Maybe it’s the Neurotypicals who are Bad Communicators

I have spent my entire life learning how to talk to you so are you SURE it’s not you?

I’m autistic. I did not suspect I was autistic until I was in my late twenties and I did not embrace it until later. But once I did, everything in my life made sense. I don’t really make sense as an autistic person because — as I say in all my personal statements for jobs — I am an excellent communicator. I give engaging talks, I can write persuasively, and I understand how to phrase complicated subjects so that non-experts understand. I would describe myself as an introverted person, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know me.

Im terrible at playacting, but I’m an excellent actress because my entire life, I’ve had to pretend I’m normal.

I went into Anthropology initially because I was hoping it would help me understand people. Because I just don’t. Not in the intuitive way I was given to understand that normal people understand each other. I have always been an alien. I have always been alien. Anthropology is literally the study of humans. I figured even if it didn’t mean to teach me about humans in general and meant instead to teach me about human culture, it would end up helping me to understand this species that I’m both part of and not.

Autistic kids will often have trouble in school regardless of intelligence or aptitude or any other measure that is usually used to explain us. I wasn’t like that. I did really well in school. But despite being really good at math, I didn’t do well in it until much later because classes in mathematics are geared towards neurotypicals whose approach to it is fundamentally different from a person with autism. I rediscovered this the other day when I decided to try to learn a new programming language.

For neurotypicals you can just say, “here, do this.” And they’ll do it and be fine. They’ll discard the little flourishes in your handwriting for what they are and they’ll ignore the fact that you always subconsciously tap with your left pinkie finger right before you start typing and they’ll understand what it was you meant for them to do. But if you do that with me be prepared to explain every last step. And I will pick up on your idiosyncrasies. This means that once I understand the concept I’ll have more mastery of it than a normal student, but it also means the process is likely to be longer and you are going to hate me by the end.

If you’d just opened with “non-Euclidean,” we wouldn’t be at this very weird impasse. (Calabi-Yau Manifold by Stewart Dickson)

I have an obscene number of degrees. I am aware that there are people with more degrees than I have, but I have a lot. And the reason I mention this is a lot of people including people I meet even in academic settings assume I’m stupid. If I’ve just given a talk they’ll treat me with abundant respect, probably more than I deserve, but things always go wrong in more casual settings or interactions. Part of this is because I’m small and pretty and people assume that women who look like me are stupid because people are awful, but the other part of it is no matter how hard I work at it I cannot entirely bridge the gap at all times between me and you.

This realization dawned on me — for the umpteenth time — yesterday. I decided to attend a free zoom conference on COVID-19 in public policy because yes, I am a huge nerd. I’d gone to a few events and submitted questions. It did not go well. At the first one it was sort of my fault because I wasn’t completely clear what exactly I was asking. So I didn’t get a real answer but it’s fine. The second time I was super careful. I tried to make it really clear that I was someone with a background in the study of disease on demographics and I wanted to know the effect of pandemics particularly this one on democracy. So a bunch of political scientists gave me an answer about health and infection rates. Dudes. I can look that up myself. I make charts on that for fun. I asked you about the democratic and political/policy bits. Y’all are here in a conference about “policy.” Whatcha doing?

I looked back on my question and realized that this time it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t even a little my fault. I was clear. But the question I had asked was complicated and would take time to answer. So instead of recommending some literature in their own field or pointing to where I could get data to work on the problem statistically or anything like that they gave me a epidemiological response which was necessarily brief and obtuse because they’re not epidemiologists and that wasn’t my question.

For reals though: who do you think you’re kidding? (Image Credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

Throughout my life I’ve had people dismiss me and ignore me and tell me that they’re just not interested in my work because according to them I’m a, “bad communicator.” And the really frustrating part of this is none of these people can communicate half as well as I can. They are dismissing me because while my perspective is quite valuable and my neurological arrangement allows me to approach problems and understand systems in ways the most brilliant of the normies never shall, they will have to put in a modicum of effort when dealing with me on a day to day basis. And it’s much easier from their perspective to just dismiss me as crazy, wrong, or stupid than do for a day what I’ve done all my life.

And if it sounds like I’m casting aspersions it’s because I am. Y’all are lazy. I get that I’m weird and I’m fine with it. All you have to say is, “Ari, you just autismed. Explain it for the neurotypicals in the room,” and I will back up and give it to you in a manner you can understand. I don’t understand how your brains work because you are every bit as alien to me as I am to you, but I do know how to talk to you. Provided you are willing to listen.

Communication is a skill. Literally no one is giving complex talks two minutes after their mother births them. First you learn to speak, then you learn how to speak, then you learn how to give a speech. It takes time and effort and dedication. Even for you. And I have to tell you — my dear neurotypicals — you may assume that you’re fine communicators but unless you’ve worked at it you are not. I’ve watched you my entire life. I have seen you make mistakes, have misinterpretations, and give incredibly boring talks. I’ve watched you bomb as a joke you thought was funny completely fails to land. I’ve watched you fail so I could learn from your mistakes. And it’s okay. You have to fail and see failure if you ever expect to succeed.

But when I watch you fail I don’t dismiss you or decide you’re too much trouble for me to deal with. I learn.

I understand I’m the minority here. The autism spectrum includes a lot of people, but we’re still not a majority. So I get that asking for every last school to be prepared to take on autistic students may be asking a bit too much. Although, it would be helpful. But I’ve met you halfway. I’ve met you most of the way in fact. I have done far more work on communication skills than most normal people do and I’m better at it than most normal people are.

But here’s the rub: autism is not a disability. There are forms and presentations of autism that in combination with development and societal failures cause a form of disability, but the issue is not autism itself. The issue is how people react to autistic children stimming or having meltdowns. If you just let them get on with it or provide them the safety and comfort they need they’ll be fine. But instead you neurotypicals freak out and pile drive them and then wonder why they don’t trust you anymore.

Autism in the way it presents for me and a lot of other, “high-functioning,” adults is evolutionary and adaptive. I’m not saying we’re speciating or anything, but we’re neurologically arranged this way because it is in some situations adaptive and increases our chance for survival. I’m really good at pattern recognition, I need my routines, and I can smell and hear a cat a mile away. That’s really useful for survival. You will get eaten by the lion. I will know it will be hunting us a week before it even thinks to stalk me. If I like you I will keep you safe from the lion. But lions are cute and also need to eat, so you’d better be nice to me.

I don’t have to outrun the lion, I just have to outrun you. (Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash)

And these skills are applicable in a modern world. My ability to recognize patterns allows me to know what weird set of factors might be making you sick. If you let me apply it, I could save lives. But instead you ignore me because I’m weird and you’re afraid you might have to make an effort.

Autistic people — sometimes even the nonverbal among us — communicate just fine. We have no guile. We never set out to deceive and we rarely even try to conceal. We know exactly what we need and experience shows us how to get through to you and get it. But the problem is you neurotypicals are lazy. You never had to work that hard to get the basics of communication down and so you don’t like when you have to reach even a little bit.

I’m not going to stop trying to reach you because I do genuinely want to save you from the lion. But if you insist on running directly into the lion’s waiting jaws I can’t help you. See? That’s an allegory. You would know that if you were a good communicator.

The reason people with autism like me are labelled “bad communicators,” is not because we actually are, but because you expect a certain level of miscommunication that we are not able to provide you with particularly after we’ve already translated everything into the language you’re supposedly fluent in.

When I meet other people with autism we do fine. We communicate without trouble and we can carry on for hours uninterrupted. But I have seen that neurotypicals can’t do that. You can have a conversation, but you can’t really get deep into subjects and you can’t maintain that level of communication for hours on end. So, if autistic people do fine with one another and can make themselves understood to neurotypicals, but neurotypicals cannot understand either autistic individuals or other neurotypicals then who is truly the “bad communicator?” Hmmmm?

It’s okay not to like me. I am weird. But be honest about it. Honesty will help you develop your communication skills.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store