Quirk Monster #22: 5 ways to facilitate autism-inclusive conversations and be a better ally
Conversation is so f***ing hard.
It is hands down one of the most challenging parts of my day. Half the time I’m drowning in anxiety wondering how I’m going to get a word in before the conversation moves on without me (which it so often does) and the rest of the time I’m wondering what’s going on.
People are talking, I can’t find an opening to contribute, I’m feeling anxious, I’m hearing words being said but I’m not absorbing them and I’m doing all this while processing the sensory inputs from my environment along with an enormous amount of other information swirling around up there. Do I put my hand up? No, I’m not in primary school. If I interrupt, people will get upset with me, but if I don’t say it, it’s going to disappear into my brain abyss or the moment will pass. Or I’ll look like I’m not contributing or don’t have anything useful to say which can fuel the damaging stereotype that being autistic makes me less capable. Arrrrrghhhhhhh!
It is absolutely painful.
I walk away from conversations every single day feeling frustrated, unheard, unsettled when I couldn’t say everything I needed to, anxious about how I come across to others and worried I might be branded ‘difficult’ for the umpteenth time because I said or did the ‘wrong’ thing. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a glass box pounding my fists against the walls but no one can hear or see how hard this is for me. I routinely feel invisible and undervalued.
It all boils down to two things: I find it hard to follow the flow of a conversation and I don’t always know when it’s my turn to talk.
If these two support needs are met in conversation, the experience becomes significantly more inclusive. But I need help. It takes at least two to talk.
If your mind has gone to a place where you think autistic people should ‘learn’ social skills to mitigate this, you’re wrong. On so many levels. That’s no different to telling a wheelchair user to learn how to use stairs. It’s offensive, ableist, unfair and genuinely impossible and unreasonable. Every single person is different in their own way and it’s impossible to predict individual conversation styles — which in themselves can vary several times a day based on context or how a person is feeling! And I’m not broken either. Autistic communication style isn’t wrong — it’s just different (more on that in future Quirk Monster posts).
Instead of one group being viewed as wrong or in need of fixing, we all need to learn how to be supportive and meet each other halfway.
I try very hard to meet people halfway by taking notes so I don’t lose my thoughts, educating and supporting others through self-advocacy and helping people design inclusive meeting agendas where everyone gets a chance to talk, but it doesn’t always work. You need to do your part too.
Here’s how you can learn how to become a fantastic conversation ally to autistic people.
Be open to the possibility that not everyone in the room has neurotypical social skills. That mindset change can have a hugely positive impact. Consider how your experience might be different if your brain processed information in a different way. Don’t assume that everyone has the same kind of brain as you.
Don’t assume that because I’m not interrupting you or speaking up that I’m OK for you to just keep on talking or that I have nothing to say. That might be true, but there’s an equally good chance that I’m struggling to communicate to you that I have something to say and I don’t know how to cut in. It may be that the gaps you leave are too short for my mental processing power to keep up — I’m a quick thinker, but I’ve got significantly more information to sift through so it takes me a second or two longer. By the time I get my thoughts together, you’re already talking again. Don’t mistake my silence for acceptance. I’m not silent on the inside that’s for sure. We’re taught that active listening is an essential skill and I feel that collaborative and empathetic conversation is equally important. Take the principles of active listening and apply them to what’s coming out of your mouth. What does the other person need from you? How can you actively engage with them when you’re the one that’s doing the talking?
Actively facilitate group conversations — has everyone had a chance to speak or have one or two people dominated the entire thing? This is similar to dot point 2 but in a group context. Always give people an active opening to contribute before moving on to the next item. Instead of saying “We haven’t heard from Ashlea yet” and just letting the silence hang, say “Ashlea, would you like to add anything here before we move on?” The first of those two is passive and noisy from a mental processing perspective. In my head I’m thinking No, we haven’t heard from me yet and it doesn’t immediately occur to me that I’m being invited to speak. Be as direct and as clear as you can so that everyone can understand. Subtle implications and expecting people to read between the lines is a very neurotypical thing to do and it’s not inclusive.
Consider non-verbal ways for participants to indicate they’d like to contribute. Video calls often have chat functionality that can be used to queue questions without interrupting the current speaker. Give people the option to use that and actively monitor it so people don’t get left behind. Also, don’t think that this only applies in very large groups — as an autistic person, I find these support mechanisms helpful for conversations of 3 or more people.
Provide opportunities for people to contribute after the conversation or meeting is over. Make it safe for people to think of things later or come back with questions. I always think of things 3 hours or 3 days after the actual conversation. Sometimes I need time to mull it over in the back of my head while I do other things. I do some of my best thinking that way.
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. Also, please don’t be the person who feels the need to comment that what I’m describing here is applicable to ‘everyone’ autistic or not. It’s not the inclusive comment you think it is. It’s marginalising, disrespectful and dismissive of genuine support needs. If it wasn’t an issue, I wouldn’t have to write about it. Instead of shifting the focus away from a marginalised group, try listening and reflecting upon how you can do better. 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.