There are a number of areas where autistic people interpret or experience things differently to neurotypical people and where we often get told we are doing something ‘wrong’. Our approach to something like non-verbal communication indicates to some that we are in need of some sort of ‘fix.’ I would suggest that no ‘fixing’ is required, just more understanding of and respect for the validity of different perspectives.
This post examines four areas where this issue occurs.
Autistic people often have something called sensory processing disorder. While this is not exclusive to autistic people, it is very common for us. Sensory processing disorder usually means our senses are significantly heightened. Things can be too loud, too glare-y, too smelly and so forth. The impacts can be extreme. A while back I had breakfast with some Disabled community leadership folks and someone ordered an omelette with black truffles. I really don’t like eating mushrooms or fungus. The smell of the truffle was so overwhelming and horrific that I had to move several tables down until the offending smelly things were consumed! Sensory issues have resulted in people selling their home or leaving their job.
There is an additional issue with sensory issues: many people are unaware they exist which makes it hard to get any accommodations or understanding. Your senses are your reality, your truth, how you view the world. So when someone comes along and says they are experiencing sensory input as extreme and unpleasant, this can get ignored or misunderstood.
I think a solution to this one involves people who do not experience sensory issues understanding that others might experience in this area and adjusting their response accordingly. It requires a shift in thinking to understanding that sensory input can be different for each person.
Autistic people generally don’t willingly make eye contact. For many of us eye contact is extremely invasive and unpleasant. Some people feel physical pain when making eye contact.
In many societies eye contact is seen as essential to good communication. This can result in autistic people being forced to make eye contact so as to supposedly ‘improve’ our communication. This is cruel and unneccesary. In fact eye contact isn’t the universal pinnacle of communication anyway. In some societies it is considered disrespectful to make eye contact but try telling that to some ABA* therapist harassing children to do something which goes against everything they know and causes them distress and pain.
The other issue with forcing eye contact is that it simply doesn’t ‘work’ in terms of building effective communication. I tend to look in the general vicinity of someone’s forehead, simply because it is easier than having people assume I’m being somehow rude because I’m not looking at them. Very occasionally I accidentally stray into looking in their eyes. It is like they can see into my soul and I can see into their soul – not pleasant! And actually not very useful in terms of communication. If I make eye contact my entire attention will be filled with the unpleasant sensation and I won’t be able to take in what is bing communicated.
Eye contact is an area where neurotypical experience is privileged a lot of the time. Autistics are seen to be ‘doing it wrong’. Rather than assuming we need to do eye contact ‘properly’ in order to communicate it would be much better if autistic experience was understood and respected and people learned that for some of us, not looking does not equal not listening and that this is OK.
Facial expressions and body language
Autistic people often struggle to understand facial expressions and body language and also things like tone of voice. This does not apply to all of us but it is very common. This is another area where many neurotypical people often seem to assume that everyone understands these things. This means when we miss something – such as someone being sad – that we are viewed as thoughtless and callous. I understand that this may be something which feeds into the myth that autistic people lack empathy.
The meaning of facial expressions and body language can be learned but it is a tricky thing. For example I understand facial expressions in films that I have watched many times over but this doesn’t translate into conversations because it happens too quickly and most people don’t like me staring at them as if they were a movie!
Once again, some ‘therapies’ teach this to autistic children- or at least they try to. I was in a conversation with a former ABA therapist (and yes, it was a very interesting conversation!) who told me how they would ‘teach’ autistic kids facial expressions using emojis but for some reason it wasn’t effective! I explained that the reason not wasn’t effective was probably related to the fact that a cartoon or emoji is very different from an actual human face. Despite that, many autistics don’t really understand emojis. I am one of those people. The five or so emojis that Facebook has for responding to posts are OK and i get the vomit one and the laughing one but aside for that I have no idea what they are meant to represent! Once again this misconception that autistic children can be taught these things using strategies that might be effective for neurotypical children but which demonstrate a total lack of understanding of autistic experience is just not right. These attitudes also feed right into the idea that autistic people are broken, in need of ‘fixing’. unreachable and remote.
In the world there are a bunch of unwritten rules, Neurotypical people often understand these instinctively. I always think it is a magic trick because it is completely alien to me. I know that there are unwritten rules and I can learn most of them once I know they exist but the amount of social faux pas I have had related too misunderstanding unwritten rules is large! People who instinctively ‘get’ unwritten rules often fail to even realise that their ARE these rules. Even if they do they may not realise that autistic people find them baffling. It is like the sensory issues – people tend to believe that their experience is correct and others’ experiments are either a deviation from correct of that they simply don’t exist.
All of these considerations and issues seem to come down to a few things which need to happen.
- Understanding and knowledge of autism and autistic experience
- Respecting difference an knowing that some people have a different experience
- Not privileging neurotypical experience as the ‘right way’ of doing things
- Listening to autistic people.
If this happened I think these issues probably wouldn’t be an issue.
*ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) is a ‘therapy’ for autistic children which focusses on rewards and punishments and has a strong focus on conditioning autistic kids to appear less autistic. ABA is implicated in post-traumatic stress disorder and goes against everything that myself and fellow autistic advocates work towards.