Differences in Autistic v. Allistic Communication

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In our latest tip sheet from DeafTEC and AccessATE, we discuss how communicating with employees with autism can require some adjustments. This, of course, doesn’t mean autistic people are bad communicators – simply that the way they process conversation is different than some of us may be used to. Here, we will further explore the differences between autistic and allistic communication.

Autistic and allistic people approach ideas differently, but can learn to communicate effectively.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Communication for Autistic Employees

For those unfamiliar, “allistic” refers to people who are not on the autism spectrum, and has become an increasingly popular term to help distinguish people from their autistic peers without using judgmental terms like “normal” in contrast to “autistic”. When interacting with an autistic employee, it’s important to remember that there is no one “right” way to communicate, which of course is true regardless of whether one is on the autism spectrum or not. It’s also important to bear in mind that misunderstandings are as frustrating for the autistic person as they are for you, and having a better understanding of autistic communication can prevent breakdowns for both parties.

While autism doesn’t look the same in all people who are on the spectrum, there are a handful of common traits that can affect how autistic and allistic people communicate. One that often strikes allistic people right away is directness; autistic people can find implications and assumptions hard to interpret, and as such, often speak much more directly than allistic people may expect. This straightforward manner can be misinterpreted as rude, condescending, or aggressive, but autistic people highly value directness because it ensures mutual clarity. Similarly, autistic people also highly value honesty in communication, meaning things that are factual or true. This can be things that are objectively true (e.g., the earth revolves around the sun), or subjectively true (e.g., blue is a better color than red), as long as it can be backed up with “evidence” of some kind. For many autistic people, honesty and kindness are one and the same, whereas allistic people can interpret some things as “brutal honesty”. Another major difference has to do with non-verbal communication. Allistic people rely heavily on non-verbal communication, including facial expressions, body position and gestures, prosody, etc. However, autistic people may miss or misinterpret this unspoken information. Autistic people also usually don’t like to make much eye contact, and may appear to be paying attention to something else or to be “tuned out” completely, even though they are still listening.

Other common autistic communication features that can leave allistic peers feeling confused are efficiency and timing. Autistic people often view communication as a simple exchange of information, and therefore may forego the usual small talk that many allistic people engage in before getting to the heart of the conversation. In the workplace in particular, autistic people may prefer brief and efficient communication so they can resume their tasks quickly. That said, autistic people often have “special interests” or favorite subjects, about which they can happily talk at great length; however, they may not want to have a conversation about their special interests at work because it’s not part of what they are there to do. Additionally, autistic people often prefer slower-paced conversations, and may take a long pause to consider what was said before responding; some may even physically leave briefly before returning to respond.

Research shows that while autistic people communicate very well with each other, trying to communicate with allistic people can feel like trying to communicate with someone speaking another language, just as allistic people can find communicating with autistic people to be confusing. As such, it’s not realistic to expect autistic people to use allistic communication styles all the time, and it’s not fair that the pressure of bridging the communication gap is often entirely on autistic people; allistic people need to try to meet their autistic peers halfway by learning about they communicate. It’s also essential for allistic people to think of these merely as differences, not an impairment on the autistic person’s part.

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