Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) are considered by many to be a communication issue, causing problems for individuals who have to interpret spoken language, body language and gesture. Much attention has been given to the difficulty that people with ASD experience when doing this. However, is this a challenge for the person with ASD, or should we neurotypicals be learning from this?
We often say what we do not mean. When we say to someone, “So good to see you, how are you?” do we really mean it? What if the person with ASD isn’t particularly pleased to see that person and has no interest in their health?
We smile at people when we want to frown. We mask our displeasure with a smile.
We say, “No, I am sorry that I can’t come out for a drink. I am going to see my granny.” The individual with ASD is very likely just to say, “I don’t want to,” because they don’t.
We say, “Would you like to,” when we mean, “We want you to do this.” We say, “That’s nice, how lovely, thank you,” when we get a present we don’t want or like.
How is a person with ASD to understand what is intended in the messages we give? We have learned how to mask our feelings and intentions by the use of language that covers our true feelings. Many people with ASD don’t do that, but this is not always such a bad thing. We can learn to value their honesty once we realise that the social filters we have learned to operate with aren’t learned by people with ASD.
This can be particularly difficult in school or the workplace, where colleagues with ASD can perform their tasks equally, if not better than us neurotypicals, especially where an eye for detail is needed. However, not understanding the general chitchat and social dishonesty that goes on around them can be distressing, both for them and the people that they communicate with. Training for work just doesn’t cover this form of communication that we so readily use.
Earlier this year I saw the film The Imitation Game, which fictionally portrayed the challenges faced by people working with someone of genius – a person with all-absorbing, narrow interests and with little awareness of the niceties required to be part of a team. The fictionally-portrayed Alan Turing displayed many characteristics that resonated with me. It was evidently difficult for his colleagues, in spite of how much they valued him and his contribution to science. Although the film centred around someone of high intellect, it was a film that really celebrated those who are different and who think and communicate differently.
Together with those who use behaviour as their only means of communication, the frankness and directness of people with ASD can be difficult for us neurotypicals to handle. But perhaps that says more about our social communication than that of our ASD students and colleagues.
Written by Eileen Hopkins, Executive Director UK