|Photo © Shannon Des Roches Rosa|
[image: Photo of a teen wearing a jacket and baseball cap,
seen from behind, far ahead on an oaken hillside trail.]
When I was in physical therapy to rehabilitate a busted knee, the kind, competent therapists tended to make small talk—which invariably meant fielding tentative, well-meaning questions about my autistic son. That gave me the opportunity to model the way I'd like other people to talk and think about him. Here’s how those conversations usually go:
PT: “Autism. Um. That must be hard.”
Me: “Well, my son is a very awesome person. And he’s actually more easygoing than his siblings. He’s like a lot of autistic people—it’s hard for him to be in places that aren’t autism-friendly, and it can be hard for him to communicate. But he’s a wonderful person.”
PT: “That's really interesting.” (Processes what I’ve said, ideally.)
I have casual conversations like this a lot. If you're autistic, or the parent of an autistic kid, or work with autistic people, you probably do, too.
The conversations can sometimes get irritating or depressing, because it's draining to have to constantly remind non-autistic people who only know negative media messages about autism that autistic people are human, just like them.
But being human doesn't mean we're "all the same." It doesn't mean denying the realities of being autistic. All human individual realities create specific circumstances, specific needs, and so specific opportunities for misunderstanding. And bad things can happen when human beings don't understand other human beings' realities.
So I'm asking you to try to understand. I'm asking you think about how you talk about people like my son. And how you talk to autistic people, as well, because you probably know more autistic people than you think you do, given that autism is under-diagnosed, especially in women and people of color. Talking to other humans on a human level is, well, a human thing to do, because no one likes being treated badly—or even awkwardly.
And I don't expect anyone trying do the right thing to get everything right instantly, mostly because I struggle with social dynamics myself. Also because autistic people have personalities, plus there are those pesky individual circumstances, so what works for one person may not work for another. But I want you to try.
It's easier to try if you make shifts in your understanding about what being autistic means. For example, my son loves kinetic sand. He loves molding and manipulating that sand. And he doesn’t like anyone messing with that sand. I've learned that If I pinch the sand into little peaks (something I find satisfying), he will immediately push the peaks back down into the sand, where he strongly feels they belong.
Some might jump to the conclusion that, because my son is autistic, he is autistically perseverating on needing his sand the way he wants it (not that perseveration is wrong). But is autistic perseveration really the case? Don't I get agitated if my husband loads the dishwasher differently than I do? And doesn't my partner (being of a less volatile temperament than his spouse) express mild displeasure when he comes home to my unfinished projects cluttering up our kitchen counter?
Don’t we all have our own sense of the order of the world, the way we like things? That's why it's not realistic to talk about everything an autistic human being does as being due to autism. That's not to stigmatize being autistic, at all. But autistic people, like anyone, want things the way they want them.
As for talking with autistic people, I am mindful of speaking to my son with the assumption that he understands me, at all times. If he absolutely has to get what I'm saying, I will check in with him, and confirm. But otherwise, what is the harm in including him in conversations, even if he responds in his own way or doesn't respond at all? What if I oversimplified everything I said to him, with the result that he felt singled out and more different than he already does, plus missed out on a ton of information (I am the queen of info monologuing) and camaraderie? I'm not willing to take that risk.
Still, my son is probably aware that I talk differently to him than to his siblings. I am kinder, more polite, and more patient with him. But… maybe this is because, with his chill, cheerful-like-his-father personality, he is easier to be around and gives me less grief than his temperamental-like-their-mother siblings? Is that fair to his siblings, who are also human beings? I'm working on it.
Talking with autistic people in general is something non-autistic people need to educate themselves about. You may already be familiar with common guidelines for talking with autistic people, advice like don’t insist on eye contact; know that your statements may be taken literally; and don't be impatient.
But there are many other factors to consider about being respectful without being patronizing while talking with autistic people, as per Real Social Skills:
"[S]ome nonspeaking autistic people have significantly better language comprehension than some autistic people who speak. (And you can’t tell from affect either: A student who spends all day rocking in a corner might be understanding significantly more than a student who spends all day sitting still at a desk.)
"Autistic impairments can also change over time, or in times of stress.
"Someone you think has 'very mild Aspergers' may well have no ability to understand language when they’re upset. They may have severe auditory processing problems and be unable to watch TV without captions. They may be physically incapable of walking across a crowded room. They may have very little voluntary motion and be dependent on prompts in their environment. They might not be able to initiate interactions or independently tell you that they are injured or sick."How non-autistic people talk about autistic human beings, how non-autistic people talk with autistic human beings, really does need to change. Here’s what I’d ask of you, if you're not yourself autistic:
- Don't be patronizing to autistic people when you talk with them.
- Don't suddenly change the way you talk with a person if you find out they are autistic.
- Do talk to autistic people like you talk to non-autistic people. If you need to modify the way you're speaking, you'll probably be informed of that fact. Otherwise, carry on.
- Specifically, don't assume you need to simplify your speech. It makes me furious to hear people talk to my son with oversimplified baby language like, "Want watch Teen Titans?" instead of "Hey, want to watch some Teen Titans superhero action?"
- Try—really try—not to use patronizing terms like "buddy" when you talk to teenagers and adults, if you wouldn't use such terms for other people their age.
- Give the autistic person you're speaking with a couple of beats to process what you’re saying. Understand that these may be long beats. Don't get impatient.
- Don't talk about autistic people in front of them as though they're not there or can't understand. Seriously. Just don't do it.
- If an autistic person indicates that they're in distress, or doesn't respond when you speak to them, reconsider whether that is the best time to press for a response.
- Do respect autistic requests for communication accommodation, like writing, typing, or devices. Communication is a human right, not a dispensation.
This is by no means a complete or comprehensive list, but it's a starting point, for non-autistic humans trying to do right by the autistic humans they live with, and among. And, in my case, the autistic young man I love with all my heart.