The Way I Communicate Is Different, Not Less


I am a 40-something autistic woman. I was diagnosed when I was 20. I was given a diagnosis I didn’t understand, a word I had never heard before: “Ass-ber-gers.” I thought it meant all the bullies who made my school days a misery had been right. I was officially “weird.” Needless to say, I didn’t take to this new piece of diagnostic information very well.

As a child, I recall occasional friendships with people who seemed to “get” me better than others — the boy who was passionate about different castles in England and built scale models of them; the girl I sat next to in English class who collaborated with me on science fiction and fantasy stories; the group of boys who reimagined Shakespeare plays as clever and funny parodies. Through the benefit of hindsight, I recognize some of my school friends may have been autistic themselves, but there was no word for my own little quirky “type” when I was at school in the 1980’s.

I eventually accepted the obvious — that I was an autistic woman — and started on my own “autistic odyssey” in 2001. Helpful information around autism was still sparse. Everything I read on the topic was focused on perceived “deficits.” Autistic pride for me was as remote as the surface of the moon. I would tell selected people who I thought were less likely than others to run me out of town carrying pitchforks and torches. When I disclosed — sadly, “admitted” might have described the process more accurately — it was in whispered tones with much justification and apology on my part.

In 2005, something happened that changed my world fundamentally. I met influential autistic author Donna Williams, who became my autism world mentor. I learned about stimming and that being a sensory seeker who loves sparkly things was not uncommon in the autism community. In fact, I learned there was an autism community, and that I could belong to it if I wanted to. Donna helped me in another very significant way, too. She suggested I write my story. It took four weeks to draft the manuscript, two to edit it, and three weeks for the publisher to say a big, emphatic “Yes, please, Jeanette! Have a contract.” Being an author thrust me rather reluctantly to the front of the autism world.

As years went on, I learned about neurodiversity, autistic pride, the idea of “different, not less” and “nothing about us without us!” While autism had always been presented to me as a negative, something in need of “treatment” and fixing, here I was meeting other autistic people who saw their differences and quirks not as something to hide, but as a source of pride. I loved this. Being proud of who I was made me able to value the younger version of myself who the bullies seemed to hate for no good reason. I reclaimed my identity.

I have had a thought about all these things for a while, and I’ve thought about communication. I get to go to a lot of autism conferences at the moment. A while ago, I noticed something after seeing groups of several autistic people together at conferences. Many of us are told all our lives that our social communication is deficient. We apparently have “poor social skills” and “poor communication.” I will refute that here and now as complete rubbish. It’s not that we lack communication or social skills. Instead, we may communicate in a different way. The way I communicate as an autistic person isn’t deficient or wrong; it may simply be different.

For example, as someone with autism:

  • I mean exactly what I say. There are no layers of meaning beneath my words.
  • I tend to communicate without needing things like eye contact or facial expression to convey meaning.
  •  I tend to be quite straightforward. I’ve observed in meetings with two autistic people, they often introduce one another and then get straight into the topic rather than taking a long time to get into the content. That is, many of us can tend to “cut to the chase.”
  • I often find myself “talking” without talking at all. I can just be “with” someone, and we are both looking at our phones or fiddling with a sensory toy. Sometimes, I simply do not need to fill the gaps with words.

In my experience, many autism therapies are based around teaching autistic people certain communication or social skills. But I think others can learn more about the ways autistic people might communicate as well.

It is great to impart to autistic people a sense of pride and self-worth, but I believe we also need to try and teach others — especially those in places of influence over autistic people’s lives — to better understand us.

Image via Thinkstock.

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