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.