Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


10 Common Autistic Social Customs for Neurotypicals to Learn

A neurodiversity-affirming view of social skills

Key points

  • Social skills are usually based on neurotypical preferences.
  • Social skills may include how to moderate voice volume, make eye contact, or start a conversation.
  • Here are some social skills to learn from the perspective of neurodiverse individuals.

The term "social skills" usually refers to common customs that neurotypical people utilize in interactions with others. Social skill classes often cover things like how to moderate voice volume, make eye contact, or start a conversation based on shared interests. Yet, neurodivergent people sometimes have a different set of social customs based on the ways that our brains process information.

Not only do traditional neurotypical social skills at times feel uncomfortable to autistic people, but an overfocus on these misses opportunities to help neurotypical people understand autistic patterns, thereby bridging the connection. As a therapist who is also neurodivergent herself, I have come across this often in my own life and see it in the therapy room as well.

What follows are 10 common autistic communication customs.

1. Deep Diving Into One Topic

Intense interests are a hallmark of autism. Many autistic folk use these intense interests to connect with others. This might look like turning a conversation into a topic of interest, such as dogs, Star Trek, or hypnosis.

2. Looking Away During Conversation

Autistic people often have a stronger focus on detail, whereas neurotypical people might filter information out. We might find it difficult to concentrate or feel uncomfortable when we look directly at someone. Just because we aren't looking at you doesn't mean we aren't listening to you

3. Using Voice Volume to Reflect Level of Energy or a Monotone Voice

Interoception is awareness of the body and encompasses things like hunger, pain, where the body is in space, and even voice volume. For many autistic people, interoception is altered. Our voice volume might change drastically, reflecting our energy without our awareness. On the contrary, some autistic people also speak in a monotone voice

4. Honesty Is Paramount

Rule-governed thinking and literal thinking are both linked with autism. A part of this can be a strong sense of justice. Truth is at the center of justice. Many autistic people will tell the truth, even though some neurotypical people utilize white lies to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Being told the truth is often expected in turn.

5. Asking Clarifying Questions

Sometimes, what seems "obvious" to neurotypical people is not obvious to autistic people. In the same way, some things that are obvious to autistic people are not always obvious to neurotypicals. Similarly, many of us value precision and accuracy. We might ask a lot of questions to clarify what you mean.

6. Headphones Are OK, Overwhelm is Real, and Shutdowns Happen

Sensory overwhelm is real. Sometimes, we may use headphones or earplugs so that we can comfortably go into loud spaces. Having headphones on does not always mean that we don't want to talk. Overwhelm can sometimes lead to shutdown. When overwhelmed, we might disengage as a way of self-preservation. We don't do this to be unkind; it just means we need time to recalibrate.

7. "Penguin Pebbling"

We may choose unique ways of seeking connection such as taking a picture, giving a small candy or writing a note. These indirect means of affection can sometimes feel more direct/literal and be easier to follow. Many autistic people also form especially strong attachments to certain objects. This is not the same as trying to buy someone's love or bribery.

8. Literal Speech

Literal thinking and speech are common in autism. If you use sarcasm, we may respond literally. If you use humor, we may or may not always know when you are joking. We aren't trying to be disrespectful.

9. Equality

While neurotypical people often treat others differently based on things like perceived status, autistic people do not always recognize these same hierarchies in the same way. We may treat many people the same, for example, by speaking more casually or formally across interactions where neurotypical people might switch.

10. Settling Conflicts Right Now (If Possible)

A monotropic focus can make it difficult to focus on other things when something is worrying someone. This can be especially true for conflict. We get very focused on resolving a conflict when it is on our minds, even when neurotypical people might avoid it. If you aren't ready to discuss something, it is important to tell us directly.

More from Jennifer Gerlach LCSW
More from Psychology Today