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  • Quinn Dexter

Emotional Ice

Frosty Communication

If you’ve read the first part of this article (link) then you’ll have gained an insight into how certain perceptions regarding autistic communication may not fit into the deficit model that has pervaded the science around autism for decades.

The intellectual dissonance stems from the fact that the vast majority of published work on autism comes from those who have only observed autism from the outside. They lack the perspective of lived experience. It is further complicated by the disproportionate amount of inference on this complex human phenomenon that has come from research on animals, whilst ignoring the growing number of intelligent, autistic adults in both the academic and lay community.

This concentration on an arbitrary definition of “normal” into which autistics cannot fit has led not only to a variety of dubious treatments and therapies, but to an imbalance in the emphasis on who should be bridging the communication gap between autistic and NT (neurotypical/non autistic) people. Because we are portrayed as deficient, the entire burden of communication between our minority and the neurotypical majority has been dropped on our collective shoulders. Whilst there are therapists of all sorts queueing up to promise us “improvements” in our communication, the queue for the “helping neurotypicals communicate better with autistics” booth has remained an empty, dusty void.

A recent development in helping the neurotypical world to bridge the gaps in their communication with us is the theory (or observation) of “Double Empathy”. Double Empathy is one of those concepts many of us on the spectrum were dimly aware of all our lives and tried to explain, but it took an openly autistic academic to put into published words before anyone started to take it seriously.

Double Empathy both expands and simplifies the problems in autistic/neurotypical communication simultaneously. Instead of following the worn out path of placing the blame on autistic people for lacking understanding, it observes that neurotypical people lack understanding of autistics too. There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that autistic people generally relate to each other pretty well and understand how best to interact in exclusively autistic groups, whilst neurotypical people get on well with their own too. However when the two try to communicate with one another, the barriers previously blamed on autistic limitations and neurotypical intolerance become apparent. There is an icy wall between us which gets frostier the more misunderstandings and assumptions occur.

This is at the core of the Double Empathy problem. The NT person in an exchange is perplexed by the behaviours that they perceive as being at odds with what they usually expect. The autistic person is in turn confused by the neurotypical, whose words and actions do not conform to their very personal and often logically biased world view. Asking one side to communicate in the same style as the other is never likely to function 100% smoothly since the cognitive distance between the two sides is a significant one. Autism is hardwired into the brain and nervous system so has a profound impact on our perceptions and thought processes. We can intellectually understand the NT world and it’s motivations, but we can never feel them in the same way as a neurotypical person, any more than they can feel our life experience.

In order to build a more equal world which allows society to benefit from the many talents and skills inherent in autistic people, we have to overcome the lack of empathy on BOTH sides of the equation rather than treating it as a deficit on only one side.

It was mentioned in the first part of this article that there is no Rosetta Stone to reveal the secret language of autistic people to the NT world. Double Empathy teaches us that language is not the problem since both sides are invariably speaking the same verbal language already. It’s the differing ways we interpret and react to language and the many unspoken and unconscious forms of communication that accompany it that present a barrier.

Whilst there a myriad of individual tips people will offer, we have to start with the understanding that whilst there are broad principles that apply to the ways in which autistic and neurotypical people naturally communicate, there is still infinite variety in both groups. Put simply, there are proportionally as many nasty, ignorant and intolerant people amongst the autistic population as there are amongst the neurotypical, even if the circumstances that led them to be that way may differ. There are also kind, tolerant and open minded people on both sides, and it is these people who will need the least help to communicate with each other.

In my years of getting to know both NT and autistic people I’ve observed a number of mismatches in communication styles which, if accounted and compensated for, can help us to better understand one another and have productive friendships or working relationships. It’s not a one way street and requires adaptations from both sides, but if done successfully, the great wall between us can be reduced to a fence we can talk over.

There is a phenomenon in social psychology called “fundamental attribution error” which is sometimes called “correspondence bias.” It describes the tendency people have to blame other people’s character or intent when they act in an unfavourable manner, yet explain our own actions in terms of external influences.

Both autistic and neurotypical are equally capable of falling into this trap, but the reasons for doing so and the methods of avoiding it can come from very different directions.

It’s a common misunderstanding that autistic people lack “theory of mind” (ToM) otherwise known as cognitive empathy. ToM is a cognitive shorthand that people learn when they are young which allows them to make rapid judgements about everyday situations. It’s a survival trait which helps animals and humans survive in a hostile world full of predators. These days our predators are less likely to be red in tooth and claw but the facility still performs a useful function.

What IS true is that approximately half of autistic people are alexithyimic – meaning it takes us longer to understand emotional cues and even our own emotions. We often readily recognise the physical manifestations of extreme emotion such as joy or fear, but more subtle emotions can be much more difficult to articulate. Because of this our ToM operates in a very different, more logical fashion.

Neurotypical ToM operates on heuristic principles. Everyone learns a series of responses to given circumstances from observation, example and personal experience. By adulthood those responses are largely set in stone and are difficult to put to one side when one encounters a situation outside previous experience. It’s one of the reasons horror movies excite and unsettle us – they describe otherworldly or terrifying situations that are highly unlikely to occur in the real world. In all other situations most people have a learned response that will trigger instantaneously, requiring a minimum of thought.

That’s all well and good when facing off against a Tiger and your legs start moving to run away before you’ve even realised what the stripy, toothy thing in front of you is. ToM has just registered “scary threat” and initiated a response, but in the complex world of modern human communication, such instant, unthinking reactions could cause as much trouble as they save.

Autistics usually don’t transmit the same signals as neurotypical people because we process information differently, so our responses are often out of synch with those of the NT majority. Whether we are alexithymic or highly emotionally sensitive, we are often processing far more incoming information than you are aware of and it inevitably colours our responses. Whether that is because it takes us longer to work out the emotional torrent of information, or because we perceive subtle signals you don’t realise you are sending, the outcome is the same. Our responses can be straightforward, literal or questioning.

A blank look, a frown, silent lip movement, fidgeting or averted gazes often provoke offended reactions from neurotypical people. Those signals are part of the NT programme that tells them they are being ignored or disrespected. Without thinking about it, the reaction starts brewing – indignation, self justification or even anger. The emotional temperature starts rising for no other reason than one side does not understand why the other’s body language doesn’t conform to the rules they have learned.

If you are neurotypical then please ask yourself this question: If asked a question you have absolutely no answer for or don’t even understand, what expression would be on your face?

A blank look? A frown? Might you look away into the distance, fidget, stammer or silently ask yourself “what the…?”

It doesn’t have to be a question. If someone overloads you with information too quickly, or starts talking about things you have no knowledge of, you may react the same way. If the speaker started behaving angrily or accusing you of not listening you might defend yourself:

“I am listening, I’m just having trouble following you. Could you slow down, maybe use language I can understand please?”

Herein lies the problem at the heart of most miscommunicationss between neurotypicals and autistics. We don’t react the way you expect us to and that can provoke a negative emotional reaction which sours the exchange on both sides. You don’t have to be talking rocket science for such misunderstandings to occur, in fact if you were, it might actually be an easier exchange. What may seem like the most mundane and routine question, such as “how are you?” can be a minefield to an autistic person. The NT thinks they are not being listened to, gets agitated and autistic becomes even more confused or even fearful.

This is the point where Fundamental Attribution Error rears it’s head. The tendency of most people in this circumstance is to imagine the other party is either flawed, or deliberately causing friction. We don’t blame ourselves for our part, because we know we are simply reacting to their behaviour. It’s not unique to either side. The labels and stereotypes attached to autism are well known and documented, but there are equally presumptive opinions on the other side too. Anyone who has spent time within autistic communities knows that many autistics have grown to be cautious or fearful of interactions with neurotypical people in general, and have generated their own set of clichés and stereotypes about NTs. Many is the time you’ll see a moderator in an online autism community take a member to task for making generalisations about NTs. Too many of us have come to expect negative reactions and treatment so the tendency exists to see it even when it's not there.

Attribution error is compounded by the tendency towards confirmation bias. If we have a set of preconceived ideas about certain types of people, attribution error can deepen the initial bias. If an NT person believes autistic people to be rude and arrogant, then their lack of eye contact and need to question will compound that impression if they are blaming the person’s character, rather than the situation. An autistic person observing signs of agitation from an NT without understanding the reasons, may find their opinions of NTs as uncaring and ablist are confirmed. It becomes a vicious cycle of assumption and counter assumption that makes further attempts at communication ever frostier.

This is the crux of the communication problem between the two sides. Both need to acknowledge not only that our communication styles are different, but they are not purely the responsibility of the other party. We must accept that our behaviour influences the outcome and may even be the direct cause of a bad or inconclusive exchange.

How do we overcome this? How can we, working together, prevent the communication bubble from freezing over? When we deal with people from a foreign culture we understand that even if we share a common language, things will differ. Words and gestures that are friendly in one country may be risqué or even obscene in the other, so we try not to use them or be understanding if the other side uses them. We recognise that the intent is not to offend, whichever side of the offence we are on. It is no different when communicating between neurotypes. Our variance in neural wiring means we react to situations somewhat differently and need to be tolerant of one another if we are to get on and communicate as equals.

So our first suggestions are thus:

* Whether you are neurotypical or autistic, learn what you can about the broad rules of how the other side communicate with each other.

* Be aware of differences and try to compensate when the behaviour or words you observe do not make immediate sense.

* If you have good reason to believe the other side is being unresponsive or antagonistic, calmly and respectfully ask them for clarification.

* Above all – resist the temptation to blame the other’s character and intent. Don’t assume they are inflexible, don’t think they are naturally unpleasant, don’t fall into the trap of thinking they intend to cause you confusion or distress.

Stigma and stereotypes are overwhelmingly caused and exacerbated by misunderstandings and assumptions. Only by overcoming our natural tendencies to put people into categories and react to them according to preordained rules rather than as individuals, do we stand a chance of improving our interactions and breaking those stereotypes and harmful assumptions down.

In later articles in this series we’ll be exploring a number of the neural differences and variations in typical life experiences that affect the communication styles of autistic and NT people, and attempting to find ways in which we can bridge the gaps.

See you next time reader….

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