Guest Post: Autism and Conversational Differences

Apologies for the gaps in posting. We’ve been doing a bit of building work and decorating here and the half term holiday crept up on us and went “BOO!” The Pwd is back in school next week so expect an update and, I promise, some Pwd pics. Meanwhile, the truly awesome Steve Summers has written a post expanding on his communication pointers for the neurotypical. If you’re new to this blog I strongly suggest reading Steve’s other posts – they are eloquent and enlightening. They can all be found here

Autism and Conversational Differences – Eye Contact, Personal Space & Processing Speed

Autism can be a social disability for me. Here are a few issues that I have recently noticed during some social interactions with others in small group conversations.

1. Eye contact — I can make brief eye contact, but it takes a conscious effort to do so. I have to make myself look at other people’s eyes, it doesn’t come naturally. I prefer to look at mouths. My eyes dart about and don’t sustain direct eye contact. If my wife is involved in the conversation, I prefer to look at her face instead of other people’s faces. I will glance at the other people and then return to her face.
I can frequently see when other people start getting uncomfortable with my gaze flitting about. Women, in particular, seem to adjust the necklines of their tops because they notice my gaze is below the gaze line to their eyes. I guess that they assume that if a male is looking below their eyes, that we are looking at the chest area. They don’t realize that I am looking at their mouth and all around the room as well. My darting eyes seem to be unsettling for many people.

2. Personal space — I notice that other people tend to stand too close to me. I feel comfortable with my wife at that distance, but it makes me uncomfortable when other people stand very close to me. I have been in several conversations involving my wife and one other person and I find myself wanting to move away from the other person because they are often nearly shoulder to shoulder with me.

3. Processing speed — I often take a few extra seconds to process all of the information that is coming in from another person. I often have to consciously work out what they are saying and what the tone and inflection in their voice means in context with their words. I don’t always pick up on their body language either. Most non-autistic people seem to do this without thinking about it. For them it is automatic, and in the background of their minds. For me, it takes some of my focus and attention. These issues often cause me to take a little (or a lot) of extra time to formulate a reply. In group conversations, this delay often means that the conversation has already moved on and I am too late to add my input to the the conversation. If I speak out in that case, it is out of step with the others and seems like I am moving the conversation backwards. It becomes a source of frustration and/or awkwardness. Other times, people just don’t understand the delay in my reply.
Some people don’t know what to make of these slightly out of synchronization communication issues that I have. As a result some will interrupt me or simply walk away before I have made my point. That is very distressing and feels disrespectful to me. I don’t deserve to be ignored and made to feel insignificant, or invisible to others. I want to be included and treated as an equal human being.

Please take these autistic communication issues into consideration and accept that I do want to talk. I enjoy conversing and interacting with friends and acquaintances. With just a little understanding and acceptance, I can be included and not made to feel bad about my conversational difficulties.

*Steve Summers

I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (part of the Autism Spectrum) as an adult. I was diagnosed following my 11-year-old son’s diagnosis with Aspergers. I am happy to have my diagnosis. It was like a light being turned on that illuminated my entire life in a new way. Now I understand why I never really ‘fit in.’ It is like having a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders to have my diagnosis.

I don’t feel that people should make divisions between parts of the Autism Spectrum. I am autistic and I want to work to make the world a better, more understanding and accepting place for all autistic people. We need to work together for the benefit of all on the Autism Spectrum. 

I wrote this list due to continuing difficulties that I have had with the give and take of communicating with others. Many people seem too easily offended because they fail to understand these things about me. We all need understanding and acceptance.


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