Autistic and non-autistic people have differing communication styles in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. It’s not that one style is right and the other is wrong, it’s just different. One of the many commonly-cited differences between autistic and non-autistic communication is that autistic people are generally more black and white with communication where non-autistic people thrive and work within grey area.
Autistic people generally (with a big emphasis on generally because nothing about people can be taken as a 100% full-time law) say what we mean and mean what we say. Non-autistic people have a certain grey-area within their communication style. When an autistic person looks at a rose-bed and says “ooh, hydrangeas are my favorite flower,” that most likely simply literally means that hydrangeas are their favorite flower, and they said that because they were thinking of flowers after looking at the roses. What some non-autistic people may do is try to read a hidden meaning or hidden context into that comment, and interpret it as them actually saying something like “I don’t like your rose garden so I’m pointing out the flaw that it doesn’t have such pretty hydrangeas, and also I think your sense of taste is terrible and I don’t like you.”
Probably an extreme example, but it happens. And holy moly. You’ll hear a lot of autistic people say things like “people frequently get mad at me and I don’t know why,” or “people say I’m being rude when I made a totally benign comment,” and the reason why is a difference in communication styles, especially concerning the subject of communicative grey-area.
After doing lots of research to try and understand myself and the world better, I intellectually understand communicative grey-area and its existence, but like many autistic people, my brain is simply not built to process that sort of social system. I cannot practically work and communicate within grey area. Since this is the case for me and others, here are some ways that non-autistic people can communicate more effectively with autistic people by avoiding grey area. And if you’re autistic, please feel free to share these with the people in your life if it helps you. This blog is first and foremost for your benefit as an autistic person.
Teachers, no matter where you are or what you teach, you will at some point, if you haven’t already, have an autistic student in your class. It’s simply a near statistical certainty (and yes, autistic people often can and do attend classes outside of segregated special-ed environments, if you weren’t already aware). In my experience, teachers frequently leave a lot to context when giving assignments or making lesson plans. It has been helpful for me when teachers have been very specific and black and white when laying out their expectations for both schoolwork and how the classroom is run. Lay out a specific grading rubric for each assignment and include everything that you expect from said assignment, rather than just expecting a student will know your expectations from context (or from an single comment you made in-class). Also, make your expectations for class very clear, and give specific straight-forward instructions.
Of course, each classroom itself is also a social scene. Be on the lookout for a very common form of bullying done to autistic students in which the bullies toe in grey area to attempt to get a “reaction” out of an autistic classmate that causes them to cross the line and get in trouble. This happened a lot to me in the past at school, such as when a classmate would maliciously do something they knew would bother or dysregulate me specifically to try to get a stress/panic response out of me and then play innocent because they didn’t technically break any rules. I only mention this so you know to watch out for it, as I’ve heard multiple autistic people who report these same types of experiences in schools, and they are incredibly frustrating.
There’s a commonly cited statistic that 80% of autistic adults are either unemployed or under-employed, and it’s not because 80% of autistic adults are incapable of working. Many autistic people would be (or are) great at their jobs, if only someone would hire them. I think there are two things that cause this statistic, the first being that the hiring process often involves an interview in which candidates are chosen based more on their typical social skills set rather than their actual competency for doing the job. The second is the fact that every work environment comes with a social scene in which bosses/coworkers probably won’t know how to effectively communicate with an autistic person, which can make some workplaces incredibly taxing and toxic for autistic people. The second reason is what I want to briefly discuss here.
If you’re an employer and you’ve hired autistic people (and you should, because neurodiverse perspectives can only enhance your workforce) you should make your expectations very clear and literal. Perhaps even give specific, written, listed instructions of what’s expected in general or on any given day. Don’t try to rely on context or subtle hints to try and explain what you expect from your employees (this is helpful for everyone, actually). Give honest straightforward feedback. Obviously this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the many things that can be done to support autistic people in a workplace, but it’s a start for avoiding some of the tricky grey area for autistic people to try and manage.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea when interacting with an autistic person/autistic people to be very open and straightforward, and expect the same in return. This is a common part of autistic communication styles. Social “games,” gossip, and passive aggressiveness is not something autistic people will generally be comfortable with or even pick up on. Don’t try to read a gradient into what we’re saying, it’s generally either black or white. Autistic people are less likely than most other people to try and hide hidden messages or meanings in what we say. Don’t think we’re always trying to work inside of grey area like other people do.