Non-autistic people find it difficult to understand Autistic people, just as Autistic people struggle to understand non-autistic people. Dr. Damian Milton, an Autistic researcher, refers to this neurological disconnect as the double empathy problem, a theory that explains that Autistic people don’t have social deficits, but that people communicate well with their neurokin, people who share their neurotype—Autists communicate well with other Autists, just as neurotypicals communicate well with other neurotypicals.
As an Autist, I communicate well with Autists because I communicate primarily through information, by seeking and sharing facts. Communication for me is a way to fix, create, or learn something. Often all three.
In my experience, Autists are focused on words because we’re focused on meaning. Many non-autistics, neurotypicals especially, seem focused on body language. They often speak with suggestions, providing hints and vague, confusing metaphors and references I can rarely make sense of.
Autism is a neurotype, is neurodivergence, but Autistic people make up a social group, a culture. Social skills vary by culture because social norms vary by culture. Norms that are acceptable in one culture may seem nonsensical to another. Eye contact, a part of Western neurotypical culture, is not part of Autistic culture.
Eye contact is one of many examples. The problem highlighted by Milton’s theory is that non-autistics don’t assume Autists have a culture, don’t accept our culture, medicalize our culture, and assume we’re broken people who are living incorrectly.
Non-autistic people should never assume their Autistic employee, colleague, or loved one lacks social skills. Humans are naturally social because we are a social species, interdependent; each human depends on other humans to survive. Instead, non-autistic people should learn about Autistic culture.
Would be helpful, too, to examine your own social skills. Are you approaching Autists with clear, concrete language? Are you speaking with specificity, with clarity, using plain language and avoiding small talk, or are you attempting to read body language, depending on “social cues” rather than listening to words? Have you tried using written communication: emails, texting? What about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?
Just as a person should practice acceptance, traveling with an open mind while visiting a stranger’s home or a different country, that person should practice acceptance when talking to an Autistic person.
The easiest way to communicate with an Autist is to say what you mean and mean what you say. Open, honest, direct communication leaves little room for confusion. If you say what you mean and mean what you say, conversation between you and the Autists in your life will go much smoother. You’ll connect.