By Kim Lew
Avoiding miscommunication on the autism spectrum
As someone on the autistic spectrum, I find people so confusing. They say things that they don’t mean. They do things with their face and body and I am supposed to know what they mean. But I don’t! They smile when they aren’t happy. They make jokes and I don’t know that they are joking! This is definitely going to create opportunities for miscommunication. These misunderstandings do not have to be inevitable. Here are some things that you can do to help me understand you.
Clear communication works best
First, be clear and specific. I like concrete communication. If you are upset about something, say you are upset, what you are upset about, and why you are upset. If you are vague or say the opposite of what you mean, I will simply take your words at face value. I won’t know that I am supposed to interpret your statements to mean something else. Here’s another example. When we’re talking on the phone or even in person and you want to end the conversation, tell me that you need to go. A simple, “Gotta go now, bye” makes it clear. Do not worry that you will come across as rude. I will appreciate your direct communication.
Avoid communicating through body language
Next, I have difficulty understanding facial expressions and body language. If you are trying to communicate something by moving your hands, arms, or body somehow, I will completely miss that. Also, something as simple as a smile can cause problems. I have learned that smiles do not always mean someone is happy. But I cannot figure out all the nuances of smiles. There are happy smiles, sarcastic smiles, angry smiles, and I believe there are many other kinds of smiles, too. However, how do I recognize all these variations so that I can act accordingly? Please, use words.
Say that you’re joking
Additionally, if you are teasing, kidding, or joking around, simply end it with a, “Just kidding,” “Only joking,” or “I’m teasing you.” I am a literal person and will not pick up at subtle distinctions that indicate something should not be taken seriously. But wait, what about regular jokes? Well, you are probably going to have to explain them to me. Most likely they will go zooming over my head. It isn’t that I don’t have a sense of humor. Once you explain the joke, I will laugh along with everyone else.
Here is something challenging. In many instances, I won’t know that I am not understanding you. The conversation will go along smoothly, so I think. Then later, I will find out that I misunderstood everything! How can this be prevented? With clarification. Take the time to say things more than once, but in different ways. If I misunderstood one way, I may notice a difference when you say it another way. Then, I’ll likely say something resembling,
“Wait, I thought you said that…”
Now, you can clarify what you are saying. Miscommunication averted.
I cannot emphasize enough how direct communication will help me understand you. I do not pick up on subtleties. Sarcasm is especially confusing. People will be sarcastic, and I think that they are serious. That leads me to the topic of insults. If you are going to insult me and want me to know that I am being insulted, you are going to have to be direct about it. There are innumerable times that I have found out later, sometimes months or even years later, that someone was insulting me, but I was oblivious. In a way, that is good for me since I will not get upset. It will also appear that I am simply ignoring the insult and taking the high road, thus defeating the insulter’s purpose of belittling me. Yet, it is also bad because I will not know that a relationship has deteriorated or that something I am doing needs to change.
Follow up in writing
Sometimes the best way to ensure everything was understood is through writing. Feel free to follow up a conversation with an email summarizing what was discussed. This is a good idea in a business situation, and I might be the one to do it. But you can take the initiative, too. Even in casual settings this type of follow up is a good idea, particularly when it is important that messages are understood.
Next, let’s not forget the simplest way to clear communication is to ask questions. I am not shy about asking questions. In fact, I am the ultimate question asker. I can get extremely interested in a topic and want to understand everything about it. Consequently, when having a discussion, I am likely to ask questions. This helps me. I don’t want to come across as pestering, so if it gets annoying, let me know. Remember that you too can ask questions. If you want to be sure that I understood something you said, ask me. Just don’t be patronizing about it. Also, simply asking, “Do you understand?” may not be effective. More likely than not, I’ll say, “Yes.” Only what I understood may not be what you thought.
Perhaps this sounds complicated. It is. Communication isn’t easy. Think of all the wars that have started over misunderstandings! Therefore, the most critical factor to helping me understand you is patience. I want to understand you and I am certain that you want to be understood. I will do my best and put forth the effort to understand you. I hope these tips will help you and ease any frustration you have when communicating with me.
Kim Lew is an adult autism and mental health self-advocate. She grew up in Silicon Valley when it was still the Valley of Heart’s Delight. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in Mathematics. Kim was diagnosed in her 40s with Aspergers. Although she has struggled with Major Depression since her early teens, she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 30s. She is an active Special Olympic athlete and as a Global Messenger she often MCs events for them. Kim currently teaches second-graders in an after school program.