When I was a child and I answered the phone I didn’t say “hello”, I said “What?”. My mother was constantly horrified at my supposed rudeness and would try and make sure that someone, anyone got to the phone before me.
The thing is though, that I wasn’t being rude or at least I didn’t think so. I was just responding to people on the phone the same way I would to someone who called to me from somewhere else in the house.
When my mother wanted me for something, she would yell my name from the foot of the stairs and I would respond with “WHAT?” I was never penalized for this and I just assumed that if someone was calling you then asking them what they wanted was kind of useful information to gather. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was just transferring how I communicated in person to how I communicated on the phone.
If someone called to me in person, I responded with “what?” or “yeah?”. No one bothered to explain to me the difference of in person communication and communicating on the phone. So I kept getting in trouble for how I answered the phone and I never understood why.
I was always being told I was being rude when I couldn’t figure out why. It was only years later that I realized that because of the ways neurotypicals have coded language, they always interpreted the words I said as meaning something else.
This is most clearly noticeable in how I used the phrases “I like that”, “I want that” and “Can I have that?”. To me, those things express three different things but apparently to everyone else they only mean two.
Every time I said “I want that” people acted like I was asking for whatever I was referring to. I wasn’t. There was no request in the statement. I hadn’t asked for it. I was conveying the level of how much I liked it. It was an expression of envy, not demand.
While it’s true that I probably wouldn’t have complained if I was handed the object of desire, I understood that asking for things was rude. I was also aware that if I simply said that I liked something, that people would not know to what extent that I liked it. Was it something that just gave me fleeting pleasure or was it something that I would think about and remember and miss.
After, what was probably well over the hundredth time that I had been lectured about not constantly asking for things when I had simply expressed that “I wanted something”. I explained the difference in how I used language. I explained that I wasn’t asking for whatever trinket had fascinated me but differentiating between the things that I simply liked and the things I actively wanted to own. I understood that I wasn’t going to be given the thing.
This, however, didn’t build a bridge of better communication. It created a flustered lecturer who couldn’t figure out how I had come to think that words could be used so literally. I just had to be forced into more standard patterns of communication.
These distinctions may seem obvious or less rude now in a world where it is not uncommon for people to publicly declare a desire for things that they probably won’t ever own. A single all caps “WANT” in a tweet quoting another tweet featuring a luxury item is pretty common on Twitter. Or that same “WANT” posted as a comment on Facebook or Instagram is also a not infrequent occurrence.
At least I was using full sentences and expressing my desire with significantly calmer.
Nondisabled people far too often defend poorly conceived acts of “solidarity” that miss the mark by drawing attention to their intentions. They want to avoid consequences for the impact of their actions because they “didn’t mean it”.
Autistic people do not get the privilege of cloaking themselves in the armour of intentions even if their faux pas is just a failure of empathy and accommodation on the part of the person castigating them.
Autistic people have long been characterized as unempathetic little shits who lack theory of mind (the ability to place themselves in the shoes of others). Much new research rejects this and theorizes a different issue.
The Double Empathy Problem which posits that misunderstandings in communication are a two-way street, as much hampered by nonautistic people’s inability to empathize with autistic people.
Even though I could explain what I meant, I was miscommunicating and was rude. There was only ever need for me to change. Not the person who consistently and often willfully misunderstood me. They knew what I meant. I’d explained it clearly but I had to shift into an imprecise way of speech that was completely unnatural to me. It’s not something that I mastered until after I was diagnosed and could understand why I behaved differently than society expected me too.
The fact that I had a biologically ingrained reason for being the way I was, rather than a society which just uncritically follows and enforces cultural mores was irrelevant. The onus has always been on me to change to suit the comforts of neurotypicals. They never have to hold space for discomfort. They never have to hold awareness of me and my fellow autistics. They get to categorically define our behaviour as rude and wrong so that they do not need to empathize with us. We however, must constantly hold all that space and all that knowledge of their confusing expectations. They demand empathy without reciprocation. It is a wholely unequal power dynamic.
It is a battle we will inevitably lose because we are fighting against our very natures, simply to be allowed to exist in common space with neurotypical people and it’s a losing battle to fight your biology. We will always fall short of expectations and our “rudeness” is used to justify our exclusion.
How to Support My Work
So now for the very in-depth appeal for support for mu PhD. Please read through this, there are so many ways to help, including just sharing this blog post on social media.
Kindle ebooks read on my iPad are the easiest way for me to read and take notes unfortunately Amazon does not allow people to buy ebooks for others through their wishlist system. I have an Amazon Wish list anyway as some of the books can only be purchased in print or from third party sellers because they are out of print. If you could buy me one of the books that can only be had in print, I would greatly appreciate it. If you want to help fund the ebooks I’ll need you can buy me a gift card and send it to the following email address
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My research and supporting myself will get past the reading phase and there will be field work in my future. If you would like to help me fund my PhD in the long term you can
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It’s time I really leaned into my identity as a scholar. I hope you’ll support me
8 thoughts on “I Like That, I Want That, Can I Have That?: When NonAutistic People Don’t Understand Autistic Communication and Punish Us For It.”
I love your article. Please keep writing. Neurotypicals need to learn about autism from people who have autism. I have a daughter who may be on the autism spectrum. When she says something that I don’t understand or seems unusual I ask her what she means instead of assuming that I know. I want to think the best because I love her and she’s a good kid.
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This is the first time I’ve come across the double empathy problem as it relates to the language that comes naturally to people. My gears are turning as I consider how it factors in to conversations in my household.
My own flavor of neurodivergance is ADHD with a splash of broad autism spectrum and the way you discuss behaviors outside the norm being automatically read as rude by neurotypicals struck me like Charlie Brown shouting “That’s it” to Lucy in the Christmas special. (That’s my personal image of eureka moments).
Even though I am aware of the expectation to send thank you cards and whatnot in addition to a verbal thank you, I’ll often get distracted during some part of the process and end up forgetting until it’s past an acceptable time and then feeling terrible about it for ages after. Once I realized it was creating a cesspool of shame, I realized that people are going to assume things about me regardless of my intentions, so I might as well stop feeling bad about it.
That said, I realize that delayed communications are going to get me in trouble once I rejoin the workforce, so I’ll have to find a workable system. *sigh*
Your blog is excellent. Thank you for posting on these topics.
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Considering how much paper cards have fallen by the wayside, I’ve actually found many people express positive reactions when I’ve sent cards at times I considered too late. It also really depends on what part of the workplace you’re in, managerial positions are in many cases not a good fit for us- both the social expectations & having more executive function juggling. I’ve struggled a lot to let go of internalized classism “you must have X type of job to be really successful” in spite of my middle-classish family generally having a “wow I’m impressed you can hold down *any* job” mindset. Which is sort of…both good and bad. We all have to find a system that works for us, and consider What Will They Think? only when it actually will screw with your life.
My other major tip is finding social/work spaces that have a mix of people of different backgrounds- regional/cultural/ethnic/age/class etc. helps “camouflage” the social awkwardness…the diversity makes the neurotypicals more awkward because they don’t always know what behavior to expect, so it sort of evens the playing field. Also then hopefully you’ll be another form of diversity that they’ll be more OK with.
Thank you! I will definitely keep that in mind while job seeking. Fortunately the area I live in (greater DC metro) and field (graphic design) seem that they’ll be likely candidates for many types of diversity.
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I’m constantly having to explain to people that I choose my exact words carefully, and mean only what I actually say. I even get in arguments with my husband because he thinks I mean something more than my exact words. We’ve been inseperable for 10 years, so I despair of ever being “understood.”
Now I’m mom to a 5yo on the spectrum, and he likes to say things in very convoluted ways. If you ask what he wantz for lunch, he may say, “Well, it’s round and brown and smells donuty” instead of “I’d like a donut.” (No, I don’t give him donuts for lunch. Well, not often.) It’s hard for me to guess what his description refers to. I get frustrated because he could just directly answer my question, but he has to make it a game. I don’t want to squash his creativity and joie de vivre, but it give me abrupt and intense anxiety.
Synchronicity! Earlier this morning I was thinking that this is true even for introverts (even though introversion is a physical ASSET, not a disability). Why are we always the ones told to act more like extroverts in the name of “balance”? What would a real social “balancing” act look like–“Today is Tracy’s birthday, so as a special birthday favor Tracy gets to say ‘hello’ to people WITHOUT HAVING TO SAY ANYTHING USEFUL TO JUSTIFY INTERRUPTING THEIR THOUGHTS! HelLOOOO, Tracy! Now don’t speak unless you have something to say for the rest of the year”?
Fwiw, I know people in the D.C. area who answer the phone with things like “what” or “yo.” Since their conversation makes sense I’ve always thought that was just an expression of individualism, not of disability. I suspect that sometimes people trying to teach autistic students get carried away.
Neurotypical psychiatrists think nothing of prescribing dangerous antipsychotics to autistics, after knowing them for only a few minutes. They also have the audacity to diagnose autistic patients as “psychotic” (this has actually happened).
Neurotypical authority figures believe they are right and autistics are wrong. The opposite is true-most of the time, since so-called “normals” will say and do anything to justify their existence. Neurotypical privilege? Obviously. Fear of what they don’t understand? Definitely.
Especially if (like Pauline Hanson) they refer to the autistic as “those people”, or
use ableist language to describe them.