The Surprising Truths Autism Can Teach You About Communication
Autistic people are known for bluntness — but is that a bad thing?
It’s strange how the tiniest moments of life get stuck in your head and play on loop. Recently, my memory earworm is about a beverage.
My boyfriend and I had been together for well over a year when it happened, and we went to my parents’ house to hang out with my family. We sat down on the couch like we always did, and a few minutes later, my sister asked, “Aren’t you going to offer him a drink?”
I was flabbergasted. Was I supposed to get him a beverage? Why did I have to get him a drink, but he didn’t have to get me a drink? Hell, why did anyone need a drink? Is there a reason he would be thirsty? I’m sure he would tell me if he was thirsty, and then I’d get him a glass of water. Or did she mean alcohol? I mean, weird, but I could go for a glass of Moscato…
Looking back, I remember going to my friends’ houses as a child. You enter their home, invade their personal space, and you’re immediately offered a beverage. You enter someone else’s house, and now it’s yours, and they have to wait on you. I never thought about it. I never connected the dots.
Let me be blunt with you: etiquette makes no sense. None. Least of all to someone on the spectrum.
I’ve long since realized that there’s nothing wrong with being on the spectrum. The trouble isn’t always the symptoms — it’s living in a world that doesn’t understand them, and has a low tolerance for slip-ups.
Therefore, if we’re going to talk about etiquette, let’s start with language: something that autistic people are surprisingly masters at. Why?
The Words We Say Don’t Mean Anything
The problem with etiquette is that autistic people struggle to understand nuance. Heck, I’m only good with most etiquette because, as a kid, I watched how other people acted and emulated them (a technique known as “masking,” which is especially common in women on the spectrum).
Another thing we struggle with is tact. My boyfriend tried explaining the compliment sandwich to me, and, again, it seems so fake. What if I don’t have anything positive to say? Would the recipient rather I be honest and helpful or kind but unhelpful? And if it’s the latter, why are you asking me for your opinion in the first place?
That’s the thing I’ve never understood: it seems to autistic folks that neurotypical people (people who aren’t classified as neurodiverse) don’t say what they mean. Words that mean something entirely different are used to force the listener to draw an underlying parallel that, for people with autism, is nearly impossible to do — and then, we’re scolded for not understanding.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
- “Be honest” means “be gentle.” Yet, honesty is an important virtue, so if I lie, I’m also wrong.
- “What are you doing?” means, “can I do what you’re doing with you?” If I merely answer the question, I’m seen as rude.
- “How are you?” means, “tell me what notable things have happened in your life since I last saw you, and please don’t include anything sad or negative.” For some reason, addressing mental health as a greeting is the choice question for people who don’t actually care ‘how you’re doing.’
- “How’s it going?” means… I don’t really know what it means. How’s what going? Life? That’s an awfully profound question for someone who’s expecting an answer shorter than 20 seconds’ worth of speaking time.
The Words We Say Should Mean Something
I’m consistently bombarded by reminders that my brain doesn’t work the way it’s “supposed to.” Every day, I struggle to understand what people actually mean when they say something, and frankly, it’s exhausting.
Keep in mind — I love the English language. I love the written and spoken word. Language is an art that allows us to jumble some letters together and somehow, miraculously, express the very depths of our soul. A person’s particular grasp of language is the thumbprint of their essence as a human being.
So why aren’t we using language to our advantage? Why don’t we say what we mean, and mean what we say?
I’m just hypothesizing, but I think the answer may lie in one of three things:
- Honesty is an inherent facet of vulnerability, and therefore, discomfort
- We care more about listening to ourselves than the person on the other side of the conversation
- We find etiquette and appearance more valuable than truth and connection
Now, surprising as this may be up to this point in this piece, but as of late, I’ve become an incurable optimist. I believe wholeheartedly that we all do care about one another, and many of our squabbles as human beings actually stem from our need to be liked (but that’s another article).
Suffice it to say, I don’t think people are bad because they aren’t always clear with their language. Heck, if anything, I think people aren’t clear with their language because they think it’s actually beneficial to them and the people around them. But, as I’m sure we can all agree if we think about it: it’s not. It helps no one.
So, what’s the solution?
The Words We Say Can Mean Something
Clarity can only deepen our relationships, improve our careers, and make life easier. So, how do we achieve clarity?
The two most common traits for clear communication are specificity and simplicity.
In verbal communication, specificity refers to how detailed your question or statement is.
Specificity is how we say what we mean. For example, instead of saying, “I’ll get back to you as soon as possible,” you can say, “I’ll get back to you in fewer than 72 hours.”
That’s specific. It illustrates your expectations more clearly, so the listener understands what you really mean.
If specificity is the way we say what we mean, simplicity is the way in which we deliver that message so it’s understood.
For example, have you ever read one of those ‘classic pieces of literature’ that really boils down to a whole bunch of fluff sandwiched between pretty words? That’s not simple.
The most important part of simplicity is to say things in the most basic way we can. Now, this varies by context. In conversation, we all speak more simply. Why? Because it’s easier to understand.
However, you’ll notice if you read anything I write that I throw the occasional “big word” out there, and there’s a reason for that, too: style and emotion.
“But… that’s not being simple, is it?”
Yes and no. It isn’t being simple in vocabulary terms. However, it serves the same bottom line as simplicity, which centers around understanding. Are you more likely to remember reading an article that bores the heck out of you, or one that acknowledges your intellect and engages your emotions?
Personally, I vote for the latter, but remembering your audience is always important. People that blog tend to also be writers from my experience, so I seem more credible when I play with language in my pieces.
But if I talk to my friends, I don’t use metaphors and similes — I drop a few cuss words and use slang. That’s the vehicle that establishes our relationship (which is to say, we’re dorks who still think fart jokes are funny, #sorrynotsorry).
Ultimately, one thing I know about autistic people is that many of us aren’t afraid of honesty. We’re honest to a fault. And, though I do a lot of dumb stuff, being honest isn’t one of them.
One quote I’ve always taken to heart was this:
Don’t take anything personally.
Remembering not to take things personally makes it easier for all of us to be honest and authentic with each other. And yes, I know, it’s easier said than done.
But as a fat girl with autism, if I can do it, I’m pretty sure you’ve got it in you, too.