Me again! So yesterday I posted about the behaviours that might be considered autistic traits and how you can help accommodate them and help the autistic person. Today’s blog is about social interaction and how that impacts an autistic person.
As yesterday, please remember that within the diagnosis of autism, every single person is unique and may present in a different way.
As far as I can understand and see, social interaction is one of the biggest issues for autistic people. There’s often a belief that autistic people like to be alone, and don’t care whether they have friends, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for many.
Being able to relate to others is considered one of the most important factors when developing an emotionally healthy and meaningful life, so what happens when you find relating really hard?
Loneliness, confusion, isolation, depression, anxiety, self-loathing, low self-esteem and more.
So by understanding the following traits, you might be able to be a better friend/partner/colleague/parent to an autistic person.
- Non-verbal communication.
Neuro typical have this magic way of communicating by looking at each other. They can tell if someone is happy, angry, sad, disappointed, just by the way in which someone’s facial features are arranged.
Autistic people often can’t do that. Which makes life VERY hard, when someone makes a comment, and there is an implied context held within facial features! So when someone says something that seems mean but is actually sarcastic, the autistic person just hears mean. Or a deadpan/dry sense of humour can leave an autistic person feeling bewildered because they take it seriously.
The neuro typical non-verbal communication can be extremely confusing, and leave an autistic person feeling excluded, humiliated and stupid.
To help an autistic person, try avoiding being sarcastic, or being so over the top with the delivery they find it easy to interpret. If you’re in conversation and notice someone struggling to understand context, don’t draw attention to it, but perhaps make a joke ‘oh John, you’re so sarcastic sometimes!’. That way you will have communicated what’s happening to the autistic person without shaming them.
- Social Filters
Neuro Typical people have these inbuilt filters that allow them to function in social situations by filtering out the noise and environment, read the non verbal communication, and know when and what to say.
This is something Autistic people can really struggle with. They can be very straightforward, to the point of rudeness, although they won’t understand they’re being rude. (There’s a whole side bar here about empathy and the difference between cognitive and relative empathy, but that’s a different blog!!)
They can also get very overwhelmed by all the noise and lights surrounding them as we saw in the first blog, and so have a hard time focusing on the important parts of the conversation. This overwhelm can and often does lead to meltdown. In fact it’s also another reason autistic people can often struggle with executive function.
It’s long been understood that if you say to an autist ‘go upstairs, to room C, get the papers about the ground work from Sally, take them to Bob so he can read them and sign them off and then come back down and do 50 copies of this paperwork on drainage’ they will be totally overwhelmed, will be unlikely to complete all the tasks, and may get triggered into meltdown.
It would be more helpful to say ‘room C, Papers from Sally, give to Bob. 50 copies of this paperwork’.
See how much unnecessary information I’ve filtered for them? Even better, would be only giving one or two tasks at a time, and even better than that would be to ASK them what they need/can cope with.
When socialising with an autist, try to be as straightforward as possible. If they say something you consider rude, perhaps quietly explain to them what they said and why it was rude.
It is filters that can also prevent autists to be able to feel comfortable in a group situation, and as such means they can be very overwhelmed trying to follow lots of different conversational threads.
If you notice this happening for someone, perhaps suggest a breath of fresh air, or maybe just talk to them for a moment so they don’t have to battle to join in the group.
Ahhh rules. Well. Rules are here to keep us safe aren’t they, and due to the black and white thinking of the autistic brain, some autists can be VERY rule abiding and find it very difficult when someone around them breaks the rules. In children this can be particularly difficult, because you’re not the most popular person if you tell on others every time they commit a small infraction. In adults the same applies.
It’s difficult to say how to help someone in this instance, perhaps it’s about telling them they don’t need to worry about it because it won’t affect them, maybe it’s showing them that there are shades of grey in some rules, or maybe it’s just saying ‘yes you’re right, but it might make it more difficult for you if you tell someone else’.
Perhaps showing an autist the consequence of their own response helps them start to understand why it’s best to leave things alone.
- Social cues.
I’ve already talked about non-verbal communication, but this can go a bit further into social cues. The autist may struggle to know when you are bored of the conversation, meaning they don’t know when to stop talking, they can’t read a room, or know when they shouldn’t say a specific thing.
Being very clear with them, about your own needs, gently, explicitly but not unkindly can help them feel more secure with you and their ability to relate to you.
I’ve waffled on for ages now, so feel I should stop writing, even though I feel like I’ve missed out REAMS of stuff (sorry if you’re reading that and feel I’ve missed something vital, just pop it in the comments below!) but before I do I want to share this. Autistic people often struggle to form and maintain meaningful relationships, particularly friendships. This is thought to be largely due to the way in which they communicate socially, for all the reasons I’ve given above.
For me, that says, just as an autist is starting to feel safe and secure with someone, they trip up socially and are excluded/rejected.
Repeatedly. Every few years.
So if I can ask you anything at the end of this mammoth blog, it would be this. If you are upset or exhausted or struggling with someone socially who is possibly autistic, please talk to them and tell them. Explain clearly what you need to change so they can meet that need without feeling like they are foundering in the dark.
As ever, just, very simply, be kind.