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On autism and communication skills.

Updated: Jul 16

"I need help with communication skills". This is not an unusual request from autistic clients. It seems we, autistic people, often feel a strong need to fit in with the neurotypical way of communicating. Whilst it is very useful to “speak the language” of the group one exists in, I wonder whether a more sustainable approach would be to consider a healthy compromise. Social interaction in general can be seen as a continuous negotiation…Let’s negotiate well.

A lot of tension and upset can arise from being misunderstood, there is no denying that effective communication is crucial for getting one’s needs met. However, it may mean engaging in energy-sapping small talk or struggling to concoct a socially-acceptable narrative around an otherwise direct statement. Feeling under pressure to do this repeatedly can take away confidence and motivation, resulting in the opposite from what was initially intended.

What is the alternative? Here are a few thoughts on autism and communication skills.

There are rules, norms, expectations, individual perspectives, all of it gets blended together in any given instance and one has to figure out the optimal conduct considering the factors at play. There is undoubtedly a power element too, so you evaluate how much freedom your position in a specific situation grants. This inevitable interpreting process allows for some flexibility between the conversing parties, especially if both are keen on a positive outcome.

Suggestions for negotiating a comfortable exchange: 

  • Consider what the purpose of the specific interaction is  As human beings we all have a set of common needs, poignantly captured by Maslow in the famous pyramid model, known as the hierarchy of needs. Communication is a means of conveying the needs and getting them met. But it seems neurotypical and neurodivergent people have different ways of going about this. What may seem to us, autistics, as pointless chit-chat may serve a valuable purpose of offering our neurotypical acquaintances reassurance and sense of belonging. Once you understand what your counterpart wants at a deeper level, you can choose how to respond to it in a way that is suitable for the situation and least tasking on you.

  • Take time to respond, not react I have borrowed this phrase from somewhere and conveniently forgotten the source. It does ring true, doesn’t it? Letting the raw emotions out or walking away from the interaction altogether could possibly be the least energy-consuming options. There is an allure in their immediacy and effortlessness. But ponder for a moment whether the particular situation is likely to have a tangible impact on your future. If so, it is perhaps worth putting in a bit more effort so as to ensure a positive outcome. 

  • Think how you want the other person to feel Ironically, somebody I did not get on with taught me something valuable–in every interaction, whether written or verbal, firstly think about how you want the other person to feel. Then reverse-engineer your response. Now, the way you convey the response itself could be perfectly harmonious with your way of being. If, for example, you are caught in an endless recollection of a colleague’s day’s trivial events and you realise what they are actually after is validation, how about saying “I know, mate, it’s tough sometimes. But you are a good one and tomorrow will be better”? You acknowledge their underlying need, communicate support and close the conversation to give yourself a much needed respite.

  • If you can, be honest It may be that you have a small circle of people, with whom you can be yourself without any kind of a facade. And, let’s not forget, most people have a public persona of some kind. “Putting a face on” is a common human behaviour, neurodivergent or otherwise. We protect ourselves, sometimes appearing to fit in is a form of self-protection. If, however, you are surrounded by those you don’t need an armour for, then perhaps try to be authentic. As you get more comfortable negotiating a compromise in communication, you may find yourself willing to expand the circle within which you can be your genuine self. As long as your intent towards others is positive and you convey it openly, it is hard for people to get upset with you. 

So in conclusion, I don’t think us autistic people ought to view neurotypical communication skills as the golden standard of engagement. I hope we can reach an understanding and a compromise through genuine positivity and openness towards each other. Autism and communication skills are not mutually exclusive.

And, for the realists, yes, not every social interaction is going to be rosy. If it is a situation one has little control in and benefit from, I would suggest employing a damage-limitation approach and minimising the interaction.

Think you may want some support ? I am a counsellor, supporting autistic adults, and a happily autistic person myself.

A cat watching a dog play with tennis ball
My wonderful creatures, happy in their differences

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