Six Principles Of Autistic Interaction
ABSTRACT: Autistic individuals typically have problems interacting in normal social environments. This leads some parents and professionals to think that they are naturally antisocial. However, autistic individuals, if allowed to interact with other autistic individuals, develop complex friendships that are based on social rules that are unique to autistic relationships. These social rules are not necessarily the social rules of neurotypical individuals. In this essay, I discuss general principles that autistic individuals use when they interact with each other, and how this helps their relationships prosper.
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[Author’s note: The following rules have been read and verified by other autistic individuals.]
There is a basis for the conclusion that autistic individuals are naturally antisocial. Most autistic children do not do well in social situations and prefer to be alone. Some consciously refuse to follow social rules for they fail to see the point of them. Other autistic individuals who do attempt to attain social acceptance may be unable to understand the rules of the majority and hence find themselves despised and rejected.
The underlying cause of autistic social problems is not that autistic people are inherently antisocial. It is that they are social in their own way. But this way is not the normal way, and thus they are perceived to be weird by many neurotypical people.
When two autistic people who are fit for each other interact, there typically are several principles they use when socializing. These may seem alien to you, but remember, many of your values are alien to us even when we learn them.
The word “fit” is key, however. Not all autistic people can find common interests or share worldviews with all other autistics. Some are incompatible. But remember, many neurotypical people have incompatibilities with other neurotypicals.
A few years ago I attended an autistic summer camp. At the camp there was an autistic child who was nonverbal and communicated by screaming day and night. This alienated him from the other autistic children, particularly the boys in his cabin, because they all had sound sensitivities. This caused them to feel impending terror throughout their nervous systems because, without warning, they would hear this child screaming and it would make them fall apart. One child did in fact break down as a result. But this one autistic child who did not have sound sensitivities would not stop because he didn’t know why everyone was angry at him. Thus, he was incompatible with the others.
Another important point is that much of this applies only to high-functioning autistic individuals. Many lower-functioning or nonverbal autistic individuals may not have the ability to understand certain social principles, and thus cannot think in terms of how someone else feels (e.g., “a theory of mind.”) Other autistic individuals are very selfish and self-centered with regard to other people, even other autistic individuals. Those individuals aren’t necessarily trying to annoy or reject everyone they meet. They just lack a basic awareness of other people.
It should also be remembered that when autistic individuals meet, they have likely dealt with considerable rejection in their lives. They know what it’s like to be forced into a social interaction and to fail miserably. So when autistic people meet, an emphasis is often placed on not forcing or rejecting each other, provided that both autistic individuals are capable of understanding concepts of force and rejection that might be separate from their own. They may, in fact, impose no rules on each other whatsoever and may accept any kind of behavior unconditionally. Neurotypical people may again see this as evidence of autistic weirdness when actually it is a form of socializing based on universal respect for others, which is supposedly a neurotypical value as well.
But what are some of the unwritten, nonverbal rules of autistic interaction that most high-functioning autistics would agree upon? I believe they are the following:
1. It is more important to tell the truth than to be polite, unless the person you are talking to specifically states that their feelings are easily hurt.
If one autistic person is bothering the other autistic person, what is the autistic response? It is not politeness or silence. The autistic response is to somehow communicate (verbally or nonverbally), “Look, you’re bothering me, don’t do that anymore.”
If the other autistic person can understand what his friend feels like when he is bothered, then he will stop. His feelings will not have been hurt because of what his friend said; after all, his friend had every right to tell him to stop bothering him. Similarly, an autistic person who does not want to be with another autistic person will not hesitate to say, “I don’t want to be with you.” In both cases, no one’s feelings will be hurt. The truth is better than being polite.
This does not always mean that one autistic child will stop bothering another autistic child. Autistic children who do not have the ability to understand that they are bothering someone do not understand why they have to stop and hence will continue to bother them. I used to bother many people because I couldn’t understand why I was bothering them, and didn’t see why I had to stop. But the autistic person who is being bothered will not hide their feelings from another autistic person.
Why doesn’t the autistic person simply deal with the unwanted behavior of his friend? That is because being polite is not as important as telling the truth. In the normal world, autistic people are often hurt a great deal because someone was too “polite” to tell them they were making a mistake. I have often engaged in what I thought was a successful social interaction with strangers, only to be blasted by my parents afterward about how rude and inappropriate I was. When I complain that no one told me I was being rude and inappropriate, I am invariably told that the other people were “being polite” by not telling me. How is this supposed to help me in the long run? The truth would have been much more helpful. In addition, many autistic people often feel confused when they learn two contradictory lessons in life. After being told earlier that they must always tell the truth, then they are told that they must withhold the truth if it means hurting one’s feelings. This is very hard to grasp for an autistic person. To him, you have just lied by telling him two lessons that contradict each other. If one lesson is true, the other must be false. Why did you say that you must always tell the truth if, in certain scenarios, you’re not allowed to tell the truth? And which is correct? Is telling the truth the right thing to do, or is being polite?
Therefore, in an autistic relationship, only one rule applies: truth wins over politeness. If you don’t like someone, you tell him. You say, “I don’t like you.” An autistic person frequently asks whether he is bothering his friend, even if it is pretty clear he is not. And the autistic person will reply honestly, because he understands his friend’s concern. However, autistic people are not bothered by certain things that bother normal people (and vice-versa).
Of course, there are exceptions. I once had a friend whom I thought was very ugly yet since my friend had very low self-esteem, I never mentioned it to him, and did choose politeness over the truth. But I never lied to him about it; I just didn’t bring it up.
2. There is no such thing as an interruption or talking too much during a conversation.
In an autistic friendship, a shared interest is often the glue that keeps the friendship together. Two fanatics of Star Wars will be friends because they like Star Wars. But they aren’t really interested in seeing the person, they’re interested in talking about Star Wars. Therefore, exchanging information is the most important part of the friendship, and who says what and how it is said are of secondary importance.
During autistic conversations, interruption is never impolite. This is for several reasons.
One, the autistic mind, when it hears information, has a tendency to process it in an associative fashion. Often, an autistic person hears a sentence and then thinks about something totally irrelevant to the overall conversation but relevant to the sentence. When the autistic person hears, for example, about how another autistic person loved to eat Polish sausage, the first thing he might think about when his mother went to Poland for a vacation. He might want to talk about how his mother went to Poland, and all of a sudden, the two autistic individuals will be talking about Poland.
However, in order to direct the conversation toward Poland, the autistic individual has to interrupt. Why? Because it only makes sense to mention Poland after the term “Polish sausage” has been mentioned. If he waits until the speaker finishes his thought, then talking about his mother’s trip to Poland will be totally irrelevant. Thus, if he interrupts, he gets to be heard by the speaker, but if he doesn’t, he won’t get a chance to say what he wants.
Two, because autistic individuals have learning disabilities such as poor short-term memory, poor memory storage, and other things, they may have to blurt out their idea as soon as it is formed or they may not be able to remember it when it is their turn to speak. The idea might come and go rapidly, never to return, which makes the autistic person frustrated. Other autistic people have this same problem, and hence, they do not care when someone interrupts them to get their idea expressed.
Three, autistic people often lack the ability to know when another person is done talking. This becomes problematic when autistic people speak with normal individuals. The autistic person doesn’t know when the normal person is actually done talking or just taking a breath before starting a new sentence. When the normal person is, in fact, done talking, the autistic person doesn’t immediately pick it up and by the time he tries to talk, someone else has already started talking. Thus, in an autistic conversation, there is no such thing as being done. Some autistic individuals even talk until you do interrupt. And when you interrupt, they listen to you, but then just pick up where they left off when you are done.
Many autistic individuals have the habit of talking too much. They will not stop unless you interrupt them. Thus, many autistic people interrupt each other to communicate that they want the other person to stop, as this is the only way they can get a word in. In fact, sometimes autistic people are incapable of stopping—their thoughts just tumble out in a series of run-on sentences, and by stopping them, you are doing them a favor. Sometimes I can’t control what comes out of my mouth, and once something gets started, it just keeps going. Our minds are like trains, going from one point to another along a designated track. This is perhaps one reason why autistic children like trains so much.
Because the focus of an autistic friendship is on the information instead of the person, a speaker is usually not offended when he is interrupted. If he is not done, all he has to say is, “I’m not done.” If the other person has to speak and cannot hold back, all the first person has to do is wait for a time then interrupt the other person in return. Eventually, all the information is exchanged, and that is the purpose of the friendship.
3. It is always okay to say no to someone else rather than to create a fictitious excuse for why you can’t do something with a friend.
If you want the autistic person to play a board game, but the other autistic person doesn’t want to, the autistic person will say no. Not all autistic people attain the ability to accept “no” for an answer, but they will likely say no to you when they don’t like something you want them to do.
Autistic people, having been forced to do many things themselves, understand what it feels like when another autistic individual doesn’t want to do something. When they communicate their wishes not to do something, they are not putting their friend down but telling their friend something they know their friend will understand.
To an autistic person, it’s not what you say that hurts, it’s whether you mean it. The truth never hurts, but lies and deception do.
When an autistic child is bullied, their feelings are hurt because the bully is deliberately trying to hurt them and figures out clever ways to trick and hurt the autistic person. But when one autistic person says negative things to another autistic person, he is not trying to bully the person but only to convey truthful information.
I once went out to see a movie with a person my age that was on the autism spectrum. She was totally shut down during the movie, and clearly didn’t want to be there. Although I understood what she was going through, my mother felt that, in order to be polite, I should call her up and ask to get together again. When I did, the girl told me that she had plans all week and thus could not see me. When it was later revealed that the real reason was because she did not like seeing that movie with me and she was also trying to be polite, I was furious. I felt as if she had betrayed me, and my feelings were hurt. This was not because she had rejected me, but because she had to lie about it. If she could be honest, then I would not have felt hurt. And if I have disobeyed my mother and not called the girl up, then I wouldn’t have put her in a situation in which she was forced to lie. So in this case, two normal rules—call someone up out of politeness even if you don’t want to, and make up stories about why you can’t see the other person—caused both of us to be hurt.
4. Information is neither good nor bad, neither appropriate or inappropriate. It simply exists.
Many autistic people think on what I call a “factual” basis. This is why interruption is non-existent in the autistic relationship even though autistic people frequently interrupt. Similarly, exchanging information for the sake of exchanging information can sometimes offend neurotypical people because autistic people will often point out factual data out when that data is inappropriate or embarrassing.
There’s a scene in a movie I once saw in which a man named Edgar, when asked how a couple tragically died in a car crash, replies matter-of-factly, “You know, the fog gets pretty heavy in Scotland. Throw in a curved road, little whiskey—that kind of accident doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Edgar’s statement displays a total lack of sympathy for the people who died. However, it is unlikely that Edgar feels this way. Although it is not mentioned that Edgar is autistic, this is something that an autistic person might say and not find anything wrong with it. Why? Because autistic people generally think in terms of stating factual information free from emotion.
One day, when I called up one of my autistic friends, she announced to me that she was getting her period. We both knew that typically a girl wouldn’t always share that information to a guy, but we also know that since we were both autistic, she just felt she had been sharing information to me about herself. I understood it the same way. To us, that was just a sharing of information, and we didn’t feel bothered by it, regardless of its sensitive nature. Some (though not all) autistic people I know, in fact, aren’t bothered by sharing personal information about their bodies or from their past. I even jokingly replied, “If I were more seriously autistic, I might have looked at a calendar and told you what day of the week your next period might start one month from now.”
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Oftentimes this is not an issue when autistic people are talking to each other because what they talk about is independent from feelings such as embarrassment. Two autistic kids who talk about trains and the details of different train routes, such as taking the Red Line subway route or the Blue Line subway route, do not typically talk about how they feel about trains or how the trains are feeling. And what’s more important is not the people themselves, but the fact that they both are fascinated with trains.
5. Relationships are often oriented around mutual mental interests and not physical appearance or attraction, or gender.
I was once told that the symbol of the nerd is the plastic penholder and ballpoint pens inside the front shirt pocket. I think another symbol of the nerd is the focus on mental interests and the indifference toward physical appearance, whether his or another person’s.
This is also an attribute of an autistic relationship. Often autistic people are not focused on the appearance of the other person but on what the person is interested in. As mentioned above, Star Wars fanatics talk about Star Wars and focus on facts about the movies, not how anyone is dressed or how their hair is cut.
This also sometimes produces a cavalier attitude toward one’s own personal appearance. Many autistic people can’t be bothered with what they look like. There’s a lot more better stuff to think about. And often times they have no sense of ugliness—to them, people are neither ugly nor beautiful. They might wonder why people who are fat, for example, are teased and made fun of by others.
This issue also occurs when autistic individuals create friendships that they perceive differently than the way other people perceive their friendship. For example, society--and by “society” I mean other people, even children--looks at friendships between a boy and a girl, or a man or a woman, differently than friendships between two boys and two girls, or two men and two women. My mother pointed out, for example, that when I saw that movie with the autistic girl, I had to pay for both tickets. (Ironically, the girl with autism was oblivious to this.) But, as she pointed out, if I had seen a movie with another boy, we would be allowed to pay for our own tickets.
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When an autistic person meets someone with similar interests, it often doesn’t matter whether the friend is a boy or a girl, short or tall, younger or older, or even in the same room or the same country. What matters is that that person is their friend—someone they enjoy talking to and hanging out with. And isn’t that what the true definition of friendship is all about?
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These days, with the Internet, autistic people are able to find deep and satisfying friendships with people that they have never met and with whom they communicate only in chat rooms and by e-mail, or just by phone. Sometimes, these friendships are ideal for many people with autism, since they focus only on information, not the person’s physical presence.
6. There are exceptions to all social rules; in fact, even the social rules mentioned above aren’t always followed.
As the singer sings in the song Everyday People, “Different strokes for different folks."
While I was talking about autism in a general sense during this essay, autism is a very diverse disorder. Just as normal rules are infinitely complex, so are autistic rules. It works both ways. This essay is not meant to be a guide for normal individuals to help them interact with autistic individuals; none of the advice shown here will help you do that. It will help you understand some autistic individuals, especially myself, as this is how I have experienced social interactions, but every autistic person is different.
For example, some autistic individuals are married and capable of committed relationships with a husband or wife. Stephen Shore, an autistic speaker, is married. So is Liane-Holliday Willey, the author of an autobiography about autism. And many autistic people are polite to each other even if it means withholding the truth if they feel that they must be polite to not hurt the other person’s feelings.
Therefore, the solution to the problem of not having friends is to also realize that “not having friends” isn’t necessarily a problem unless a person needs other people in order to get by. If this is the case, parents and professionals should give autistic individuals opportunities to interact with other autistic individuals, and to acknowledge that autistic individuals have their own social rules that may be odd or embarrassing to you but are not embarrassing to them.
And once there is mutual understanding, we all-—the normal and the autistic individuals of the world—will attain a much better theory of mind toward one another.