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  • Writer's pictureAshlea McKay

Quirk Monster #13: Communicating without social cues

A graffiti art brick wall showing a woman's face up close and she's wearing sunglasses
A graffiti art brick wall showing a woman's face up close and she's wearing sunglasses

A remote work from home guide gave me pause this week. 

It was well-intentioned and was pulled together by a more-than-decent group of people to help others through a difficult time. 

It included two references to social cues — or rather the potential lack thereof due to remote working arrangements in response to COVID-19. The guide described ‘non-verbal cues’ of face-to-face interactions as a ‘critical part’ of communication. The guide also encouraged people to listen to what is and isn’t being said in case someone is not doing well but might not outwardly ask for help.

As an autistic person, reading social cues does not come naturally to me. I really struggle to interpret facial expressions and I’m not good at reading between the lines. 

Reading those words onscreen stopped me dead in my tracks. My first thought was Wow. I can’t even do those things when there isn’t a pandemic going on. Am I that bad at communicating?

I wasn’t angry. I was just stunned. I knew it wasn’t intentionally exclusionary. The bulk of the content was great and the fact that these guides even exist in the first place is a credit to the amazing hard-working people behind them. 

As someone who is so passionate about inclusion, I knew I had to speak up about this though. 

I reached out to a trusted friend and asked them for their thoughts. We discussed the social cues and a few other bits and pieces and together we shared some respectful and constructive feedback with the guides’ creators. The response that came back was warm, positive and supportive. Like I said, these are good people. 

Over the next day or so, I tossed and turned over my initial reaction. I wondered why I was so stunned to see that in there. 

Then I realised this evening, I was surprised because this is something I’ve never had to think about. 

When non-autistic people communicate there’s all this information coming at them that I completely miss. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice — nope. If someone starts shouting and swearing at me, I know they’re probably not happy but I miss everything that led up to that and usually don’t see it coming. One workplace sent me to EQ training where I failed every body language exercise and rescued the ‘wrong’ people from the volcano. 

Being bad at reading social cues is a given for me. Like not being able to drive a car or navigate an international airport alone without upsetting security (that’s a good story), social cues are something I laughed at and moved on from a long time ago. I made peace with my social shortcomings and aside from the occasional venting session in a multi-storey car park elevator, I stopped caring about them. 

But, I understand they are important to people who can instinctively read them. Things are really tough right now. It’s been an anxious and overwhelming time for me too. 

Communicating without social cues is something I was born to do. 

And contrary to my knee-jerk reaction to those guides, I’m not bad at communicating at all. Once I processed my reaction, I realised that there’s an opportunity here. Perhaps there’s something my non-autistic friends might learn from me and how I move through this world. 

Here are three things I do to communicate without knowing why your face is moving that way. 

I ask a lot of questions. And then I ask some more. I don’t stop asking questions. I don’t give a rats if I look stupid. Information is there to be found and I want/need it. If you don’t answer my question, I’ll keep asking. If you answer some hidden question that you think I’m asking, I will get very annoyed at you. I don’t play games. Which brings me to my next point. 

I communicate openly and transparently. I had a panic attack this week and I told my manager. Why? I have anxiety, so probably just the general state of the world right now. Oh. Why did I tell her? To help her understand how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. She needs to know these things so that she can support me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect. I did tell you just last week that I kept my trap shut about some recent mental health challenges for a good 3 months. When it comes to work, I work hard to always be completely open in my communication. I update people, I check in on people and I share potential issues as soon as I catch a whiff of them no matter how annoying it makes me look. You’ll thank me later because I caught it early.  

I try to focus on facts. Prediagnosis me spent nearly 30 years trying to learn how to be ‘normal’ and my studies included reading up on body language. Problem was, whenever I tried to apply it, I always got it wrong. The thing is, I’m not alone in that. Being non-autistic doesn’t necessarily make you good at reading social cues. Also, non-autistic people often find it hard to read me because what I’m feeling on the inside and presenting on the outside don’t always match. I love folding my arms. It’s a sensory thing. I do it in my sleep and I wake up with perfectly matching finger bruises on my arms just above the elbow. Arm folding can be taken to mean someone is angry or feeling guarded, but in my case, it’s a lot closer to really comfortable! Stop looking for hidden meanings and focus on facts. If you don’t know something, ask. Ask it as an open question and go with exactly what you’re told. In words. Take things at face value and seek evidence rather than beliefs. 

Life is tough right now, but we’ll get through it if we stick together and support each other. Check in on people, ask questions like ‘Are you OK?’ It makes a huge difference.

Take care. 

Author’s note

This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile. 



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