Sex, Dating. Car Repair, Communication

Autistic and Non Autistic people have different communication styles.

Posted Dec 14, 2015

This weekend I had the honor of speaking at the Consortium on Autism and Sign Language at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge.

This is how the conference was described:

The Consortium on Autism and Sign Language (CASL) is a unique “meeting of the minds” intended to further develop a framework for the study of social communication in autism and uncover fundamental features and capacities for communication for those who face challenges with social interaction.

I was one of the presenters on the topic of the Precision Hypothesis – the idea that autistic people place higher value on precision in communication (rather than efficacy of communication) than do neuro-typical individuals.

At first, I was skeptical of the idea.  It seemed like any communication that was precise must also be efficient.  But as the discussion unfolded, I realized that was not necessarily true.  And I saw that efficacy and efficiency are not actually the same.

For example, if I’m working as a mechanic, I could explain a problem with someone’s car very efficiently.  “It looks like your engine has failed as a result of sludge buildup.  That’s a maintenance failure — either you used the wrong oil; or you did not change it often enough.  At this point, the most efficient repair is going to be the installation of a factory exchange engine. Going forward, you’ll have to pay close attention to the oil services on the new motor.”  The nature of the failure and its cause and resolution are laid out clearly and succinctly with a minimum of wasted words.

But if I did not establish a rapport with the car’s owner, they might not get the message; or rather, they might not give me the job of fixing the car.  So in that light, the most important words for a different mechanic might have been to congratulate the motorist's daughter for winning her swim race.  I would be focused on the engine failure, where the other mechanic was focusing on what else was happening in the motorist’s life.

The moral of that story: empathy works in a business setting, even when fake.  And “just the facts” often fails to get the desired result.  A motorist might hear that the engine was bad, but my lack of sympathy for their plight could lead them to look for other repair options with a person who was friendlier or more caring.  So I may have communicated efficiently, but from the perspective of my business, it was not effective.

That is where the small talk and kind words come in; things we autistics have difficulty with.  There's also the aspect of "white lies."  ...Maybe a more efficient service manager would not reveal why the engine failed, because that would make the owner of the car feel worse.  And in truth, it’s better for the mechanic if the motorist stays ignorant and blows up the next engine too!  Few autistics would adopt that stance, but it happens every day at car dealerships.

It’s worth noting that the hypothetical motorist’s decision to seek a different person to fix her car would be based on an absence of rapport, which has nothing whatsoever to do with my ability to fix the car.  That is one of the ways we autistics are often disabled in society — we may have good or even superior skills in doing a technical task, but our lack of social skills turns people off.

Sometimes we never even get to be friends.  Consider another context — establishing romantic relationships in college.  We autistics see someone we like and say, "Do you want to be my girlfriend?" That's about as direct an expression of our wishes as I can imagine. It's efficient but probably not effective, in terms of expressing and getting what we want. Likely as not the answer will be "no," because our approach is too direct and jarring.  The fellow who starts off focused on her, by complimenting her sweater or her pretty smile - he's the one who gets the girl.  Psychologists at the conference would say the person who asks "do you want to be my girlfriend?" is approaching her from a self-centered perspective (be my girlfriend), where the other fellow took a "her-centered"  (you are pretty; you gave an impressive presentation) perspective, and got the result he wanted.

It's worth noting that both guys in the example want the same thing — a girlfriend — and the successful suitor got what he wanted by professing appreciation of  things that were peripheral to his objective but of interest to her. You might say he pursued the goal indirectly, in terms of language.

I should hasten to add that many people - autistic and non-autistic - feel genuine empathy and concern for other people, but social success springs from successful expression of feeling, not the actual feelings themselves.  And some of those expressions are sincere while many are not.

Many sales professionals are successful precisely because they can express concern or interest in their potential clients, at the drop of a hat.  The better they do that, the better their rapport, and the more they sell.

When I say those kinds of things, non autistic people sometimes suggest I am assuming all feelings toward others are false, and everyone has a hidden agenda.  I don't think that's true all the time, but I know it's true a lot of times in business, and a fair bit of the time in relationships of other kinds.  Want evidence?  Look at the books on how to be a player; how to pick up girls; or how to close that big deal.  All counsel false interest if you don't have real interest.

That presents a dilemma for many autistics as it goes against our grain, and social deception is very hard as we don't get many of the messages in the first place, so creating false ones is near-impossible. 

The fellow who presented after me had his own example of communication efficacy, or lack thereof.  I will paraphrase what he said:

I will use as an example a set of directions an autistic man sent me.  He had nine paragraphs of explanation to get two miles from the highway to his house. 

To begin he said, “Take note of the 1/10 mile reading on your odometer.  You will be going 0.6 miles to the next turn.  As you drive along Harrison Road, Monfort College will be on the left.  At the end of the campus, you will pass the Calveras City Limit sign, and Porter Street will be on the left.  You will see a yellow Presbyterian church on the corner.

The instructions continued in that vein, with way too much information.  You’ll note he gave 5 measures of where to turn:

After 0.6 miles on the odometer
On Porter Street
At the corner where you see the yellow church
At the end of the Monfort campus
Right after the Calvereras City Limit sign

The presenter’s argument was that the autistic person provided too much detail in his directions, and they were therefore less effective.  How, I asked?  His example actually illustrated a striking difference in perception between the autistic and non-autistic people in the audience. 

There were a number of autistic people taking part in the conference, and to a one they thought the more detailed directions were superior.  They provided a rich context, giving the reader many details to remember and recognize the intended route. 

The directions were written from the autistic person’s perspective, the presenter said.  It was as if he was telling us how he went home, as opposed to how I should get to his home.  He seemed to see that as an autistic person’s failure to see the other person’s point of view.  But I didn’t see it that way.  If I wanted simple dumb directions, I thought, I’d have used Google Maps.

What had started as a presentation that would showcase inefficient autistic communication ended up illustrating that autistic and non-autistic people may respond very differently to a given communication and what’s effective for one group may not be so effective for the other.

But I also observed that the split on direction preference was not just autistic/non autistic.  Several non-autistic participants also expressed preference for the more elaborate directions.  We they a "little bit autistic"? Or did they just like more detail in their directions.  Whatever the reason, it was clear that communication that succeeds for one person may be less effective for another.

I wondered if that was a good thing . . . maybe the people who did not care to read those directions would be people the writer would just as soon not meet anyway.  Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking.  Maybe they are the ones he'd want to meet most of all.  The difference there is that between difference and disability.

Interestingly, the writer of those directions also had an issue with truthfulness. "I made the directions detailed because I don't want you to think I lied to you or misled you about how hard it was to get here."  I think that is itself a sign of autistic thinking, and one I've shared!  We feel compelled to give lots of detail so people "can't say we didn't tell them," even in situations where most would say, "who cares?"  We care.

As the conversations unfolded I came to see how subtle differences in communication makes a big difference in what works, and what doesn’t.  If we don’t shape the message to the person hearing it, we may have an interactional failure.  Most of the time, people say autistics are the ones who fail by not reading the unspoken messages of our typical peers.  But at this conference, the non-autistic speaker failed to gauge what would work in communicating with us autistics, showing that communication disability probably cuts both ways.

Then the talk turned to sign language, and deaf culture.  We realized that people who sign have a private channel of communication, one that most people are excluded from.  And that has a profound effect.  In a talking world, deaf people are disabled.  In an ASL world, people who can hear but can’t sign are the crippled ones.  They are on the outside, and the deaf are the special ones.

Whatever else it may mean, the use of ASL is a positive reinforcer for deaf self-image. Where, I asked, is the equivalent of ASL for autistics?

We ask if autism is a difference or disability.  In the examples above, depending on context, communicators might be seen as different, disabled, unsuccessful, or successful, depending on the context.  One of the speakers offered the example of Martha's Vineyard in an earlier century, when there was a large deaf population but most people on the island signed, so it was not seen as a disability there.  The island society had adapted to accommodate a group, and they all benefited. But similar examples are rare today. Why?

It was a two-day conference with a lot to ponder.  Thanks to Matt Lerner of Stony Brook for inviting me, and Stephen Shore for calming me down after I arrived in a state of panic after the horrible traffic en route.

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.

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