question asking after our health and we don’t necessarily perceive it’s true, social purpose, so we may answer the question literally and honestly, which may not be what the person was actually after — they were after the feelgood emotion, not the actual answer to the question.
For us, the words are the most important thing that we pay attention to, but for NTs, it’s the emotional message behind the words that is significant. “How are you?” can be an ememe. Another common ememe is “we should meet up sometime”. When a person say this, they are not necessarily wanting to meet up, but are transmitting a feelgood message to the other person that says “I’m a friend” and that’s what they want the other person to understand. When we hear that, it means to us literally that we should meet up, and then we may get frustrated or disillusioned when the person we suppose to be our friend doesn’t actually call us to meet up. Intellectually, we may come to understand that these ememes have a social purpose and shouldn't be taken literally, but we tend not to intuitively communicate in ememes as NTs do, so it is a conscious effort to ‘translate’ them and to understand what the emotion or social purpose of the ememe is. We may learn their social meanings and imitate, but it is still a huge effort for us that makes social interaction exhausting.
This causes misunderstandings in communication. Either we fail to be aware of the emotional or hidden social function of the words or ememe being used, and then, from and NT perspective, we take things too literally, or NTs may assume that our own words are carrying an emotional message that is not intended, and then, from their perspective, we are seen as being rude and un-empathetic, hence giving rise to various stereotypes and myths that we are lacking in empathy or are insensitive to other people’s feelings.
So basically, we have two different communication styles that are neither superior nor inferior to each other; NTs use a more social communication in the form of verbal ememes, symbolic gestures and body language, whose primary goal is to convey information to others about social status and emotional state, whereas we may want to convey similar information, but don’t use these symbolic gestures or ememes or non-verbal communication, we use actual words directly to say how we are feeling and what our desires and thoughts are. The differences is in the way our brain works and how we process information, we are wired to process facts and details and often have difficulty processing the emotional or social information that social communication is designed to transmit.
Thanks for reading and I hope you find the idea of the word ememe useful.
I certainly hope it can be used as a foundation stone, going forward, to foster understanding between different people — either on the spectrum or not.