“Do I have problems with communication or do we just have a ‘language barrier’?”

Autistic Spectrum Conditions are 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 is the freshest event in my mind: I was at an event which was a medium sized group of people and so 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’ that I take with me places in order that I can fidget semi-discretely and avoid the need for really big stimming motions when I am in a situation where I would rather not do big stimming. Somebody who I had recently told about my autism, at a point in the evening where my stimming became more obvious, decided to say my name quite loudly, point to my hands, and then tell me, forcefully, to “CALM DOWN”. This completely threw me…..! I was calm…. because I was stimming! Stimming is a very calming activity and helps me to stay present in potentially stressful social situations very effectively. Implicit in her statement was a belief that I was not calm and that my stimming, rather than a prevention or a cure, 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 joy and an expression of excess energy which, if trapped, would actually cause me stress! We thus interpret the actions of ourselves and of each other very differently. We are speaking a different social language. And then I was patronised as a result (of course if I had told her in return to ‘calm down’, which would arguably have been appropriate, it wouldn’t have gone down very well!).

Take also the various points in my life where I have said something and meant precisely what I have said, and yet non-autistic people have read into what I have said in what are (to me) very bizarre ways, and in ways which cause a great deal of upset to them. In autistic world, the words somebody says are taken as they are, complete in meaning (with some analysis of surrounding evidence hopefully). 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, the social language is packed with hidden meaning which there is no real way to know the concrete meaning of. To a person not ‘fluent’ in this social language, it is baffling and can be profoundly upsetting. Again, we are speaking a different social language. It doesn’t mean that we, autistic people, are the ‘problem’, or have ‘an impairment’, it means that non-autistic people are unable to speak autistic language in the same way that we are unable to (naturally) speak non-autistic language (except that, actually, many of us manage to reach a level of proficiency in non-autistic language that people say that 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?)

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 quite a self-centred approach, perhaps (I imagined her thinking) in line with the ‘aut’ bit of ‘autism’ (meaning ‘autos’ or ‘self’). But actually, was I not 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. And so, again, we come to an issue of translation, and of interpretation. Are autistic people self-centred, or do they just innately grasp, from birth (not talking about a conscious and intentional grasping here), the obvious truth that one cannot know the mind of another? Do this make autistic people “selfish” or just honest about how reality appears when seen through this (accurate) lens? Does it make us literal? Yes, probably. But is ‘literal’ an impairment? No, not unless we are talking with non-autistic people – thus the issue is, again, in relation, it is not ‘in itself’.

It is often remarked by both autistic and non-autistic people, that some autistic people have a great ability to communicate with non-human animals (not all autistic people do! but some…). It is clear that autistic people who can understand animals in this way have very little communication difficulty in this arena, so autistic people are obviously not impaired in communication per se. Perhaps then this is further evidence to my theory that there is a ‘language barrier’ rather than a one sided impairment going on between autistic and non-autistic people.

I also want to mention non-verbal autistic people. There is so much onus on talking as a method of communication. This privileges verbal communication, which then puts non-verbal autistic people at a disadvantage in society at large. Again, this is often not about the autistic person having an impairment which is ‘to blame’ for the communication problems. It is, I suggest (and have read lots of stuff by non-verbal autistic people which agrees), down to the insistence on the primacy of verbal communication in our society, which creates a communication barrier. 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.

Anyway, 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.


3 thoughts on ““Do I have problems with communication or do we just have a ‘language barrier’?”

  1. I’m confused by the tooth brushing thing. How would anyone know how they would brush their teeth if they’d never brushed them before? How is anyone supposed to imagine not knowing how to brush their teeth, given that most of us can’t even remember a time when we didn’t know how to do it? And what was the task supposed to prove anyway? What was the point of it?


    1. I don’t really know. It is a standard part of the ADOS (autistic diagnostic observational schedule) assessment. I am told it is *how* you respond rather than the content of what you respond with that they are looking at to see if you respond ‘autistically’ or not. Basically, they are assessing *not* how thoroughly you put across the process of brushing your teeth, but the way in which you understand the question and communicate the answer? I only found this out recently though, and am still not entirely sure the precise things they were looking for. All your questions are excellent ones though, I really found it a nonsensical question, which is why (in effect) I avoided answering it by instead demonstrating how *I* would brush my teeth *shrugs*.


  2. Reblogged this on A Journey with Purpose and commented:
    I have kept this webpage open for over a day, pondering on it couple of times when I use my laptop. It’s very true that I find it easier to communicate with autistic people. When I speak to them, everything feels just so natural and enjoyable. Even when I help out and interact with nonverbal autistic children, they show strong affinity towards me, as if our hearts and minds have a natural connection. I have found my kind of language, and I am not alone!


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