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10 things autistic people want others to know about talking to them

As Michael Rosen learns from Alis Rowe in Word of Mouth, people who have autism experience the world differently, and this often makes it harder for them to communicate. Read on for ten important insights into the challenges autistic people face in social situations, and what others can do to make things easier.

1. Every autistic person is different, but they may share similar challenges

Around one in 100 people in the UK has autism, a condition that affects the way they see, hear, feel and interact with the world around them. It can make it hard to talk to others or interpret social cues, and often causes anxiety.

Many autistic people find it hard to filter out background noise in busy environments.

Autism manifests differently in different people, and some are more affected by it than others. Just like in the wider population, some autistic people will be very loud and sociable, while others are more shy and withdrawn. Some may be unable to speak at all and prefer to communicate through gestures or symbols.

So, although all autistic people tend to face similar challenges, the ways in which they affect them and their lives can be very different.

2. An autistic person may find it hard to hear what someone’s saying over other sounds

‘Neurotypical’ people (those who don’t have autism) are able to focus on what other people are saying during a conversation because their brains automatically screen out other sounds.

But many autistic people find it hard to filter out background noise, so there may be several other things competing for their attention, such as traffic, music or other people talking. Simply hearing what someone is saying can be a huge, conscious effort; they may need to concentrate hard and ask the other person to repeat things.

3. They may miss hints, cues and nuances other people would pick up on

Autistic people may not recognise how things such as tone of voice and facial expressions can change the meaning of what someone is saying. As a result, they’re more likely to take things literally, and may struggle to understand sarcasm, metaphors or unusual turns of phrase.

However, it’s important not to automatically assume that an autistic person won’t understand a nuanced conversation – some people with autism can learn to spot these cues, but it’s not easy.

4. Putting things in context can really help

Understanding the meaning behind what people are saying can be a challenge for people with autism, so giving some context is crucial.

Alis Rowe gives this example: if you saw a robin at Brighton beach and shouted, ‘Wow, look at that bird!’ someone with autism might struggle to understand what was so remarkable about it. But by saying, ‘How strange to see a robin at the seaside’, they would more easily realise what you meant.

5. Someone who is autistic may have difficulty knowing when to speak to other people

Because autistic people find it harder to read others’ behaviour and body language, they may not be able to tell when it’s appropriate to start, end or join a conversation. Inviting them to contribute to a discussion and asking direct questions can help.

6. People with autism may sound different when they speak

For many people with autism, talking takes a lot of careful thought. They may say things slowly, stammer, speak in a monotone voice, emphasise unusual parts of a sentence or go into great detail.

Because these patterns of speech are unfamiliar, neurotypical people sometimes switch off or misunderstand what’s being said. So making space for an autistic person to speak and listening carefully to what they are saying is really important.

Everybody has their own unique experience of the world.

7. Socialising can be harder than it appears for autistic people

People with high-functioning autism can become very good at mimicking common social skills. But while they may look like they’re socialising happily, it’s often actually incredibly hard work.

Putting thoughts down in a text message or an email can offer a less stressful way to have a conversation.

8. People with autism might not express emotion in the way others expect

Autistic people may communicate their emotions differently or react unexpectedly to events because of other things they are dealing with.

For example, Alis says that when she got good A level results and a place at university, everyone expected her to be happy. But actually she felt worried because it meant leaving home and changing her routine.

Sometimes autistic people feel things especially strongly, and they may struggle to find the words to express their emotions. Pictures and clear questions can help.

9. People with autism may repeat things

There are several reasons why someone with autism may repeat a word or phrase. They might want to show the other person they’ve heard them, but that they can’t respond right way. They could be anxious and need reassurance. Or they might feel that a question they asked hasn’t been sufficiently answered yet.

10. Writing can be a helpful way to communicate

For someone with autism, putting thoughts down in a text message or email can offer a less stressful way to have a conversation. It allows time to digest messages, think things through and compose a response without the pressure to reply immediately. And it can be easier to understand what the other person means without all the additional social cues that come with conversing in person.

By contrast, autistic people may struggle with phone conversations since the there’s an expectation that they will be able to respond quickly, and there may be distracting background noise.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that, as Alis says in Word of Mouth, ‘what’s in someone else’s head is not the same as what’s in yours’. Understanding that each person has their own unique experience of the world can help everyone communicate better.