Sunday, August 17, 2014

How to Talk With an Autistic Person

In my last post, I wrote about some things you shouldn't say to an autistic person. Since then, I've received some requests to write about what you can say to an autistic person. I had hoped the advice I gave to talk to us like normal people would be enough. However, it stands to reason that if that were easy and intuitive, there would have been no need to write my last post.

I'm not going to give you a script for what to say when someone tells you they're autistic. I don't feel that that would be a meaningful thing to say. However, I will start by saying that everything I said not to say in my last post would be preferable to walking on eggshells to avoid saying something offensive. As long as it's clear that your intent is not to offend, you can get away with an awful lot. You might even get to learn something from the person you're talking to in the process.

The biggest question seems to be what to say when someone tells you that they're autistic, so let me start there. The first thing to keep in mind is that nothing about this person has changed. In fact, the only thing that has changed is that you have just acquired some new knowledge about them.

I know it seems obvious, but the reason I bring it up is that, so often, people have altered the tone of their speech after I told them I was autistic. Most of the time, they don't even realize it until after I point it out. Please be aware of your tone, and try not to be offended if the person you're talking to tells you that you are patronizing them. (As a side note to my autistic readers, don't be afraid to tell someone when they are using a patronizing tone. Odds are pretty good they won't know unless you do.)

The next thing to remember is that, while you may not understand autism, it isn't an unusual thing for us. We were born autistic, we've been autistic for our entire lives, and we will die autistic. All that's required in response is a simple acknowledgement. Depending on the individual and your relationship to them, a statement of “That must be why you...” may not be inappropriate. Although, you should probably use that one with care, and obey the normal social rules about calling attention to another person's traits.

Lastly, if someone tells you that they are autistic, they are sharing a very personal piece of information. Please respect this. It is not your place to tell other people about it. I'm very open about my autism, but I feel that it should be my decision how and when to tell people.

There are a few things to keep in mind on a more ongoing basis. First and foremost is to remember that all autistic people are different. We tend to share some traits in common. The label of autism defines that. Otherwise, we're all individuals, and there is as much variation between any two autistic people as you will see between any two neuronormal people. A common phrase in the autistic community to describe this is “If you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person.”

Fortunately, I notice it's becoming less necessary to say that last point in recent years. As people become more aware of autism, and minds become more open, people tend to be more likely to see us as individuals. Still, if you notice one autistic person has a certain unique trait, don't assume the rest of us do.

If there is a parent or caregiver present, it is preferable to talk directly to the autistic person. In fact, this extends beyond autism. Think about if someone were to speak to you through someone else. My guess is that it wouldn't make you feel good about yourself. If a person is unable to communicate directly, the caregiver will most likely help.

When talking to us, don't be afraid to be blunt. I know it's often considered rude in conversation to be too direct, especially on topics of a sensitive nature. However, autistic people tend not to read between the lines very well. If you dance around the subject too much, it's unlikely we'll understand what you're trying to say. There's also a chance that we might completely miss that you're trying to tell us something.

The flip side of that is that we also tend to be direct in our communication. We don't mean to be rude when we do it. However, it does mean that you can usually take what we say at face value, without having to read between the lines. We also have a tendency to show what we think of people, even if it isn't intentional.

Finally, for my part, questions are always appreciated. I've had people apologize to me for bombarding me with questions about autism. The simple truth is that I enjoy spreading knowledge and information about it. In fact, most self-advocates have a desire to be heard. Questions are a great way for us to find out the gaps in your own knowledge that you would like to be filled.

There is another reason I don't mind questions. The other option for most people is to check the internet. Unfortunately, there happens to be a lot of questionable information online. It often appears to be perfectly legitimate. However, it tends to be at odds with my own experience. My preference is always that you get your information from someone with first-hand life experience, rather than self-appointed advocates that rarely talk to actual autistic people.

Of course, like with anyone, it gets easier to know how to talk to the individual autistic people that you know as you get to know them better. We're all individuals. Just like with anyone else, conversation styles will vary from person to person.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Not to Say to an Autistic Person

Being openly autistic, I often have people say some insulting things to me. Occasionally, it's meant to be insulting. It's usually easy to know what to do with that, even for the neuronormal people around me that hear it. These days, most people know that it's inappropriate to call someone retarded. Autistic people are likely to be personally insulted by it, even if it isn't directed toward them.

However, a lot of people will say things that are meant to be perfectly innocent, or even as compliments, without realizing how insulting it might seem. I'd like to talk about some of my favorites here. All of these have been said to me or my friends. Please understand that I am fully aware that none of these are meant to be insulting, but I honestly believe the people that say them do not know what they sound like to us.

• “You seem so normal.”

This is probably the most common thing that I hear when I tell someone that I'm autistic. I've never liked this one because it implicitly defines autistic as “bad” and normal as “good.” My goal has always been to be the best me I can be, and it's been obvious to me for a very long time that that's a very different path from “normal.”

• “You seem pretty smart.”

This is another very common one. My guess is that you don't feel the need to say this to every smart person you talk to. Usually, the reason to say something like this is if it comes as a surprise. Autism and intelligence are not mutually exclusive, and very frequently coexist within a single individual.

• “You must be very high-functioning.”

This is an unnecessary and meaningless thing to say. Just don't bother.

• “If you hadn't told me, I never would have guessed.”

Most of us have had our entire lives to learn how to navigate through society. Passing as normal can be an important skill, because most of us don't want to have to explain it to every person we meet. However, it's more about survival than a desire to be normal. Most of us would prefer not to be complimented on it.

• “Oh, I'm so sorry.”

You can substitute here any expression of pity. It's usually said much slower than anything prior to the statement that I'm autistic. We don't want pity about autism. I can assure you that if I felt at all ashamed of my autism, I wouldn't have said anything about it. In fact, some of us even have some pride in our individuality.

• “Labels go on soup cans.”

This seems to be an attempt to assure me that there's nothing wrong with me. The label isn't about creating barriers or making excuses. It's an attempt to gain a greater understanding of myself.

• “Aren't we all just a little bit autistic?”

There's a reason we have different labels for different things. If there were no differences, there would be no word for the differences. Besides, when I was growing up, I could never fully understand the actions of the people around me. This is due to having a completely different type of brain. I shouldn't have had this problem if everyone around me were a little bit autistic.

• “It's not 'autistic.' It's 'has autism.'”

To be honest, I feel that I'm capable of deciding for myself how I'll talk about myself. I've always preferred 'autistic' to 'has autism.' If that seems odd to you, it's always appropriate to ask why.

• “I heard it might be caused by ___________.”

If an autistic person cares about this subject, chances are that they've heard it. The reality, though, is that most of us don't concern ourselves with what causes autism. If it isn't intended to be a discussion of autism-related issues, please keep it to yourself.

• “Have you tried ___________?”

Any type of autism treatment that you might have heard of. If the person you're talking to is an adult and has told you that they're autistic, whatever they're doing is probably working for them. Unsolicited advice only serves to marginalize us. Unless you're the person's parent or hired caretaker, it's not your job to give it.

• “You just need to get out more.”

This isn't always as easy as it is for a neuronormal person. Most of us tend to stay away from social gatherings because they're tiring or overwhelming. Odds are pretty good that you wouldn't tell someone confined to a wheelchair to just go for a walk. We'll attend social gatherings when we're ready. Just don't push us.

• “You inspire me!”

Context is everything on this one. I'm just living my life, just like you. I have challenges, just like you, though mine might be a little different. If I do something extraordinary, that's one thing, but I've always been uncomfortable with my day to day life being inspirational to other people. Please reserve admiration for when it's appropriate. Day to day living doesn't qualify, whether the person is autistic or not.

So, what can you say to an autistic person? The answer is a lot simpler than you might think. Just talk to us like we're people. If you would be insulted by something, chances are good that we will be too.