A common feeling among us autistic folk is that communication with non-autistics is almost always a pain. Add an extra layer of dealing with difficult topics about personal needs, discussions on harm being done, or anything that makes you nervous to bring it up, and suddenly it feels impossible. It honestly would be safer trying to talk to a brick wall because at least the wall won’t get offended about something that you don’t understand. There are, however, some ways to make these tough conversations more accessible.
I want to preface this with the fact that it is not entirely up to you to make communication with others accessible. As with anything that involves more than one person, all parties are responsible for working towards the common goal of understanding each other better. I know that not everyone we have to deal with in life will share that goal and working with those sorts of people puts us at a disadvantage. But I’d like to share some strategies I’ve learned and practiced over the years to try to help build that bridge (or, at the very least, make it significantly harder for someone else to blame us for miscommunications).
Communication is hard work regardless of neurotype. There is no getting around that. However, you know the phrase “work smarter, not harder”? I think there are some ways we can make these conversations that are always so much work with very little reward a little smoother and a little less intimidating to go into.
1. Identify your masking techniques that tend to drop when you’re focused or agitated
For many of us who did not receive much, or any, support for our autism growing up, learning what is and isn’t masking for us can be super difficult. But I assure you, this is a critical step. I discovered the hard way that things I thought were calm conversations were getting misinterpreted and spiraling into fights because the mask I normally have up gets dropped when I’m focusing on the conversation itself.
The way I like to describe is is through this clip from X-Men: First Class-
Raven is bench pressing while presenting as a “normal” human. The barbell suddenly starts floating and she turns to find Magneto walking in.
He tells her “If you’re using half your concentration to look normal, you’re only half paying attention to whatever else you’re doing. Just pointing out something that could save your life.”
He then makes the barbell drop suddenly forcing Raven to catch it quickly and she accidentally shows her mutant form.
“You want society to accept you,” he says, “but you can’t even accept yourself.” then he leaves her there and she watches him walk away
We could spend days digging into all the implications of what this clip covers as far as the experience of Autistic folks, but I want to focus on how this relates to tough conversations.
Over the years, we get used to there being lots of stuff about ourselves that people dislike. Then we learn to somehow keep it in check in order to make others comfortable. It’s exhausting but manageable in small doses. We’re not accepted as we are and spend half our focus at all times presenting as “normal” to the world. But we’re not actually capable of keeping that mask up when under stress or intense focus on something else.
For me, one of those things is my “inside voice”. I spend tons of energy every day just making sure that I’m not talking too loud for everyone else in the space. I’ve noticed that being overtired forces me to drop that mask though. If I’m in bed chatting with my husband as I’m drifting to sleep he often asks why I’m yelling and I get confused because I’m just talking.
It’s kind of a funny problem to have until it’s not. It turns out that I also drop that mask during serious or difficult conversations. It took me until I was 28 to discover that conversations I thought should have been fine spiraled into fights because people thought I was yelling at them when it was just that I couldn’t manage my “inside voice” while I was focused on the conversation at hand. So a workaround I developed for that is to make it clear before going in that my volume might be a problem and to please gently let me know if I’m getting too loud. When it’s just me and my husband he can just quickly chime in “hey you’re getting loud again” and it’s fine. I have asked him to be my reminder in conversations with others though in a more covert way. Like a hand squeeze or another predetermined signal. That way I don’t get too thrown off or flustered about it, but I’m still being considerate of others by not making them feel like I’m yelling at them. I know I don’t like being yelled at so I absolutely want to make sure I don’t do that to others.
The gentle reminder is the important part here. I can work with a “hey don’t forget please!” without much problem. But if the goal here is for conversations not to spiral into fights, then the person doing the reminding needs to be careful to support the other person rather than accuse them. Any time someone accuses me of yelling at them or they clearly get prickly and shut down while I’m trying to talk I get exasperated. Then I have even more trouble maintaining composure and staying on track. When each party is being considerate of the other even the tough stuff should go more smoothly.
If you’re not sure what parts of your mask drop in ways that cause friction in these moments, a good place to start would be this book-
It was tremendously helpful for me and my husband to identify needs and stress points for both of us when trying to talk. Even for casual stuff! It’s well-written, neatly organized, concise, easy to browse based on topic, etc. Personally, I read it first and added sticky notes to all the pages that pertained to me, then he read it, added notes to stuff he had questions about, and included his own sticky notes for pages that pertained to him. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone because it helps build your skills in making the world around you a more accessible place for everyone.
Here’s a picture of my copy sitting on my laptop to show how small it is!
2. Switch to your most comfortable communication method
Sometimes, depending on the topic, I just know I’m not going to be able to get my words out clearly. Sometimes it’s because I’m too angry or sad and I’ll just choke on tears and can’t get the words out at all. Sometimes it’s because I’m so agitated that I know I won’t be able to phrase things well and I’ll say hurtful things I don’t mean because I was too rash with my words. These are the times when I need to switch to writing.
I often use my notes app on my phone for this. There’s a lot of really angry messages in there to be honest. When I’m really upset about something I unleash all my feelings in the app and sometimes I just feel better after. Not usually. But then I can review what I wrote, refine, decide what’s actually necessary to say and what isn’t, etc. Depending on the situation and time frame I need to have this conversation in, I might run the message by someone I trust to help me rephrase things and make sure that my message is clear and effective.
From there you still need to worry about the other person’s consent. (Ok, admittedly, I have not always done that. Especially when I wrote out a “I’m cutting you out of my life and here’s why” message. But if you’re trying to resolve a conflict get consent first) I’ll text, call, or ask in person if they are available to talk. I need to discuss something important and I wrote it down to make it easier. This gives the other person the space they need to decide if they have the capacity to handle that immediately or not. (Sometimes you just happen to catch them in the middle of something else and they want to wait until they can give you their full attention. Don’t forget that a “not right now” doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care- they just can’t address it right this instant). I’ve often found that asking first and letting them know I wrote it all out so I could be clear before sending it to them can soften the other person to being more open to what you have to say. You clearly put time, thought, and effort into this and it’s not an “emotional outburst”. It helps, really.
-Side note on my method:
While on the note of using written communication I want to establish a clear difference between a long, well-thought-out message that you got consent for before sending it and “text bombing”. Angry outbursts over text can be just as harmful and manipulative as yelling in someone’s face. And unfortunately, I didn’t learn that until I had done it repeatedly to someone I love. I thought by texting I could have the conversation more clearly because I couldn’t get my words out in-person. But an angry outburst is still an angry outburst.
Don’t get me wrong, you’re allowed to be angry when you’ve been wronged, and you need to let yourself feel that emotion in order to process it and then heal from it. But if your goal is conflict resolution, you’re never going to get what you need from the other person through an angry outburst. That causes people to shut down and often causes the problem to spiral further. And frankly, depending on the severity and frequency of those outbursts, it can be abusive. So be careful.
-Considering everyone’s access needs:
My method won’t work for everyone. And there’s lots of reasons why- It might be a reading disability, a physical disability that makes it hard to write, a language barrier, or something else. What’s important here is finding the method that works best for you, what works best for the other person, and finding a way to meet in the middle.
As an example- I recently discussed this with a friend who has conflicting access needs to mine. They have dyslexia and it gets incredibly hard to deal with reading/writing when they’re agitated. So we agreed we’d make use of our smartphones and blend some accessibility tools to make it work for us. I would send written messages, they can use a screen reader to listen to them, and then send audio messages back. Thankfully, we haven’t had to implement this yet, but I’m grateful to know we already have something in place should the need arise.
3. Separating and prioritizing topics
Depending on the dynamic of your relationship with someone, there might be a lot of things you need to talk about on a regular basis that stress one or both of you out. This is where writing things out is really useful again.
I developed a method while working as a co-receptionist that I’ve since adapted to married life. And so far it seems to work really well across neurotypes. I personally have to get things out of my head immediately when they come up or else I forget them and then they never get done. I’m heavily dependent on phone notes, to do apps, etc. because of this. However, constant interruptions of someone else’s thoughts for my own needs is rude, unhelpful, and leads to friction in relationships.
Find a central place where you can each leave messages for the other to check periodically. We use Twist for this at home-
It’s designed specifically to keep asynchronous communication organized and productive. I’ve heard other people use kanban boards, sticky notes, etc. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you. It depends a lot on the dynamic of the relationship, what topics need to be discussed, the frequency of those discussions, etc. For me with my husband, I put anything that’s not immediately time-sensitive, or maybe I’m just worried I won’t remember the details we agreed on later, in Twist conversations so I have an up to date record of everything that pops into my head.
With that tool in place, I can save texts for immediate/urgent needs like “hey did we pull something out to thaw for dinner?” and casual conversations. Also memes. Can’t forget the memes.
4. Establish a common language
This may seem silly if you’re both native speakers of the same language, but context absolutely matters here. It’s incredibly rare for you to encounter someone with the same upbringing and experiences as you. So your understanding of terms, phrases, and concepts will likely differ from the person you’re talking with.
Finding books, blogs, movies, youtube videos, etc. on the topic - particularly those that include definitions and explanations - can be wildly helpful. You don’t even have to agree with the advice or conclusions in those resources. I’ve read a number of books that I didn’t agree with but found useful because it helped me build language to express my thoughts. And when it’s about something I need to discuss with a partner or friend I can share that resource with them so we can both come to the conversation with a similar understanding of concepts and definitions.
Good communication takes practice. It takes time, study, and effort on all sides. It also takes a willingness to humble yourself when you’re in the wrong and to stand your ground about your boundaries. It’s a delicate balance that has to constantly be worked on with every person you deal with regularly. If you can, find a safe place to vent and work through this process. A good support network is going to be your most valuable tool as you practice these communication strategies.
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