Focus On and Believe Your Autistic Employee’s Words, Not Non-Verbal Communication
A common misunderstanding between autistic and non-autistic people revolves around the true and literal meaning of words.
For instance, non-autistic people tend to convey information through a combination of words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. The tone of voice with which they express their words may also convey a conflicting or opposite meaning that other non-autistic people subconsciously pick up on and adjust for.
When autistic people convey information, however, we tend to lead with literal words. We say what we mean, and we mean what we say, no hidden agenda, nothing more to read into.
Now, that isn’t to say autistic people can’t be sarcastic or subtle. I, personally, can be both, but it’s more a learned behavior for me than a natural, innate one. In other words, I’ve been surrounded by sarcasm, subtlety, and ambiguity my entire life, so I’ve picked up on the “native language”, and can produce it with relative accuracy.
However, since these behaviors are not ingrained in me and do not automatically appear in every social situation I’m in, if I’m faced with a person or social situation I haven’t experienced before, I can easily run into problems by saying something unintentionally offensive, not picking up on something intended as a joke, or I’ll say exactly what I mean, but it ends up being misinterpreted as having a hidden meaning I’d never even thought of–let alone intended!
Autistic Body Language and Facial Expressions are Different
Your autistic employees may be using body language you believe you’re familiar with and therefore, can respond to accordingly, but autistic people use body language and facial expressions in a different way from non-autistic people. Viewing, interpreting, and reacting to them through a non-autistic lens can cause confusion, frustration, and even trauma.
If there’s one thing many autistic people can attest to, it’s what it’s like to live our whole lives not knowing what others are reacting to and being startled when someone has a sudden emotional response to what, for us, seemed like a neutral and harmless interaction.
Here are some body language cues non-autistic people tend to misinterpret:
- Blank, non-smiling facial expression
Blank or non-smiling facial expressions can be mistakenly viewed as unfriendly, sad, or angry. Oftentimes, this is just how the autistic person’s neutral facial expression looks, and there’s nothing more to read into.
- Frowning face, lowered eyebrows
A frowning face and lowered eyebrows may give an appearance of anger, but your autistic employee may actually be expressing confusion or deep concentration and be startled and even further confused if you respond as though they’ve just silently but intentionally insulted you.
- Startled facial expression
Many autistic people, especially those of us who were diagnosed late in life, have faced lifelong trauma, and this may be reflected in a permanently ‘stunned’ facial expression that has nothing to do with how we’re feeling in the moment.
- Stiff, squared shoulders
Many autistic people have lower muscle tone, hypermobility, and chronic pain. Therefore, our bodies may appear stiff and rigid as we consciously (or subconsciously) try to find the least painful and most comfortable way to hold our bodies. Stiff, squared shoulders can look like ego or resistance to an idea when there’s no emotion or hidden agenda behind the body posture at all.
- Rounded, slumped shoulders
Again, due to lower muscle tone, hypermobility, and chronic pain, your autistic employee’s posture may be affected in a way that results in a kind of slumped look that gives the impression of laziness, disinterest, shame, or weakness. These are often inaccurate misinterpretations of an atypical body posture.
- Fidgeting, foot-tapping, hand-ringing
Fidgeting, foot-tapping, hand-ringing, hair-twirling, humming, spinning in a chair, etc., are all called ‘stims’, and they help with emotion regulation and management of sensory overload. They have no hidden social meaning.
- Lack of eye contact
Eye contact can be painful for autistic people because our brains have a heightened response to this particular sensory input. If your autistic employee isn’t looking in your eyes during interactions, this doesn’t mean they are being disrespectful or hiding something. They’re avoiding discomfort, and they should be allowed to do this without risk of reprisal.
Listen to the Words, Even if the Body Contradicts
Autistic folks tend to be literal and direct, so if we tell you we feel a certain way, even if our body language appears to contradict it, accept our words as truth and respond to only those. Avoid looking for hidden agendas or responding to what you think the person is secretly trying to convey. If you’re still not sure, just ask them directly. After all, it’s the best way to approach your autistic employees in general.
The eye contact stereotype really has got to go. I have read many accounts of autistics like myself whose eye contact it too constant and intense, and perceived as an attempt to intimidate others. Which is also not true. I was shaken by the shoulders repeatedly as a child with the never ending commands of “Look at me, Look at me, look at me when I’m talking to you.” I have had to train myself to look away during converstations. I’m forever getting reported on or written up for ‘purposefully trying to intimidate others or trying to ‘stare them down’. Absurd. Best I’ve ever been able to come up with is that I would argue I’m just trying to figure out what a person really means. I do however have to look away at other times if I need to really focus on what someone is saying, like say a lecture or an interview.
I’m sorry you’re being so deeply misunderstood. And to think, you were TRAINED to make eye contact at such a young age, and all you did was take the instruction 100% literally like most of us autistic folk. Terribly unfair. I’m sorry.
Excellent starting points for discussion. How to promote the best communication between anyone and everyone is through familiarity and practise, perhaps. Unfortunately, initial impressions may completely stymie this happening.
Hearing words spoken with less judgement and fear has to be a mindset, but it can be hard to adjust to this mindset if habituated to a communication style that is less direct.
One person’s direct is another person’s blunt. One person’s diplomacy is another person’s obfuscation.