“Carla” is a redhead with freckles and cropped hair. She loves the Patriots, calls herself a tomboy, and has a high-pitched laugh. She often has a smile on her face, and her sweet and trusting disposition—a hallmark for many adults with autism—is evident from the moment you talk to her. Like me, she is in her twenties; like most, she ponders her path in life. With every word, she exudes a paradoxical mix of timidity and courage, though more of the former when others ask what she means. The things I’ve learned from her are as unique as she herself is, and here is one of the most important: People’s words are often unclear.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder usually, if not frequently, misinterpret others (and vice-versa). Now, I’d already realized this to an extent. However, I thought this was mainly because of the way that those with autism process information. What I hadn’t factored in was the way others speak. You see, the language of neurotypicals can be vague, and the meanings and intentions within this language are oftentimes only implicit and might therefore be misconstrued by the listener.
Here’s a prime example with Carla: Last month, she’d injured her arm and didn’t have the money at the time to pay for her hospital bill. So her mom agreed to pay it for her. Some time later, she had the money and deposited it into her bank account. However, when she went to check her account soon after, she discovered that there was almost nothing left in it! She told me of this, and when I asked why, she said she’d suspected that her mother “took it without [her] permission,” that she “stole it.” I’d asked why she would do such a thing (not knowing initially about her injury and her mother’s paying for it) and requested for her to recall exactly what her mother had said to her. After a lengthy explanation, she finally mentioned that her mother wanted reimbursement after the hospital bill payment; she also mentioned that it was a joint checking account with her mother’s name on it, meaning they were both allowed to deposit and withdraw money from it. Sounds pretty black and white, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. Carla didn’t know what “reimburse” meant, so she hadn’t realized that her mother was allowed to take any money in the account to get paid back. You might be tempted to think that the blame lies with Carla nonetheless; after all, why agree to something that you didn’t understand? However, consider this: “I want to be reimbursed” is by no means the same as saying “Carla, I will pay your hospital bill, but after I do, I need you to pay me back the amount that I spent. Please give me the money, or I will go into our checking account the next time you put money into it, which I can do because the account is in both of our names.”
Do you see my point? Clarity is crucial when it comes to communication with those on the spectrum; this is what eliminates any confusion and ambiguity. All Carla’s mom had to do was be explicit in her desires and what the outcome would be! If people in general talked this way, then nothing would get lost in translation. So, if you want to make sure that people with autism understand you, then just be clear with your words. Carla and I will thank you.
For more about the importance of clarity in communication, watch the video below by noted autistic public speaker and radio host, Paul Louden.