I have been doing a fair bit of reading about autism and connecting with a great bunch of people on Twitter. For anyone wanting to meet more autistic folk and strike up a dialogue or get your questions answered I would strongly recommend searching via hashtags such as #autism #actuallyautistic #sheCantBeAutistic and so on to join the conversation.

This dialogue has sparked a lot of questions in my own mind. An issue that comes up time and again from various perspectives is that of missed communication opportunities, missed cues and misunderstandings between autistic people and others. (As a side note, this relates mainly to verbal spoken communication, and I appreciate that this is therefore only relevant to a certain section of the autistic community.)

It occurred to me that some typical aspects of autistic-style communication include bluntness, honesty, finding smalltalk unhelpful, and a need to include the correct details to enhance accuracy and understanding. It could be argued that strengths of this style are that it is direct, transparent, and fact-rich.

With the exception of a common tendency to talk at length rather than to be concise, this seems like a clear and valid communication path, which echoes positive values traditionally championed in areas such as science and journalism. It is in line with the values we are generally taught as children (social norms), which say that the right thing to do is to speak up, and to speak the truth.

Is “normal” communication dysfunctional?

And yet in practice there are other things going on in neurotypical conversation that are more complex, nuanced and (often contradicting supposed social norms) acceptable from a social point of view. Things such as: saying something in a roundabout way that omits the core point; saying one thing and meaning another; and having facial cues or body language that hints there is something different actually being expressed than the message in the words spoken. From a viewpoint of inclusion and of clear, unambiguous communication, all of these behaviours could be argued as counterproductive and confusing.

From my personal perspective this style of communication can often be summed up as “lying.” This is extremely frustrating, because having been taught the norms (rules of social engagement) as a child and attempted to follow them, the outcome is not that I win at life and at communication, but that people and situations can seem unnecessarily complicated, and, to be honest, sometimes unfair.

And so I tweeted:

Nicole Radziwill from James Madison University in Charlottesville, VA responded to my tweet and since she has knowledge of building and validating surveys has started to compile a list of queries from autistic people about what they view as problematic neurotypical behaviour in a Google Document. You can view it and add your own questions here.
I just want to be clear that this is not simply meant to be a dig at non-autistics. I have spent two decades in communication-related work, listening to people and having conversations with them, trying to connect and understand. Concise communication is an art, and has value.
There is plenty of research about autism and rather oddly-worded questionnaires and scales designed to highlight social shortcomings. If we are going to think about the strengths of an autistic worldview and also improve communication and understanding between autistics and neurotypicals, it is worthwhile to also look at the shortcomings of neurotypical approaches and attitudes and show where they may be less than effective.
Related ideas
Sarah Hendrickx pointed out this similar list on how to diagnose “NT Syndrome” from a few years ago, and for the academically-inclined Damian Milton has published a very interesting paper that delves into the epistemological aspects of autism expertise and whether we can ever fully inhabit the social world of NTs, or vice versa.
Once again, if you’d like to take a look or contribute, you can view the Google Doc and add your own questions here.

5 thoughts on “Dysfunctional Neurotypical Communication?

  1. I’ve just read a module on communication for some work training. It was funny to think that I’d already learned it all at an intellectual level years back. And realising that I consciously practice all the points every day. When I then thought about all my co-workers I realised that while they instinctively follow some of the “rules” they are shockingly bad at others. Maybe because they’d never had to think about them. I’m sad that everyone at isn’t doing the course so that they have more appreciation for the conscious adjusting I’m continually making.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well expressed. I get so frustrated sometimes with offline talking to/with neurotypicals.
    I face to face is the worst; i don’t see facial expressions, have so bad case of prosopagnosia i’ve not recognize myself in tv… so missing most of body language as well. What makes it worse is i tend to compensate that by not using facial expressions, which often seems to annoy sighted neurotypicals.
    I used to hate talking on phone, then i read that lots of people dislike tslking on the phone because, get this: they don’t see the other person’s facial expressions or bosy language. Muahaha… as a person who has always had to try to get as much information from people’s voice as possible, i kind of like that. I can hear the person, and will make my guesses on their use of voice, while enjoying the other person being nervous because they don’t see me. :p
    I’ve noticed in the padt few years I’ve started using the “tone of thing” more when speaking. To express that i feel comfortable or curious etc, using voice. I’ve never really noticed it before, excoet that some people always sound agry etc so with some people it’s difficult to read them from voice.
    Lying and rounding up details still annoys me, and sometimes it feels weird trying to dance around the NTs not-information-exchange type of talk. Small doses seem to work, but it kind of often feels like ovserving an other species when i hear some of their smalltalk…

    Liked by 1 person

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