We wanted to write an article about not only interactions between autistic individuals and the people around them (of any neurology); but more importantly, how we as autistics deal with these interactions.
Specifically, this article looks at some of the negative aspects of communication, when you are autistic. Sorry to focus on the negative, for a moment – but it warrants confrontation and consideration!
“Other people of all neurologies may find you as an autistic individual to be on a different wavelength; it’s a bitter pill to swallow, when you’re just being yourself…”
Let’s be blunt here – if you are autistic, other people of all neurologies, may find you quirky / on a different wavelength. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’re just being yourself. (Read about the ‘double empathy problem’ below).
Here’s why I think autists can seem on a different wavelength to other individuals: (Read about the author of this blog HERE).
1.First impressions. As detailed further below, autistics can produce looks that are difficult to interpret by neurotypical individuals (NTs), and may have lower vocal prosody. This means others’ first impressions of us can be confused, and we may appear rude, or not interested in making a connection.
2.NTs’ ‘programming’ – described by disability rights advocate Aiyana Bailin as follows: “One of the biggest social difficulties faced by autistic people is neurotypical people’s reluctance to interact with those they perceive as ‘different’.”
3.Our quirks – for example, an autist’s hyper-focussed attention to detail, their focus on justice and punctuality, or a special interest that they seem over-interested in, to others.
4.Our behaviours – eg.: an autist who stims when others see it as being inappropriate set them out as being different or odd. A dis-interest in social chit-chat and conventions seems distant. Our differences in processing mean we may ‘lose’ key words en-route from brain to mouth, or miss a conversation’s meaning.
It’s Not OK of course. It’s not OK for autists to constantly feel belittled, or that as they can’t get their interactions ‘right’ with people, what’s the point of trying? It is not OK for NTs to roll their eyes at their autistic colleagues if they’re pedantic about a certain issue, and it’s not OK to leave the autist out of a workplace lunchtime drinks session, because the autist ‘goes on about’ a special interest longer than their peers may do. But it happens. And it is foolhardy not to acknowledge that these interactions and challenges happen. More than that, as an autist, knowing WHY people are irritated by us helps us understand the process, and feel less of a failure. Communication is a two way street, and there are simply many mixed messages and social communication differences going on at any given time.
(And, it isn’t just peers who make such observations – OUTRAGEOUSLY – a TEACHER in the USA recently awarded an 11-year-old autistic boy the ‘most annoying male’ award, at an Indiana school. Akalis Castejon is non-verbal, and reportedly, it was a special education teacher at Bailly Preparatory Academy who gave the (SUPPOSEDLY) tongue in cheek award.)
Double empathy issues
There’s a wonderful theory addressing empathy problems between autistic and non-autistic people called the ‘double empathy problem’. Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other. This is likely to be exacerbated through differences in language use and comprehension. Dr Damian Milton first started to publish theoretical accounts of this issue in the early 2010s, yet similar ideas can be found in the work of Luke Beardon regarding ‘cross-neurological theory of mind’ and in that of the philosopher Ian Hacking, according to the National Autistic Society.
(More recently, research by Elizabeth Sheppard and team at the University of Nottingham, Brett Heasman at the London School of Economics, and Noah Sasson at the University of Texas at Dallas, have shown that in experimental conditions, non-autistic people struggled to read the emotions of autistic participants, or form negative first impressions of autistic people. Such evidence would suggest that the dominant psychological theories of autism are partial explanations at best. According to the theory of the ‘double empathy problem’, these issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world. This theory would also suggest that those with similar experiences are more likely to form connections and a level of understanding, which has ramifications in regard to autistic people being able to meet one another.)
It has been proposed that a lot of the beliefs we hold about people, and the feelings we have about them, may be made within just a tenth of a second of meeting them; the way we approach conversing with people is almost subconscious.
One study by Princeton psychologists in America studied judgments from facial appearance, focusing on attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness. It concluded that there’s a fraction of a second’s time to make such judgements. BUT, autists have difficulty making appropriate facial expressions at the right times, according to a 2018 study on autistic facial expression, which used analysis of 39 studies. ‘[Autistics] may remain expressionless, or produce looks that are difficult to interpret,’ reported Spectrum News.
Everyone essentially gets a ‘feeling’ about somebody upon meeting (or just observing them), and we choose to converse with them, or we choose to avoid them – this is happening in a split-second. Let’s re-visit the American study on attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness. The autistic individual’s lack of expression is likely to be one reason why, based on first impressions, other individuals may not get a clear impression of whether the autist is likeable.
After the first impression – more reasons why neurotypicals may be confused by autists
Autistics are almost universally used to being treated without respect by some of the people around them (again, this is NOT OK, but it happens).
If for example, as an autistic, you are the organised, scheduling-obsessed type, other people, especially neurotypicals, may sometimes find your hyperfocussed attention to detail and focus on justice and punctuality overwhelming. Their priorities are just different At That Moment In Time.
Conversely, if you’re an autistic who lacks some executive functioning skills, and for example struggles to keep your house as tidy as you would like, or is challenged by punctuality, other people may feel that you lack personal pride, or are too selfish to even get to a venue on time. (They won’t potentially see or understand the challenges you faced getting to the venue at all, or maybe even getting dressed, getting up that morning and stringing a coherent sentence together. They’re also unlikely to consider the downsides of the interaction, and the autistic social hangover you may experience thereafter).
It works both ways – NTs can be annoying too
It works both ways of course – if you are an autistic individual on a fast processing day, planning, scheduling, imagining and ruminating to a fast-paced musical soundtrack in your head, you will probably find the typical (but relatively low, when compared to yourself) processing speed of the neurotypical people around you infuriatingly slow.
(Read our blog on Fast Brain Days directly below..)
And as a general rule, on this Fast Brain day, you may find the incessant need of others to chitchat and pass the time of day over trivial matters an annoying form of Time Stealing; especially if you are feeling sensitive and overwhelmed. It is as if one person’s on slow-motion, and one’s going super-fast – and the ‘slow-mo’ person can seem infuriating, and their reactions and mental connections infuriating. (If the autist is the one on ‘slow-mo’, this can probably seem frustrating too, from others’ points of view.)
Belittled and bullied
Autistic people, like many underrepresented groups, are often marginalised, belittled, ignored and even bullied. And our combined penchant for repetitive processes and our hyperfocus on certain things, which could be described by other people as obsessing about something, means another form of bullying can take place, if our actions seem annoying or irritating.
This bulling is the belittling or disparagement of our feelings and needs. Examples include: ‘Come on, it’s not that important, pull yourself together.’ ‘Stop going on about it, there’s other people in the world with bigger problems…’ etc etc. Belittling or squashing someone’s emotional responses regularly just because behaviourally they don’t fit into the ‘norm’, is an every day occurrence for autists. And it can become bullying, if it is repeated regularly.
Cloud cuckoo land
In an ideal world, and this is something many autism and advocates rightly press for, there would be widespread acceptance of people of all neurologies, as well as ethnicities, abilities and genders – we would all be accepting of each other and our quirks, we would make exceptions, we wouldn’t hold grudges, we wouldn’t make snap judgements, we would ‘let things go’, and the world would be a wonderful place whereby everyone was respectful. NTs wouldn’t be irritated by autists who are just being themselves, and little boys with different neurologies would not get presented with patronising ‘awards’ by the teachers who are there to educate and inspire them!
However, this is not currently the case, and seems unlikely to be the case, even as many individuals are being enlightened about what autism is, and how autistic individuals should be respectfully treated.
A double element of social and communicative difficulties
(A further complication that should be noted regarding communication is that autism runs in families, and autistic individuals are often naturally drawn to other neurodivergent individuals as friends and partners; so there is often a double element of social and communicative difficulties going on between the autist and the other individual, if they are autistic or neurodivergent too! Eg they may be battling their own communication challenges, and their own sense of justice, and being right!)
How can we improve this mis-communication?
It seems like such a long journey to get (as a society) our forms of communication and our understanding of different neurologies right. For example, autists who are panicked, stressed or overwhelmed may show behaviours that are thought to be aggressive, leading to many instances of police involvement for simple matters that could have been prevented with some autism staff training.
So, what to do about this issue of communication, especially if you are an undiagnosed, or a late diagnosed autistic individual? You will almost certainly have spent your life feeling different – many describe it as being like an alien on the wrong planet – and perhaps you will have spent years constantly trying to fit in and appease people, wondering WHY you’re annoying others, and not really knowing why.
(Masking is of course a massive and concerning issue, leading to many mental health issues for autistics, or at the very least, health concerns, because in order to fit in, many autistics camouflage their difficulties, and essentially try to appear more neurotypical.)
Many autistic individuals attest to feeling a widespread sense of failure
A sense of needing validation, or trying to appease people, is second nature to a lot of autistic people; the author of this blog has spent her whole life like this, with a sense of: ‘I don’t like confrontation, I want to please.’ Personally speaking, I generally try to show respect other people, hence I feel a great sense of injustice and hurt when other people don’t respect me back, or take into account my feelings. Often, I know from their response I have annoyed them, but I am not sure how. Literally by not saying a word, or by saying a word, but obviously the wrong one, I have irritated someone, when all I wanted to do was go about my day! This feeling is commonplace, and leads to a widespread sense of failure – many autistic individuals will attest to feeling like this.
A leaning to victimhood
I think what we are feeling in such instances is a failure to be neurotypical, which of course can never be achieved. One of the only ways to deal with this leaning to victimhood (‘Why am I always getting it wrong? Why do my friends and family not understand me? Poor me….’), eg. feeling that one’s feelings are being ignored, is to develop a Sod It attitude. (You can use a stronger word here, at least in your head. Sometimes, the strength of curse word can actually help with the personal strength that’s required!)
Yes (like all humans!), autistic people can be challenging, irritating and annoying, due to general miscommunication and preconceptions between multiple parties; and yes, other people often do not understand our intent; and yes, our quirks and our behaviours can lead to mistreatment. But if people are doing this on a regular basis, whether they be associates, colleagues, friends, family members, partners or whatever, maybe it would be beneficial to take ownership of one’s life and choices, and in the words of Keala Settle, say This Is Me. (‘I’m marching on to the beat I drum; I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me…’ ‘This Is Me’, by Justin Paul / Benj Pasek.)
This Is Me
It’s our nature as autistics to ruminate on things – our neurology needs repetition, and thrives on cycles; therefore, if people have treated us badly, it’s common to ruminate on the situation. This cyclical issue means we can end up constantly using a negative voice about ourselves, and almost substantiating or validating the treatment that we have been given. When in fact, what would really help is to put the matter to bed, move on, accept that people do not necessarily understand or support our autistic selves, and focus on being the best we can be. Being ourselves, with authority; and that Sod It attitude.
Most autistic individuals as they learn more about autism themselves, endeavour to educate those around them about autism. This is partly to make their own lives easier and enlighten their friend or family member, but in general, also to spread the word and educate the wider community about the differences between NTs and autists, simply to provide understanding.
Autistics do matter, we are valid, and we do deserve respect!
That is why so many blogs like this one exist, as autistic advocates strive to help develop further understanding, acceptance and awareness of autism. However, if after this stage of enlightenment, loved ones or friends are still treating you badly as an autist, citing you as being irritating and annoying, or not being supportive of what is important to you, or are being dismissive of your needs as an autist, is it time to break some ties? (Of course, where friends and family are concerned, this is easier said than done, and may require professional help; for example, talking therapies.)
But really, we do deserve better – it is time for autistics to take ownership of our needs and use this Sod It attitude. We do matter, we are valid, and we do deserve respect!
So to conclude, we started this article by proposing that autists can seem quirky to other individuals, due to confused first impressions, neurotypicals’ reluctance to interact with people they perceive as ‘different’, as well as autists’ quirks and behaviours that don’t seem typical, or to ‘fit in’ with the majority.
And we haven’t suggested any ‘tools or tips’ for appearing less quirky; rather proposed that accepting one’s differences and developing a Sod It attitude is sometimes key to moving forward, and being accepting of one’s autistic self.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
Also published on Medium.