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Talking Aspie / A.S.

Ideas for more effective communication between neurodiverse and neurotypicals.

The issue: Not everyone thinks the same way you do.

As a matter of course, your personality and thought processes are shaped by a myriad of factors. The issue arises when I hold the belief that you think the same way I do, or vice versa. Two people can look at the same thing, be in the same environment, hear the same words, and perceive two very different realities.

What does any human think when asked which perceived reality is correct, and the immediate and instinctive answer is, “Why; mine, of course!”

Here is the central issue of difficulties in communication between people, magnified when between neurotypicals (NTs) and those on the spectrum (neurodiverse, or NDs). Minds running the ND operating system process information differently, and the assumption that people do/should think like we do causes conflict and frustration; because nobody else ever will. Regardless of operating system, your mind is unique, just as every other mind is different in more ways than we have even begun to understand yet.

How do we avoid, or at least minimise these frustrations and misunderstandings? By thinking about what is being said, and saying things in the most direct and clear way possible. One of the most common frustrations I hear in practice revolves around parents of AS kids not being able to get them to follow basic chores. The most common of these is laundry.

When an AS kid hears, “Don’t leave your clothes all over the floor!”, they hear that they need to chose another surface except for the floor on which to leave clothes. Adding in, “That’s what the hamper is for.” doesn’t help. The AS kid is now trying to figure out how the hamper’s presence will prevent clothes from sticking to the floor.

“As soon as you take your clothes off, put them in the hamper, here, like this.” This is a statement that makes sense to an ND kid. To many neurotypicals, it seems that these examples all say the same thing, but to a mind with an ND operating system, only the last instruction will have a chance of achieving the desired outcome.

This excellent illustration is from a series available on Understanding The Spectrum, and is a recommended resource.

The above illustration points to the issues when describing a spectrum; in some areas, a person on the spectrum might be very typical of their peers, while in others they may be overwhelmed or anxious where their peers perceive no threat or issue.

You have hopefully recognised how your individual mix of thought processes, ideas, motivations, and idiosyncrasies are unique to you, and you alone. This idea leaves room for the understanding that others think differently, even those who seem to consistently be on the same wave-length with us. We like to think others think as we do, but every part of data perception to processing to action or response depends entirely on our perceptions of our past experiences and their applications.

Returning to NT/ND communication; many on the spectrum are thought of as exquisitely diplomatic, blunt, loud, quiet, brash, reserved, confident, anxious, insightful, oblivious, and above all, weird or quirky, depending on who is telling the story (making the judgement).

[Ed. Most of these apply to me, depending on the situation, environment, and those around me.]

This highlights what a spectrum means. Most people will respond differently to similar stimuli depending upon situation, environment, and those with them. The generalised difference is neurotypicals will meter their responses to within a social context without even thinking about it (most of the time), where NDs take their cues from those around them without necessarily understanding the social currents and etiquette of the moment.

Most NDs will “copy and paste” behaviours they’ve used or seen work in other situations without understanding the nuances that can make something in one setting hilarious, but in another setting may be a horrible faux pas. A good example is when an ND youth gets a laugh [social acceptance] with a pun and then becomes an endless supply of puns in an attempt to hold that social niche. Another may be praised for being a fountain of knowledge at one time, but find they now associate worth with recitation of data; becoming the insufferable and boring expert on everything. When someone on the spectrum, especially a younger person, finds social acceptance with a behaviour, they are likely to lock onto that behaviour as their key to acceptance. 

So where does that leave us?

Neurotypicals; when communicating with those on the spectrum, give social clues, be direct, and do your best to be unambiguous, concise, and use positive framing (“remember your keys” instead of, “don’t forget your keys”). Watch for signs of comprehension, and if the point seems to have been missed, rephrase, or ask them what they understand about the subject in question. Use simple and direct instruction, not shaming, negative, sarcastic or ironic statements, to shape behaviour.
     Example; I watched a young boy wipe the icecream from his hand on his shirt. His father said, “Oh good on you. That’s just what a shirt is for.” in an obvious [to him] chastisement for the act. The boy missed any hint of sarcasm or irony and understood he was receiving affirmation. When the next drip fell over his hand, he wiped it on his father’s shirt. His confusion at the resultant paternal anger wasn’t even noticed by the enraged parents, and they stormed off leaving the poor kid standing there and wondering what just happened. Don’t be this family!

Neurodiverse people; Not every thought that goes past your mind needs to be discussed. Before saying something, ask yourself if what you’re about to say is really likely to enhance the conversation around you, or is it a chance for you to show/prove/earn your worth and acceptance (a very ‘spectrum’ concept). Rather than changing topics when with neurotypicals/neurotypical mixed groups, understand you are there because your value has already been established, and to enhance the conversations around you without trying to star.
     NDs often find themselves in roles of entertainer/sage/clown/therapist/kitchen-hand in gatherings, which is the ND personality trying to find an appropriate mask that fits the situation. (This is also the root of much of the social exhaustion/anxiety most NDs feel.) You are in whatever situation is around you because those around you already chose to associate with you; and you don’t have to earn your place all the time.

This last part is for all; explain! If you, as an ND, don’t understand a context, situation, or concept, ask. If you, as a neurotypical, have an ND friend who dropped a clanger, take them aside when appropriate and ask them, “what did you understand was happening when… ?” and listen to their response. Offer a different way of seeing the same situation and offer what could have been a more appropriate interaction. This will help everyone enormously, and help all people celebrate both their differences and similarities.