To me, as an Autistic person, communicating and socialising with neurotypical people often feels like I am speaking a second language. It’s like being in a world full of people who speak French, except your native language is English, and your only preparation is a few lessons on Duolingo. Could you navigate basic conversations using the few phrases and topics that you practiced? Maybe! The difference is that it would take a lot more brain power for you to figure out what others mean and how to respond, than it would for someone who is fluent in French. You would often take a long time to process words, misinterpret things, struggle to make yourself understood, and likely feel very anxious about it all.
You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not your fault that it’s hard. You are simply trying your best to communicate in a world that caters to a different language, all the while feeling like you’re the only one who can’t do it right. You probably wish you were a native French speaker – it would make life so much easier.
The thing is, there are actually lots of people in this world who speak English. Just like there are lots of people in the world who are Autistic.
Autistic people often feel compelled to change the way we communicate, in order to fit into a society built for neurotypical people. This can be crucial for our survival – we may need to mask our Autistic traits, for example to gain employment, to succeed in education, or to avoid bullying and conflict. However, just like speaking a foreign language, it takes a huge amount of energy to be able to do this, and we will often make mistakes. It can be exhausting and take a massive toll on our wellbeing. People may be frustrated with us for not quite understanding what they mean, or taking things the “wrong” way. We are often made to feel like we just aren’t good enough, when in reality we are trying our best to communicate in ways that aren’t natural for us.
What if the blame wasn’t put on Autistic people for being “poor communicators”, and it was recognised that neurotypical people are also poor at communicating with Autistic people? A native French speaker would likely struggle equally as much, being thrown with little preparation into an English-speaking world – and that doesn’t make them bad at communicating!
Dr Damian Milton, an Autistic researcher, proposes that the huge difference between Autistic and neurotypical inner experiences cause a disconnection between the two groups, rather than Autistic people simply lacking communication skills and empathy. This theory is called the Double Empathy Problem. It recognises that our different experiences make it difficult for neurotypical people to empathise and communicate with us Autistic people, as well as us with them. It’s similar to two groups speaking different languages – a native English speaker will struggle to communicate with a French speaker – not because they have “social communication deficits”, but because their way of communicating is so different. And vice versa. Both groups struggle to understand the experiences of the other – it’s a mutual problem, not exclusive to Autistic people.
However, it is Autistic people who are most often impacted by this disconnect, as neurotypical communication is more common and accepted by most people. We are expected, encouraged, and sometimes forced, to learn to understand and communicate in line with the neurotypical experience. But there is not the same expectation for neurotypical people to learn Autistic ways of communicating, or to empathise with our experiences.
Now imagine, after spending your entire life in this confusing place where everyone is speaking in ways you struggle to understand, you find someone who speaks the same language as you. What a relief! The communication would be far more natural and require a lot less effort.
Research has shown that, indeed, communication between multiple Autistic people is more effective than communication between Autistic and non-Autistic people. A study conducted in 2020 found that groups of Autistic people were equally as good at passing on information to each other as non-Autistic people were. However, in a mixed group of Autistic and non-Autistic people, more details were missed, indicating that communication was poorer between the different neurotypes. Both Autistic and non-Autistic people also reported that they seemed to get along better with people of their own neurotype. Whilst it’s true that not all Autistic people will like each other, in the same way that not all neurotypical people get along, there is something about having a similar perspective that makes communication with other Autistic people more comfortable and enjoyable – just like finding somebody else who speaks your language in a foreign country.
The way Autistic people naturally communicate is not wrong. It’s our native language – and it’s not our fault that we will never quite be fluent in neurotypical, no matter how hard we may try. We spend so much time desperately trying to understand and to fit in. One of the most meaningful things anyone has ever done for me, was learning a little bit of my language, and beginning to understand me too.
Astrid is a young Autistic woman and psychology student, with a passion for advocacy and all things crochet.