Connecting with the Autistic Adults in Your Life
Tips for educators, therapists, friends, and loved ones
I’m an adult Autistic person, and I love being Autistic.
Autism has brought a lot of wonderful things into my life. It’s given me the focus and intensity required to become a prolific writer. It’s helped me develop an analytic, critical perspective that can cut through the bullshit of bureaucracy, meaningless social rules, outdated gender norms, and so much more. And Autism has taught me to be strong in the face of judgement and ostracism, allowing me to stand up for what is right and provide a warm embrace to other people who have been excluded for being strange, inappropriate, not enough, “wrong”.
But for all its gifts, Autism also has its share of challenges. Actually, scratch that. It’s not Autism that’s the problem. It’s how other people respond to Autism.
Mainstream, neurotypical society creates loud, bright, unpredictable spaces, then expects Autistic people to navigate them seamlessly, without a wince or a complaint. When an Autistic person struggles, they are typically blamed for being oversensitive, or non-compliant, or simply for not trying enough. Without ever meaning to, allistic (non-Autistic) people lay out numerous Autism-unfriendly expectations for how other people think and act, and routinely express themselves in ways that Autistic people find confounding.
When we aren’t subjected to allistic expectations and norms, many Autistic folks get along just fine. Being Autistic, by itself, can be pretty easy. It’s being Autistic around neurotypical people that is hard.
A couple of days ago, an allistic therapist tweeted at me, asking how she could better serve her Autistic patients. I was so glad she knew to ask. Most mental health providers aren’t taught much about what Autism looks like in adults. Adult educators usually don’t know a thing about the topic. Neither do the friends and loved ones of Autistic adults. There’s a lot of very general information about childhood Autism to be found online, mostly stereotypical stuff best suited for cisgender boys with “masculine” interests, but if you love an Autistic person who differs from that mold, particularly an adult, you’re probably kind of lost.
So, how do you support the Autistic adults around you? How can you make the world a more accessible place for us? How can you be a more accommodating coworker, therapist, lover, or friend? Here are a few tips, inspired by a blend of my own experience, the (limited) research that is available, and countless conversations with my Autistic peers:
Communicate Directly — Even When It’s Uncomfortable
I often find that non-autistic people communicate in indirect, symbolic ways. They often care more about conveying a general feeling than they do expressing the literal truth. A lot of their messaging occurs on a non-verbal or social level, and when you’re Autistic, it’s easy to miss entirely.
Many non-Autistics seem to be especially uncomfortable with negativity. Saying “no” to an idea, telling a person they’ve got the facts wrong, passing judgement on an unethical act — these are really difficult for allistics to express. Instead, they’ll approach the truth from an angle. They’ll use sarcasm, veiled compliments, and small talk to make a point rather than stating it outright. It confuses Autistic people a lot, and makes us feel crazy.
For example, I’ve noticed that when an allistic person doesn’t want to do something, they will often point out an irrelevant flaw with the suggestion instead of just saying “sorry, I’m not interested in that activity”. Or they’ll say “maybe” when they actually mean “no”. They’ll broadcast countless nonverbal messages that mean anything from “please come over here” to “stop doing that” to “please leave me alone to talk with this person”, and then get frustrated when Autistic people can’t read them.
There’s also a frustrating lack of consistency in what an allistic person’s veiled message even is. Sometimes, an allistic person will vent or complain about a stressful situation as a way of indirectly asking for help in handling it. Other times, they’ll vent and complain because they want a supportive ear — and will be offended if somebody tries to offer them advice. It’s very hard to tell the difference.
Most Autistic people try very, very hard to communicate well. Because we’ve been told we’re “weird” all our lives, we work hard to present ourselves and our ideas in comprehensible ways. Because we are often ignored or silenced, we expend a lot of effort trying to be heard and taken seriously. Unfortunately, the allistic people around us fail to put the same level of effort into communicating effectively with us.
Many Autistic people have a hard time detecting sarcasm, and we usually believe people mean exactly what they say. So if you want to express yourself to one of us, don’t dodge the issue. Just say it outright.
“I can’t do that”“Please give me some space”, “I don’t understand what you mean, can you explain it again?”, “I’m tired of talking about this”, and “I would love to do that” are all great examples of clear, direct communication. Just say what you mean. It’s that simple!
Of course, I recognize that for many allistic people, being straightforward isn’t actually simple at all. You’ve been taught all your life to temper rejection with praise, to hide disagreement behind agreeable language. But when you’re communicating with Autistic folks, you’ve got to throw that playbook — and your fears of being “negative” — out the window. As a general rule, we don’t get offended when people tell us “no”.
In fact, clear boundaries and honest rejections can help us feel safe. Most of the time we have to guess frantically at what allistic people mean, so it’s a relief when one just lays out how they’re actually feeling. Also, try not to be offended when we are similarly direct or blunt with you. We’re not trying to be hurtful or barbed. We’re just trying to express our feelings in a way that won’t be misconstrued.
Autistic folks expect people’s actions to be predictable and logical. To most of us, numbers have specific meanings, life has a structure, and things happen for a reason. When allistic people operate in vaguer, more intuitive terms, it can really throw us for a loop.
Here’s a really simple example. If my partner says he’s going to be ready to leave the house in five minutes, I assume he’ll be out the door in exactly five minutes. But often, “in five minutes” means something way more amorphous and vague to him than that. It’s more about a feeling of readiness than it is about something quantifiable. I know this about him — we’ve been together nine years — yet my brain short-circuits with confusion every single time it happens.
Similarly, when an allistic coworker tells me they’ll have a draft ready “by tomorrow”, I assume they have an accurate gauge on how long a task will take, and have set aside that amount of time to get it done. This almost never actually happens. I have found that for most allistic people, “tomorrow” is more aspirational than it is literal. When someone says “this will be done tomorrow” what they often mean is something like, “I’m gonna start working on it sometime this week”.
No human being is completely rational; even Autistic folks aren’t robots. But when we’re surrounded by allistic people who communicate in vague, emotion-based ways, we often end up feeling like confused robots who haven’t been properly programmed to interpret human speech. We thrive on consistency and feel most at ease when we know what to expect, so the more accurate you can be with us, the better.
Not sure how long an activity will take to complete? Give an estimate that allows room for error and setbacks. Want to cancel plans? Just say that you need to cancel, instead of using wishy-washy language about how you “might not be up for it”. Have to deviate from the pre-determined schedule? Let the Autistic person know as soon as you can, so we can prepare for it. Don’t try to soften the blow with euphemistic language — we might miss the message or be confused about why a change is happening.
Be Willing to Go Deep
Autistic people do not live in the shallows. We are obsessive and passionate. Most of us have a variety of rotating special interests, which we consume information about voraciously. We can spend hours joyously hyper-focusing on an activity or creative outlet, so delighted that we forget to eat or drink. We love intellectual debates, pedantic conversations, and getting lost in the weeds. Unfortunately, all too many non-Autistic folks see our deep capacity for engagement as “cringey”, immature, or embarrassing.
I will never understand why someone would choose to only love something in half measures. It’s tragic to me that some people never get to throw themselves into the depths of passion for fear of seeming “weird”. Loving something intensely is a wonderful escape from the stressors of everyday life. It’s a transcendent experience. It helps us develop new skills and knowledge bases, and connects us with other people who share that capacity for depth.
Of course, allistic people are completely capable of going just as deep as Autistic people are. You can decide at any time to abandon your fears of seeming “cringey”, and take the plunge right along with us. You might find you like how it feels to lose yourself to obsession every once in a while.
Want to dive in? It’s really easy. Just ask an Autistic person about a topic that interests them, and really listen, with a genuine ear. Often, allistic people will do this frustrating thing where they’ll bring up an exciting, complex topic, but then quickly lose interest the second an Autistic person really tries to engage with the topic’s depth. It’s not a crime to prefer small talk, but most Autistics want to get more philosophical or analytical than that. Try coming along for the ride. You might learn something!
Autistic people love to share information about the topics that excite us. The process is called “info-dumping”, but it’s really an expression of affection and passion. You don’t have to sit and listen to one of us prattle on about Pokemon forever if you don’t want to, but if you can find common ground with one of us, there’s a lot of potential for connection and creativity.
Passionate Autistic people are the lifeblood of every nerd community, online database, and digital subculture. We pour a ton of energy into these social groups, and help make them into eccentric, comfortable spaces where everyone is welcome. Don’t be afraid to join them and geek out with us — nobody is going to judge you. It’s cool to be earnest. It’s fun to care about things! And the more time you spend with Autistic people, the less self-conscious you’ll feel about whatever freaky or niche interests you might have lurking inside you.
Don’t Expect Our Emotions to Look Like Yours
A few months ago, a lot of well-meaning feminist writers wrote pieces celebrating the fact that climate activist Greta Thunberg doesn’t smile very often. In a world where women are expected to be easygoing and pleasant to look at, it seemed revolutionary for a teenager girl to move through the world with a flat, serious face. Shockingly, most of these essays said little about the fact that Thunberg is an out, proud Autistic young woman.
You cannot separate Thunberg’s steely confidence from her Autism, and you can’t discuss the criticism she faces without acknowledging the ableism at the core of it. Thunberg isn’t just criticized for frowning because she is a young woman. It’s also because her way of emoting and expressing herself is deeply, proudly Autistic, and most people are still very uncomfortable with that.
Autistic emotions are different. We are often “flat-affected” and seem far less expressive and outgoing than our non-Autistic peers. This can leave people with the impression that we have no feelings or internal lives at all. Our neutral, resting expressions can read as angry, blank, or depressed to allistic people. We often get told to “smile!”, or get criticized for seeming unfriendly, but faking the cheerful bubbliness that allistic people desire from us can be downright exhausting.
Paradoxically, many Autistics actually experience emotions very intensely. When we’re happy, we may flap our hands, rock in place, or make gleeful, chirpy noises. When we’re angry we may try to hit ourselves in the head. We can even be sent into a full-blown meltdown state if we become too overwhelmed with grief, sadness, frustration, or excitement. When an emotional overload happens, and we find ourselves crying on the floor or slapping the walls out of sheer rage, people view us as abnormal or scary. And when allistic people are scared of us, the results can be deadly.
Expressing emotions as an Autistic person is a total double-bind. If we try to look calm and behave “normally”, people think we are emotionless automatons. Yet if we express ourselves in the loud, physical, abnormal ways that feel authentic, people think that we’re freaks. Whichever route we choose, we end up being corrected and reprimanded constantly. By the time we’re adults, most of us have been told thousands of times that our emotions are totally inappropriate, so we’ve learned to don an impassive, phony mask instead.
“Masking” Autism is exhausting. A lot of research has shown that the better an Autistic person is at feigning a neurotypical personality, the greater a toll it takes on our mental health. So if you want to be a true and committed ally to the Austitic folks around you, you’ve got to get comfortable with our unique ways of expressing emotion.
If you love an Autistic person, don’t try to guess what they are feeling. Don’t assume that just because their face is flat and serious-seeming that they are angry, or sad, or depressed. Don’t ask us constantly if we are “doing okay” or if “something is wrong” — it can feel like a reprimand to put our mask back on. Don’t tell the Autistic people in your life that their happy flapping or sorrowful bawling is “too much”. Read up on Autistic meltdowns, and come to understand how emotional overloads feel.
Most of all, don’t pressure Autistic people to feign a neurotypical personality. One of the most damaging things you can do to one of us is to judge and stifle our authentic, healthy communication.
Relax the Social Rules
Most social norms are completely arbitrary and have no logical explanation. This confounds the hell out of most Autistic people. Why does wearing a piece of elaborately knotted fabric around your throat signify that you are a professional? Why are some complicated hairstyles considered fancy, yet other, equally elaborate hairstyles are considered workplace-inappropriate? Why do we routinely ask people how they are doing, yet never expect a negative reply?
At best, these pointless rules are an annoyance that neurotypical people learn to ignore. At worst, they are a means of exclusion, making public life inaccessible for anyone who is marginalized. Rules about what counts as ‘professional’ conduct and attire are often racist, sexist, transphobic, and ableist to a massive degree.
One of the greatest gifts of Autism is a keen ability to see through all this arbitrary prejudice. Many of us find it nigh impossible to follow rules that make no sense or are damaging. If a piece of useless fabric is physically uncomfortable, we’re not gonna wear it. If a gender norm is reductive, we’re not going to follow it. If there’s an injustice staring us in the face, we’re going to want to confront it, even if the allistic people around us view doing so as ‘impolite’.
In mainstream, neurotypical society, this amazing gift is instead perceived as a curse. Sitting comfortably and wearing cozy clothing is seen as sloppy or immature. Honesty and authenticity gets us labeled rude. If we don’t provide the socially expected amount of eye contact, people think we’re liars, or even joke that we seem dangerous and scary. We end up being ostracized despite having done no harm at all.
If you want to help Autistic people thrive, you’ve got to loosen the rules. In professional settings, really consider which expectations are important, and which are arbitrary signifiers of status or ability. Does having a dress code impact how business is done in any measurable way? If people are permitted to a little strange, is there any harm done? Do you need every employee to be a talented conversationalist, or is there room in your world for people who are shy, with stuttering voices or gazes that never leave the floor?
Outside of work and school, consider how social norms influence your social perceptions. Are you creeped out when you see a guy rocking in place on the bus? If someone takes a few seconds longer than normal to answer a question, do you respect them less? Do you think it’s wrong or inappropriate for an adult to sleep with a stuffed animal? Do you only choose friends who dress, talk, emote, think, and live as you do? Why?
Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who make you feel a little awkward sometimes. And don’t hesitate to stand up for those among us who come across as unusual, eccentric, or harmlessly awkward. People who behave and think in non-normative ways can challenge you and help you to grow. And being around a variety of types of people can free you to be more authentically, bizarrely yourself, too.
Being Autistic in a neurotypical society means constantly violating the rules of a game that no one taught you how to play, and which you never consented to being a part of. You’re constantly being told, in indirect ways, that your actions, mannerisms, and words are unacceptable. People seem to be constantly misleading you, and yet find your attempts at clearing things up to be rude or suspect. When you do finally figure out the rules of the game, you discover that they are incredibly taxing and emotionally depleting for you to follow. It can be despair-inducing, and deeply isolating.
This can all change in an instant, however, when an allistic person makes the choice to meet us halfway. When people are honest and straightforward with us, we are able to form safe, healthy relationships with strong lines of communication. When we are celebrated for our weirdness, we get to challenge the status quo in important, far-reaching ways. And when we are allowed to express ourselves without fear of reprisal, we get to share our deep capacity for joy with a world that desperately needs it.
Autistic people do not need to be cured — we need to be accommodated. Thankfully, if you’re an allistic ally, accommodation can be easy. Just relax your adherence to social norms, get comfortable with a bit of strangeness, and tell us how you’re feeling. We want to get to know you. We have been reaching out and making overtures all our lives. Make an effort to know us, too.