This post got long, too 🙂
Aspies/autistic people are all-too-well-aware of how awkward it can feel to interact with other people, especially allistics (non-autistic people). Sometimes, though we (Aspies) might forget–or underestimate–that for allistics, interacting with an Aspie/autistic people can be challenging, too. Allistics might feel awkward, not knowing what to say to–or “deal with” an Aspie. They may have the vague idea that we can be touchy. Either way, they come to realize that we’re…different.
When someone searches Google for “what to say to someone with Aspergers/autism”, the results are usually dominated by lots of posts about what not to say, but there is significantly less information available about what to say. This could (and likely often does) lead to further awkwardness or uneasiness between the neuro-types. One situation that (at least most of) we (Aspies) don’t want is to further alienate ourselves from others and vice versa.
So, in Part 2 of my attempt to bridge that divide and give appropriate background explanations (Part 1 can be found here), I’ve written a list of phrases/approaches that might be helpful when interacting with an Aspie/autistic person. Please know that these are simply my own opinion, and although they may be music to my soul, they may grate negatively on other Aspies. We’re all different, after all. 🙂
1. (Upon finding out I’m an Aspie) “So that’s why you (are so smart/have such a long memory/are so honest/[insert any positive Aspie trait here])”
When I first realized I was on the autism spectrum after all, I wanted to share that with those closest to me. When I “came out” to one of my longest-time friends, she replied with, “oh my gosh, so that’s why you’re such a genius!” (I had no idea that anybody actually thought that of me, so this was a double warm-fuzzy surprise.) I also had no idea that she had been familiar enough with Asperger’s to be aware of its positive characteristics, so to know that she was enlightened on that level was even more comforting.
2. “How do you handle…[insert situation, emotion, daily task, etc, here]?”
Enlightenment only comes through first asking questions, and then being receptive to answers. Since allistic people can’t perceive life through our lens either, the fact that they’re reaching out to ask is very encouraging. When I first told my partner about my online quiz results and then read him the CDC official diagnostic criteria, I’m pretty sure his life was thrown for a loop, too, having the “bomb” dropped on him that “by the way, Plot Twist! Your wife, who you’ve been with for 17 years, is actually autistic.” Bless his heart (as we say in South Texas), he took it in complete dignified stride. He’s not exactly the most communicative type, but to his credit, he does occasionally ask questions about what I can and can’t do, what I go through, how things work, how I perceive things, etc. When someone asks me about the stress I feel when driving in heavy traffic (a major trigger) or how I learn/absorb information about a subject, or what I actually do when I close my office door all afternoon and descend through the depths of concentration into a trance-like focus, they’re in a position to learn more, and to bridge the gap between the different neuro-types. (Once I actually had my partner come sit next to me for 20 minutes while I worked so that he could observe me firsthand. Immediately, any skepticism about what I actually did all day and what I was actually accomplishing came to a screeching halt and he developed a deep newfound respect for me, my dedication to my work, my passion, my productivity, and my ability to concentrate. It was a neat metamorphosis!)
3. “Tell me more (about…)”
This kind of piggybacks on “How do you handle…”, but it’s more generalized. It’s an excellent approach to take if an Aspie attempts to communicate their challenges, advantages, feelings, thoughts, likes, or dislikes, but in the interest of brevity, they might only give a single-sentence one-liner. Examples include: “I got so irritable when I was interrupted” or “TV commercials drive me up a tree!” or “I can’t stand trying to learn from just Words on a Page” or “that trash has got to go; the smell is pissing me off!” You get the idea. Sometimes, the best response (after doing one’s best to help remove any irritating stimuli, of course) is, “Tell me more”. This gets the Aspie to think and maybe even learn something new about ourselves (if we haven’t already), and just as importantly, it gives us the “OK” to express to you what we’re thinking/feeling. We may feel “set free” (within reason) to explain to you what life may be like through our lens, and we might feel more comfortable and touched just knowing that someone we care about also cares enough about us to learn more. The common result is that we feel listened to, taken seriously, and validated, which are often tragically rare and comforting concepts for us.
4. “What do you mean?”
When Aspies say something, and the other person responds with confusion or some other unpredicted result, we often feel somehow like we’ve missed the target. The bewildered or blank expression on the allistic’s face might provide a clue for us, but not always. We may or may not realize that what we said was misinterpreted, misunderstood, or otherwise not fully received. Instead of a puzzled expression, if an allistic asks us what we meant, we then have an opportunity to clarify or explain further, thus dissolving the communication fog. The worst thing someone can do is receive something we said incorrectly, assume their interpretation is correct, and react based on their misinterpretation, especially if that reaction is negative and sudden. We may be taken completely off-guard, causing a tornado of anger, frustration, shame, depression, and a desire to withdrawal, having gotten the impression that “see? Interacting with people is too much work and often results in failure, so why bother?” Yeah, let’s not go there. If you’re confused or puzzled, come out and say it. Maybe we really did mean what we said, the way we said it…but maybe not.
5. (Just bloody say what you mean already)
For me, I insist on genuine communication for two reasons. The first reason is simple: it makes sense. If you have something to say, especially if it might be helpful, or otherwise needs to be said, why not just say it? When asked a question, why not just answer truthfully? If you have an objection to an activity, tell me you’d rather not do that, or, if you sense that I really want to do it, agree to it, with no strings attached, other than that I agree to do the same for you when you really want to do something. Another example: I don’t think all kids are cute; in fact, I think most kids are kind of ugly. Therefore, when I tell a parent that I think their child is cute, I’m not just saying that to be polite. I’m saying it because I actually mean it. (If I don’t think your kid is cute, or if I think you’re using your child to seek attention/praise from people around you, I’m not going to say anything; I’m just going to go about my business and not feign that I’m impressed.)
The second reason is, an Aspie/autistic’s brain is often going a light-year a minute, in eleventy-billion different directions, about tons of different subjects (or, in tons of directions within the same subject). We might be flashing back to a memory of playing in the forest at age four at the same time we’re zipping lightening speed along the Branched-Chain Amino Acid catabolic biochemical pathway, while constructing a Paleo diet food pyramid in our heads, while trying to visualize what it might be like to retire in Southern Spain in 20-30 years, while wracking our brains trying to remember the artist of an obscure contemporary lounge song, while giving the cat his daily medication and probably forgetting the coffee-chunked chocolate bar sitting on the table that would have otherwise provided a handy snack for this afternoon. (True story; can you tell?)
This means that an Aspie’s brain-train might be touch and go. Thoughts move so fast that we frequently can’t even form complete sentences about them. We have little time or patience for what we perceive to be B.S. B.S. includes saying one thing when the person actually means another. If I ask someone something, and they say, “yeah, sure” but they really mean “no, I’d rather not”, my brain is so entrenched in a few other lines of thought that I might miss the subtle game-playing clues that would have told me this person is just being polite.
A third reason I insist upon straightforward interaction is that interacting with people can be challenging. If an Aspie’s brain topic-cloud is frequently diverse, then being around people just adds to the stimuli, and (that’s just one reason that) we can easily become overwhelmed. If a person tiptoes around a subject but never really gets to the point, that prolongs the interaction, and I probably have a long list of other things to do or subjects that need discussion.
6. (Be specific) (especially about instructions, job training, or directions to a place, etc)
When I’m driving, I’m hyper-vigilant. I’m trying to focus in a 360-degree visual plane, and attempting to analyze all the details and incoming information in that plane. Please, please don’t point in some direction and tell me to “turn there” or “take a left here”. My eyes are on the road–where they belong–and I’m not going to see your finger. I don’t know where “here” is. Is it the stoplight just ahead? Or is it the little driveway-inlet into the strip mall just before that? Specificity is good, and it probably boosts the road-safety odds. It definitely reduces my stress level. If you want me to make a specific turn, it often helps to say, “see that red truck over there? Follow him; turn where he turned.” Or “turn left at the next stoplight.” And if it’s one of those double-left-turn-lanes, tell me whether I’ll need the “left-left” or the “right-left” turn lane. Strangely enough, I’ll understand.
When telling a story involving multiple people, the renegade, excessive use of pronouns without the occasional anchor back to specific detail drives me up a tree. If someone is telling a story about a group of friends, and they use too many “he”s or “she”s, I’m going to get confused–and immediately frustrated–about who they’re actually referring to in the story, and it will likely become plainly visible that I have a low tolerance for frustration. I will probably stop you in the middle of the story and say “which ‘she’? There are about four ‘she’s in this story.” The same goes for switching topics that also involve people; telling me about your night out with a female friend and then abruptly changing to a conversation about a female coworker at the office may throw me off track. I may get irritated and say, “who the hell are you talking about?” Instead, when switching to another ‘she’ in a story, use names.
7. “Does that make sense?”
Checking in with this phrase every so often can be important, for several reasons. First, I might’ve gotten confused when being given a set of instructions, and my attention/focus might have taken a side-trip to try to reconcile the speedbump of confusion; in these situations, I’ve usually missed everything said after that. In these cases, stopping every so often to ensure I’m understanding what’s being said gives me the much-needed opportunity to voice and resolve the confusion, and, once back on track, another chance to absorb the information that I missed.
Saying this also keeps me engaged, especially if it’s not the most interesting topic. Here again, it gives me the opportunity to ask questions or for an alternate explanation.
8. “What are you thinking about?”
This one kind of gives me a warm fuzzy inside. It shows that someone really cares; it shows that they’re interested (as long as they’re also Saying What They Bloody Mean Already, of course). I feel the freedom to express my thoughts, desires, fears, concerns, goals, wishes, or even a rant here and there. Here, again, I feel like I’ll be listened to.
9. (Especially if something’s bothering me) “Do you want to talk?”
This could take on one of two meanings; the first is more of a “what’s wrong?” kind of inquiry, and chances are, if something is bothering me, then yes, I probably do want to talk. I may not realize it. Or, I may realize it, but I might be holding back because I feel I may not be listened to or taken seriously (obviously, those are pretty important to me). The second meaning is more of a literal “do you feel like talking right now?” If nothing’s bothering me, this can still be a helpful question, because sometimes I’m burned-out for the day/week and the last thing I want is to talk. Or maybe I’m quite relaxed, or engaged in a Special Interest activity; in those situations, I often find endless chatter distracting and irritating. So, pre-empting a conversation with the door-opening “do you want to talk?” can be helpful.
10. “You look like something may be bothering you; are you OK?”
This is sort of a combination of the previous two. It’s another tender way of showing me that somebody cares. Although it’s more of a Yes/No question and it’s not quite the same license to unload something that’s bothering me, it could still open the door to a therapeutic conversation.
11. (Especially in times of stress) “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?”
This one also touches my heart. It’s a recognition and validation of needs, especially at my most vulnerable time: stress. Please be aware that I always appreciate the question, although I don’t always know how to answer. I may be so knee-deep in activity, with too many things running through my head to vocalize. There may not be anything I can delegate to someone else, since a lot of my daily activities are highly specialized and our division of labor is clear-cut, because each of us specializes in our own set of activities. But even if there is nothing anyone else can do, the question is still a wonderful gesture.
12. “Do you need some space/time alone?”
I saw this (and several others on this list) on another blog post, and loved it. For the past few years, my partner and I have each had frequent–and separate–weekend business trips. This automatically resulted in some built-in “alone time” for each of us. Although we missed each other, it was nice to have some time to ourselves, and we always had a cheery and talkative reunion upon each return. These days, however, we haven’t had nearly as many such commitments. We sort of have an unspoken need-for-our-own and respect-for-the-other’s “alone time”, an unsaid sense or awareness of these needs. Each of us spends plenty of time outside walking alone while the other stays in, having uncontested say over the remote control. This works well.
13. “Is [insert environmental factor here, such as the TV, radio, lighting, etc] too loud/bright/etc?”
This, too, is an excellent question to ask. Aspies are so used to encountering more stimulus than is comfortable that it may bother us and we may not even realize it. Or, we realize it, and may not feel comfortable saying anything. (This is especially true in the less-common event that we’re at someone else’s house or some other place, over which we don’t have much influence.) If we’ve committed to going somewhere to meet with someone, and we begin to feel sensory-assaulted over time, our desire to leave may be strong, but we may feel a sense of guilt/shame or embarrassment over the idea of breaking the commitment or suggesting a change of plans. We’re generally a pretty self-conscious lot; the last thing we usually want is to openly draw additional attention to that fact. It means the galaxy to us when someone takes the initiative to ask us.
14. “Are you up for….?”
This could pertain to going somewhere, hamburgers for dinner, a road trip on the weekend, a particular movie or game, etc. Suggesting something specific might be helpful here, too. I hesitate to make blanket generalizations here, because when given the choice between Options A or B, an Aspie might really want Option C but choose option A, not realizing that Option C–the one they really wanted–was indeed possible. Sometimes remaining loose and general might be helpful, but one has to be cautious here, too; many Aspies have moments where we “go blank” when asked too broad a question (such as “what do you want to do/eat/etc?”) There are lots of options, but we often don’t know what we would prefer.
One strategy is to start broad, and then make specific suggestions as needed. For example: Partner: “what do you want to do this weekend?” Me (Aspie): “I don’t know.” Partner: “Are you up for lunch at Tea Thyme in Marble Falls on Saturday?” Me: “Sure!”
Another strategy is to start more specific, but leave plenty of flexibility (if applicable) by adding the phrase “…or something like that?”, or even going so far as to clearly state, “I’m open to any Hill Country route.” For example: “Are you up for lunch at Tea Thyme in Marble Falls on Saturday?” Me: “I don’t know….” Partner: “We could also go visit that burger joint in Leakey; or if you don’t want to drive real far, we can visit that little Mexican restaurant that’s always packed on the edge of town.” Me: “Yeah, let’s do the Mexican place. I love the ambient lighting on the patio. Let’s go before the crowds get really thick.”
15. “Would you rather do [A], [B], or something else?”
This would be a nice happy-medium, all-in-one phrase that summarizes the above.
16. “Do you want me to email/print out [those instructions/the flight itinerary/that message/your schedule for next week/etc]?”
For me, the answer is almost always, oh-my-goodness-yes. Many of us struggle with short-term memory issues, auditory processing, and/or following verbal instructions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s not that we’re stupid or slow. The tangle occurs in the difference between the sender’s sending and the receiver’s receiving. For a lot of Aspies, having things in writing (or better yet, a more graphical or pictorial form, if possible/applicable!) makes the information much easier to absorb.
What’s better, hard-copy or email? Well, that depends, both on the situation and the Aspie you ask. Sometimes, email works best, because it’s not a piece of paper that can be lost or buried under a stack of mail. Sometimes, a paper copy works best because we can write on it, fold it, access it offline, etc. Ideally, I usually like to have one of each, depending on the situation; that’s just how I roll.
17. (When the allistic/non-autistic is under stress) “It’s not you; I’m just [stressed-out/drained/etc]”
Aspies/autistics are generally a pretty self-critical and self-analyzing bunch. And contrary to popular belief, we do possess a lot of empathy. This makes for a potential cocktail of inner turmoil, if someone close to us appears unusually distant, cold, preoccupied, bothered by something, or otherwise “off”. We often automatically assume it’s our fault, something we did wrong. Pre-empting the interaction early on by saying, “don’t mind me tonight; my boss pissed me off today” or “I’m concerned about making rent this month” or “it’s not you; traffic was hell and I just need to unwind” or “I’m freaked out about Thursday’s exam” will go a long way toward comforting us. It reassures us that we’re OK and that we didn’t cause any frustration or grief. For significant others, this is especially important, because it shows that our loved one cared enough to say something, and your temporary “off” vibes don’t mean you’re losing your attraction or love for us.
18. “I love you”
Some Aspies occasionally have a tough time saying this, but it doesn’t mean that that most of us don’t love to hear it. This may be too close for comfort for the occasional Aspie, but it’s a safe thing to say for the vast majority of us. Some of us, including myself, have no trouble saying it to someone very close to us, and when we do say it, it’s not fluff; we mean it.
19. “You’re an amazing friend/spouse/parent/etc” (meant sincerely)
Because of our general self-consciousness, positive “self-talk” isn’t usually part of our vocabulary. We frequently compare ourselves to what’s “normal”, analyze ourselves, and often criticize ourselves. We may beat ourselves up, especially after an awkward social situation, meltdown, shutdown, or clumsy moment. Just knowing we’re loved and cared for and that our presence in someone’s life means something important to them goes a long way, lifting our spirits pretty quickly and reinforcing the fact that we’re valid and valued by those we love and care deeply for.
20. (Compliments and positive reinforcement)
If you like what I’m wearing, tell me. For example, “hey, that shirt looks really good on you; the color gives your eyes this neat greenish tinge.” Compliments don’t need to–and shouldn’t–be limited to looks, either. “My wife is the biochemist in the family and she’s the most intelligent and thorough practitioner I’ve ever known.” Or, “you’re the most trustworthy friend. I like knowing where I stand with you.” My father raves to his family about how proud he is that my partner and I started our own business from scratch, and my mother ensured that we were aware of that. That felt awesome, and yes, Aspies have (strong, deep, complex) feelings, too!
If you like something I did, please tell me! Otherwise, I may not realize you liked or appreciated it. If you noticed that I cleaned the kitchen, or you like a piece of music I played or a poem I wrote, or a favor I did, or a phrase I used, please let me know.
Aspies are not Borderline Personality Disorder, attention-seeking egomaniacs that need to be showered with constant praise. In fact, we may take compliments shyly or even self-consciously at first; after all, we’ve often been ridiculed or bullied as children, resulting in an urge to fade into the background. But the truth is that we’re warm, quirky human beings who thrive on the occasional, honest, genuine, meaningfully-said Warm Fuzzy. 🙂