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Lost in translation

A young man wearing a backwards cap and jacket with the words 'no longer lost' stares out of a window.

A guest article by Chris.

Quite often, I have found that neurotypical people are unable to understand the autistic way of thinking and vice versa. In many cases, autistic people – such as me – do not use subtext, sarcasm and inuendo, and so much can be lost in translation.

For me, I so commonly feel as if neurotypical people are talking in a secret code I don’t have the cypher for. This causes a huge problem for both sides of the communication coin because, as difficult as it is for some autistic people to understand some neurotypical people, it’s often just as difficult for them to understand us.

I know I can be straightforward and blunt; I say exactly what I mean. A lot of people who don’t have autism aren’t used to blunt honesty and many get offended, misinterpreting my straight talking for rudeness when it isn’t.

It doesn’t make sense to me to say one thing when I mean another, and as much as some neurotypical people may dislike bluntness, I know a lot of people like me who have a real issue with people hiding their point ‘between the lines’. I can’t read between the lines because, when I talk, there isn’t anything between my lines. What you hear is exactly what I mean and trying to discern some ulterior motive in my comments is just going to lead you down the wrong path.

So many autistic people think literally. So, when we say ‘no’, we mean nothing else but that and exactly that. I perceive ignoring that as disrespectful and for some, that can trigger a meltdown or worse. In my own case, it makes me angry when people don’t take my words seriously.

What then, is the best way to speak with an autistic person (or, at least, with me)? Here are my top tips:

  • Avoid using metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. For example, a neurotypical person may say ‘my feet are on fire’ when their feet feel hot, not because their feet are actually on fire. This is really confusing for the literally minded among us.
  • Avoid ambiguity. Ambiguity is maddening and confusing. Take ‘I saw her duck’ as an example. This could mean someone saw someone else move downwards, away from an object, or it could be someone saw someone else’s pet duck. Avoid it like the plague; that’s not a metaphor, it’s a simile – these aren’t as confusing as metaphors, but they can still present challenges.
  • Avoid saying things you don’t mean. You might say ‘keep in touch’ or ‘call me later’ as inconsequential remarks or polite ways to end a conversation. Some autistic people may interpret these as genuine requests for further communication, so they will try to keep in touch or call you later.
  • Get to the point. It’s hard for us to stay engaged if you waffle on and on.
  • No means no. If you offer something to me (and many autistic people), like a cup of tea, and I say ‘no’, I’m not trying to be polite by refusing – I don’t want what you’re offering.

Many autistic people (me included!) often struggle to talk the way neurotypical people do because we just don’t know how! It’s that simple.  
The next time you have the opportunity to have a chat with me or someone else with autism, it might be a good idea to try to talk to us the way we talk – up front and completely blunt. Give it a go – even if you think you’ll hurt my feelings, it really is my preferred way to converse. Being honest with me is much more appreciated, and I tend to respect those who are honest with me a lot more than those who aren’t.

Hi, I’m Chris. I’m an autistic person. Originally from California, I ran away to Australia as soon as I could. Raised in the country, life wasn’t easy with an invisible neurological difference, especially when that difference wasn’t widely known about. On top of that, I didn’t even get a diagnosis until my adult years. Looking forward, I want to leave behind some small piece of myself that maybe, if I’m lucky, might make a positive impact.




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