[This post is an edited version of a Twitter thread I wrote on September 5th, 2019, which can be found here.]
Most allistic atempts to teach autistic people “social skills” are just attempts to teach us their social skills, with little to no reciprocal effort on their part to learn about ours.
Autistic and allistic people are each better at certain types of socialising, and each group can be said to have specific social skills. Neither group is superior to the other, despite the relentless portrayal of autistic people as having “deficits” and “social failings”.
Any allistic person who doesn’t acknowledge that autistic people do have social skills – just different ones – and that autistic people are actually, on the whole, better at some forms of communication, is ableist, by dint of prioritising allistic ways of doing things and degrading ours.
Any allistic person who denies that a thriving, intricate, and communicative autistic culture exists, even when that culture is clearly visible (particularly online) if one takes a short time out of their life to be curious, is ableist, by dint of ignoring a minority group, a minority culture that has arisen in the only place (the internet) where we can find others like us.
Any attempt to teach autistic people social skills that doesn’t involve recognising and encouraging autistic ways of socialising, that only teaches allistic ways, is merely a (possibly well-intentioned) suppression of who we are and of autistic culture.
Any allistic teacher who assumes that there is only one version of social skills, and who prioritises without question culturally-specific, era-specific, probably privileged (white, abled / neurotypical, educated, native English speaking, etc) ideas about what is socially acceptable and correct, is doing harm by treating some people’s self-expression and connection as more correct and important than others.
Allistic people, even when well-intentioned, pretty much universally fail autistic people unless they are actually listening to autistic people and allowing our lived experience to inform their actions.
Anyone who is thinking about teaching an autistic person, especially a vulnerable and impressionable autistic child, about how to socialise should ensure that they are doing so in ways informed and approved of by #ActuallyAutistic people. They should be making as much effort to learn from us as they are expecting the autistic person in question to put into learning from them.
Autistic people’s ways of socialising are as varied as allistic people’s and, just like allistic people, how we act (and interact) is informed by the culture/s and time we grow up in as well as by the individuals around us. None of us are immune to social conditioning, to absorbing the social standards of the day and parroting them back out to the society that fed them to us.
However, there are some ways of interacting that are particularly common amongst autistic people, and that I believe we are, on the whole, pretty good at:
– directness / honesty, and resistance to social pressures that encourage us to lie
– recognition of details, precision and accuracy
– being literal and straightforward, without (or with comparatively less) subtext and ambiguity
– openness to people and ideas outside of social norms, and increased resistance to arbitrary or unsubstantiated social ideas / attitudes (always looking for reasons and logic, and dismissing anything that doesn’t show them)
– somewhat significant resistance to social phenomena such as groupthink and mob mentality (not total resistance, by any means,just notable, related to the points above and below)
– strong sense of justice and morality within our relationships.
While not every autistic person will display all of these traits, and I doubt any of us express all of them all the time, they do all seem to be relatively common amongst us and worth acknowledging, perhaps even celebrating.
Allistic perceptions of autistic people are so entrenched in the idea of us being broken versions of them that they usually fail to see that, though we struggle with some things, we are actually better at some too.
It is not superior, merely accurate and nuanced, to say that autistic people are, on the whole, better at some things, equal at some, and worse at some.
Frankly, I am suspicious of most times allistic people take on teaching roles to autistic people, because so many still hold so much (hopefully subconscious) bias in favour of themselves. And so many act as though they are nobly guiding the poor little disabled people who have no skills of their own. It is both distressing and disgusting to me.
There’s nothing wrong with helping autistic people to understand the ways allistic socialising works. Sadly, a lot of us need to understand in order to be safe in this world. And learning about other people is generally a good thing anyway. But that’s the point.
That’s the whole damn point.
Allistic people generally don’t learn about us. So often, so damn often, it is all about them educating us, but not learning from us, them teaching us their ways of being but not even acknowledging that our ways exist, or treating ours as deficient and incomplete and inferior, in need of their guidance and (laughably) “understanding”. And that is what makes us unsafe, or, at least, it’s one aspect of what makes us unsafe. That dismissal of ways other than theirs, of people other than them.
If you intend to teach an autistic person about “social skills”, make damn sure that you’re including autistic social skills in there, that you’re not pathologising or punishing autistic ways of socialising (such as consistent honesty or literal interpretations / descriptions). Make sure you’re teaching yourself and the other allistic people around you about autistic ways, Do not demand we conform to your ways of socialising, that we adopt and mimic them, unless you are willing to conform to our ways. It is hypocritical, and it stinks of prejudice.
We will not be equal, or even remotely safe and free, until allistic people – all allistic people – are taught about autistic social skills just as much as autistic people are taught about allistic ones.
Oh, and if you want us to understand your ways, actually explain them (which may require considerable introspection and sociological examination on your part – no bad thing), don’t expect us to “just know”. You might be able to pick up standard ways of socialising almost automatically, but they are designed for you, by people like you. Try going to a radically different country to yours, where you don’t speak the language, and see how many of the intricacies of social norms and etiquette you understand.
Stop framing our traits, our qualities, negatively. Stop calling our honesty “brutal” and “blunt” when it’s just consistent and not wrapped in social niceties. Stop calling us “stupid” or “unresponsive” or “non-reciprocal” if we don’t respond immediately. Maybe I value taking the time to really consider what a person has said before responding to them. Maybe I need extra time to process. Maybe I’m overwhelmed and didn’t hear you (which yes, can happen in a quiet room).
And realise that every single conversation I have ever had, except ones with other autistic people, has happened in allistic ways. You have everything. The social world belongs to you and is built out of crushed autistic people.
From the basic social norm of routinely asking “How are you?” when you don’t really want to know, and lying in response instead of taking it literally and telling the truth, to the entire way conversations are structured, pretty much every single aspect of every single interaction is done your way.
Start compromising or don’t pretend you care about our equality.
For example, quite a few of us struggle with quick back-and-forth conversations. For me, they are hard to process and keep up with, especially if there are more than two of us involved. Amongst other issues, they don’t allow me time to think over what the person has said, instead placing on me an expectation of immediate response.
I prefer conversations where each person gets to talk uninterrupted for quite a while, almost like a monologue, to explore all of their thoughts until they’re finished and have no thoughts left. Then there’s a little while for us all to process and think over it, to check we’ve understood fully and ask questions, and so on. Then it’s someone else’s turn to talk and they go for as long as they need to. No-one gets interrupted, it’s unlikely two people will speak at the same time, and everyone gets to explore their thoughts fully instead of getting cut off and ending up forgetting stuff they wanted to say.
While I’m confident this would not be every autistic person’s conversational preference, and that it wouldn’t work for some people, my point is that it is mine, and I have never – not once in my entire life – got to have a conversation in this way, the way that is natural and comfortable to me. Every single conversation I have ever had has conformed to an allistic standard, and has therefore been at least a little uncomfortable for me. An uncountable number have been outright overwhelming. This should not be the case. It seems to me that, if we all truly value each other, we will take turns doing things in each others’ ways. But this is not the world I live in.
My preferred conversational style has nothing inherently wrong with it. But it is not The Allistic Way, so it gets framed as a bad thing. If I want to talk for quite a while, I’m portrayed as trying to dominate the conversation, when all I’m really doing is trying to explore my thoughts fully and provide as much context and detail as I can in order to be as clear as possible. If I want to listen for quite a while (which is just as vital a contribution to a conversation as talking), I’m apparently unresponsive or not even listening at all – the opposite of what I’m actually doing!
If you’re not autistic, you probably don’t know how distressing and painful interruptions and topic changes can feel to some of us. It feels like actual shock, as though someone has just yanked me sideways without warning and dropped me somewhere unfamiliar. All my thoughts are left back where I was before and I probably won’t be able to reach any of them, meaning most or all of them get forgotten and I’m not able to explore and express them (especially worrying when they were about very serious matters). I feel lost, like I’m floundering, like I was just ripped away from my own thoughts.
I need to be able to express all my thoughts fully if I’m ever to be able to contribute to a conversation at my full potential, and, more importantly, if I’m ever to feel comfortable and valued.
But people shut down my attempts at this conversational style so fast, and act like I’m being rude just for wanting to express things fully or listen without talking for a while. The latter is especially bizarre, since people go on about how important listening is, but then assume I’m zoned out and not listening if I do listen without interrupting for a while. Interruption seems to be such an ingrained part of allistic conversation, despite how many people complain about it.
And this is without even mentioning the times when I try to communicate with people in non-speaking, or fully non-verbal ways. This post is already long, so I won’t go into detail about those situations now. But they are…humiliating, generally.
I’m trying to show you here that, even though conversational styles that are predominantly allistic are uncomfortable, overwhelming, and sometimes even painful for me (for example, if they cause sensory overload because there are so many voices speaking over each other), I have conformed to them my whole life. Because if I don’t, it’s anything from judgement to outright rejection or abuse.
Autistic people spend our lives conforming to allistic ways of socialising / communicating, with almost zero reciprocal effort, and then allistic people have the audacity to talk about how we don’t reciprocate socially and how they have to teach us social skills.
We compromise who we are just to be safe in your world. The smallest effort you could make in return is to throw out your prejudiced notions about us not being able / willing to socialise, and actually make an effort to learn autistic social skills.
If you’re teaching autistic people allistic ways of socialising, but not teaching allistic people autistic ways…you’re just prioritising allistic ways and upholding the idea of allistic people as “normal”, default, better, right. You are maintaining the erasure of our diverse, interesting, social culture.
Guess what? That’s ableism.
A vital thing for allistic people to realise is that we often are responding, just in ways you don’t recognise or understand. If we’re truly not responding, it’s probably not because of any inherent “deficit” in us or because we’re being rude, but rather because we’re struggling to process what’s happening and what’s expected of us, because we don’t realise that what you said / did requires a response, or because we’re too exhausted from living in your world and don’t have the energy to conform to and perform reciprocity right now. Sometimes we need to rest from socialising, and that’s okay.
We do often struggle to understand allistic people and what you mean. And you struggle to understand us too. This is finally starting to be empirically proven. Autistic people are good at communicating with other autistic people. Allistic people are good at communicating with other allistic people. We’re both iffy at communicating with each other. It is a two-way thing, not a failure, incompetence or unwillingness on our part. We are both communicating, and both failing to understand the other’s communication. Which is why we both need to learn about – and from – each other, rather than it always being autistic people learning about and from allistic people.
Autistic people are not the incomplete to your whole, the deficit to your ability, the absence to your presence, the simple to your intricate. We communicate just as much as you, only differently.
And it’s okay if you don’t understand our ways straight away. I don’t blame anyone for not understanding something, especially immediately. The problem is if you pathologise, punish, or dismiss our ways, and don’t bother to learn about them and the value they can add to relationships and interactions.
Side note: diagnostic criteria are often highly outdated and stereotypical, and present a very inaccurate view of us. When someone writes about autistic people with the perspective that we’re “disordered”, they end up portraying us negatively. What a surprise.
So please, if you do genuinely care about us, about our mental health and confidence, our self-esteem and how we are viewed by others, our equality and safety, don’t get your ideas about autistic communication from diagnostic manuals, charities run by allistic people, the media, etc. And don’t teach us without first teaching yourself. Actually talk to us, and especially listen.
You will learn how communicative we are, by actually communicating with us.
And for the love of my mental health, stop treating us like crap for not making “enough” eye contact, stop touching us without our consent, stop demanding so much sensory interaction. I get that it’s important to many of you, but that doesn’t make it okay to force it on us or to punish us for not forcing ourselves into it. So many autistic people have written about these things already, so I won’t go on about this. Just remember that eye contact, physical contact, and other such things add even more things for me to process, thereby making it harder for me to process what you’re saying and more likely that I’ll get sensory overload quite quickly. It can be painful. Don’t you dare act like I’m being rude, not listening, not caring just because I refuse to be in pain for you.
Let us have boundaries. Let us have consent. Let us do what we need to do in order to participate effectively and be safe.
And there is one thing that applies to all of us, autistic and allistic: apply these ideas to other communities too. Don’t treat people of colour, non-native English speakers, other disabled / neurodivergent people, poor people, etc as though their communication is lesser and as though they need to be taught, but not learned from. Value everyone’s communication, not just that of the people who are most socially accepted.