Autism is supposedly characterised by a marked difficulty in reciprocal social communication. I have realised recently, however, through talking online with other people who are on the autistic spectrum that among ourselves we have little problem communicating. And this got me thinking, and it also got me observing autistic and non-autistic interpretations and reactions.
Last night, I was at an event with a medium sized group of people. There was lots of information to take in, lots of chatter, sensory input, and at one point I was addressed directly and everybody was listening to me answer. I was enjoying the evening. At various points, however, I was playing with a ‘fidget toy’ so that I could fidget semi-discretely and avoid the need for Big Stimming. At a point in the evening where my fidgeting became more obvious, somebody I had recently told about being autistic decided to say my name quite loudly, point to my hands, and then tell me, forcefully, to “CALM DOWN”. Aside from annoyance that she was instructing me how to feel (no thanks!), I was also perplexed… I was calm – because I was stimming! Implicit in her statement was a belief that I was not calm and that my stimming was a symptom of not being calm. For her, fidgeting so vigorously with an object would indicates stress, and therefore is not a positive thing. For me, it is a joyful expression of excess energy which, if trapped, would cause me stress, but it is not a symptom of stress; it is a preventative measure. Here, our misunderstanding, which led to her patronising me, and me feeling angry, was because of a translation error. We were speaking a different social language.
Saying precisely what I mean also proves difficult for non-autistic people to understand, often. Non-autistic people tend to want to read into my words in what are (to me) very bizarre ways, and this can cause them a great deal of upset. In autistic world, unless there is evidence to suggest that a person has a hidden agenda, or has historically had an agenda which supports a different reading, then what is said is taken to be what is meant. In non-autistic world, however, language is packed with hidden, abstract, or vague meanings. To a person not ‘fluent’ in this social language, it is baffling, and can also be upsetting. Again, we are speaking a different social language.
In my ADOS assessment, I was asked to act out for the assessor how he would brush his teeth if he had never brushed his teeth before. I said that I did not know how he would brush his teeth in that situation – I only knew how I would brush them. This, my counsellor said, was self-centred approach, perhaps (I imagined her thinking) in line with the ‘aut’ bit of ‘autism’ (meaning ‘autos’ or ‘self’). But I was perfectly correct to say that I did not know how he would brush his teeth in that scenario – nobody can know the mind of the other, after all. Again, we come to an issue of translation, and of interpretation. Are autistic people self-centred, or do they just innately grasp the obvious philosophical truth that one cannot know the mind of another? Taking things literally, or philosophically is not an impairment, unless we are surrounded by people who cannot or will not engage on this level.
Some autistic people have a great ability to communicate with non-human animals. Clearly, autistic people who understand animals in this way are not impaired in communication per se. Something about the non-linguistic mode of communication might be pertinent here.
Non-/semi-verbal autistic people often insist that the primacy of verbal communication in society is what creates a communication barrier. This privileges verbal communication, which then puts non-verbal autistic people at a disadvantage in society at large. Again the autistic so-called ‘impairment’ is not to blame for the communication problems, but societal bias towards the verbal. It is the responsibility of all people, not just the autistic person, to learn the language of the other, if there is a desire for communication, and this includes non-autistic people learning about non-verbal methods of communication and viewing them as equally valid
Autistic people, are not the ‘problem’, and do not have a social impairment, rather non-autistic people are unable to speak autistic language in the same way that we are unable to (naturally) speak non-autistic language. Many autistics manage reach a level of proficiency in non-autistic language, and people say they “would never know” we were autistic. I must say I don’t know any examples of this happening the other way around! Which group has a communication issue when you look at it like this?
These are my thoughts of the day. I hope they find you all, both autistic and non, in good health and bright spirits. And to my online and offline autistic friends, thank you for the communication, thank you for helping me feel human again by talking with me in a social language I can truly ‘speak’, and helping me feel less alone.