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Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

“You think you’re so smart!” “You’re a real know-it-all, aren’t you?”

I used to hear phrases like this often, especially in school and in the workplace, and, like many things neurotypical (non-autistic) people said to me, the accusations seemed to come out of nowhere because my intentions were so far removed from how my words and mannerisms were being perceived.

After decades of life, years of therapy, lots of research, interacting with my autistic peers, and tons of trial and error (hard emphasis on “error”), I learned to decipher how my autistic traits were perceived by those who do not share my neurotype.

Here are five common reasons I believe autistic people are seen as showing off their intelligence in a condescending way when it’s actually due to a difference in brain wiring:

Vocal Tone

Many autistic people have a marked difference in their speech compared to their neurotypical counterparts. We may have what is known as a “flat affect” in both our facial expressions and tone of voice.

This means we may speak in monotone or with less inflection than you’re used to hearing from non-autistic folks. Unless they’re tired or annoyed, which can make even the most mundane question or observation sound rude.

However, since many of us also cannot detect how different our vocal tone sounds from others, it may come as a shock when our listener reacts by snapping at us or accusing us of intentions we don’t have.

The best workaround I have found for this is for non-autistic folks to focus on the words the autistic person is using, rather than the tone. This can take a bit of practice, especially if the speaker’s tone triggers feelings of being rejected, dismissed, or insulted.

If you find yourself feeling triggered by your autistic employee’s tone of voice, take a deep breath, remind yourself that no insult was meant, and then respond only to the literal words they’re saying.

Literal Thinking and Direct Speech

Autistic people are literal thinkers. When someone says something to us, our brains focus on the words and take them at face value. Furthermore, autistic folks tend to say what we mean and mean what we say without a whole lot of subtext.

Unfortunately, when you’re a literal thinker and a direct speaker in a world full of people who communicate using a complex, multi-layered system of body language, facial expressions, vocal tones, inference, hints, innuendos, and sarcasm, it can be incredibly confusing and disorienting–for both parties!

For example, the autistic person is using plain, literal speech, and the neurotypical person is waiting for the punchline.  The neurotypical person is hinting and thinks the autistic person is purposefully ignoring their cues.

These differences hinder understanding and connection and erode feelings of rapport, which can make it easier for those in the neuro-majority (non-autistic folks) to place negative attributes on those in the neuro-minority (autistic folks). A label of “know-it-all” or “pretentious” can easily be born of this disconnect.

Large Vocabulary

Many autistic people, myself included, are hyperlexic, meaning we are self-taught readers who possess advanced reading skills beginning in childhood.

This can lead to the development of a vocabulary beyond our educational level, which we will often use in everyday conversation without being aware that some of the people around us may not know or understand those words.

Since it can be challenging for autistic folks to pick up on neurotypical body language and facial expressions that signal confusion, discomfort, or embarrassment, we may come across as a “know-it-all” who doesn’t care about the feelings, experiences, or educational level of our listeners.

Over-Explaining

Another way your autistic employee may unintentionally come across as a “know-it-all” is a tendency to over-explain things. For example, say your autistic employee is cross-training someone from another department. The person has years of experience within the company, and they know the ropes, but your autistic employee explains the material to them as though it’s their first day on the job.

This isn’t because the autistic employee thinks their trainee doesn’t know anything, it’s because many autistic people need to be taught in a step-by-step manner from beginning to end when they learn something new (due to bottom-up thinking), so that’s how they teach others!

Correcting Others

If you’ve ever found yourself on the receiving end of a correction from someone, especially when you’re in the middle of a sentence, you know how jarring it can be. You may get embarrassed, lose your train of thought, and second-guess the point you’re trying to make.

On the other hand, many autistic people hold accuracy in high regard and can feel physically uncomfortable when others misspeak around them.

This isn’t because they’re trying to control others or appear more knowledgeable than them, it’s because the literal use of language is so crucial to our understanding of what’s being communicated to us and what’s expected of us–and getting those things wrong in the past has had very real and serious consequences.

Moreover, for many autistic people, after an inaccurate statement is made, the words that follow become disjointed and meaningless to our brains until the error is corrected.

If your autistic employee corrects you, keep in mind that it comes from a place of anxiety due to feeling temporarily lost in the conversation, not an attempt to be rude or gain “the upper hand” in a conversation.

The Takeaway

Your autistic employee (or co-worker) may come across as a “know-it-all”, but that’s likely not their intention. Differences in vocal tone, thinking literally, speaking directly, a large vocabulary, over-explaining, and correcting others are common autistic traits that may be perceived as having malicious intent.

Nevertheless, they’re usually a result of experiencing and, therefore, interacting with the world differently. Keeping that in mind can go a long way to bridging the gap and making the workplace a safer, more comfortable environment for everyone–regardless of neurotype.