Reasons You (Mistakenly) Believe Autistic People Are Selfish – Part 1 – Miscommunication
“You just don’t care about anyone but yourself.” “You’re so self-centered.” “Aren’t you even going to ASK me how my surgery went last week?”
A common misconception about autistic people is that we don’t care about others. That we either lack empathy (not true) or we have very little of it. One of the reasons neurotypical people mistakenly believe we don’t care about others is because some of our natural autistic traits fall into direct opposition to neurotypical social norms.
Below are some autistic traits that make neurotypical people believe we don’t care about them. Under each one on the list, I’ll explain why I do these things in hopes you’ll have a better understanding of why you or your autistic loved one may do them.
- We might not ask you about your “things”
I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were going to the doctor for something, planning a wedding, having a party, going to an event, etc., and I’ve listened and responded while they talked but never, ever followed up.
When neurotypical people talk with each other, they seem to store upcoming event information in their heads for each of their friends and family members, and, when they see them again after the event has passed, they will ask how the event went.
With me, once a conversation is over, I won’t remember much of it. I’ll remember the basic gist and the feelings and energy associated with it, but not much else. When I’m having the conversation, I’m in the moment. Once it’s over, it’s over.*
*With the exception of an emotional conversation or a conversation about my special interests.
I had no idea that, for years, people assumed that because I never followed up, I didn’t care. It’s not that I didn’t care, I just didn’t remember. If it’s something that’s life or death, and the person is very close to me, then, yes, I will remember it and ask how things went because it will be on my mind and heart the entire time.
However, if it’s not anything life-threatening or serious (what I think of as “serious” anyway), I won’t remember. The information will just leak out of my brain, and I will carry on with my routines.
I could never understand why people seemed to be angry with me for “no reason” when I knew I hadn’t said or done anything wrong in that moment (because I literally hadn’t said or done anything), but people still seemed to be angry “out of the blue”, even if I had just stepped into a room.
Eventually, somebody took me aside (or I read it in a book, I can’t remember) and explained to me that so-and-so was upset because I never asked her about how her [insert event here] went.
Huh? That’s a thing?
This may have jogged a very vague memory of a past conversation (which felt like it was eons ago even if it was just a week), but I had no idea I was expected to ask about it, nor did I remember it was even going to happen.
That’s not selfishness or not caring. That’s just having a terrible working memory and short-term memory and also having no idea that I was socially expected to ask questions like that.
(Article continues below.)
The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.
Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).
Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:
- We might not keep in touch
I am LOUSY at keeping in touch. I always have been, I always will be. Again, it’s not that I don’t care, but my memory is horrible. Sometimes, and this is going to sound cold, I literally forget people exist for short periods of time.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly love my friends, but if it wasn’t for social media and for them popping up on my timeline, I would temporarily forget all about them. For me, what’s out of sight is out of mind.
However, if a friend calls me in a crisis, I will drop whatever I’m doing and be there with my full attention. And, even if it’s not a crisis, if they contact me first, I will have a conversation with them (or at least schedule one).
I’m just bad at making the “first move”. Part of that, I know, is due to my extremely poor memory and another part of it is that I have a different concept of time than most people. After something happens, I’m not entirely sure if it happened a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, or five years ago.
This means that I usually don’t even know how long it’s been since I’ve talked to someone.
- We might not know your name
Again, due to my poor memory, I am terrible with names. I also tend not to associate people with their names but rather their energy, their vibe. If I could think an image of someone when I’m trying to describe them or I’m fumbling for their name, it would be SO much easier!
- We might not know your face
I have mild face blindness, and if I see you out of context, I’m likely not going to recognize you. I may see you and know that I know you from somewhere, but I’m probably not going to place from where or who you are.
Unless you are a family member or friend that I am very close with, your face will ring a small bell in my head, but it won’t bring about complete recognition.
It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t put your face into the right context in my brain in order to even know how I’m supposed to greet you (or if I should).
- We might “space out” while you’re talking
Like most autistic people, I get sensory overload easily. I may be interested in what you have to say, but my brain and body need a break because I’ve done too much that day, or there is too much sensory input hitting me all at once in that moment.
Depending on how depleted I am, I may not be able to stop my eyes from glazing over and my jaw from going slack as my brain desperately searches for the rest it needs before I go into shutdown. It’s not that I’m bored with what you’re saying, it’s just my brain doing what my body needs it to do so I can survive.
Having to manually filter out all of the information that neurotypical brains seem to do automatically is exhausting and one of the many reasons I need plenty of rest after socializing even if I’m having a good time.
- We can’t read your facial expressions or body language
Neurotypical people communicate largely by facial expressions and body language that other neurotypical people are able to pick up on and respond to accordingly. Not so with many autistic people, including me.
You may think you’re telling me something by giving me a certain look or standing a certain way, but since I’m blind to these social cues, I won’t respond at all, and you may misinterpret that as I’m willfully ignoring you. I’m not. My brain just doesn’t pick up on these non-verbal cues.
This is why it’s so important to be blunt with me so I can understand what you’re feeling and thinking and what you need.
- We can’t pick up on subtle hints
Neurotypical people also use phrasing that gives other neurotypical people information that expresses needs, wants, and desires without doing so overtly.
“That garbage is starting to smell.”
A neurotypical person would read this as, “Please take out the trash”. Whereas an autistic person is more likely to read this as, “I have made a statement of fact about the smell of the garbage”.
If an NT (neurotypical) person has made a statement like that expecting that their ND (neurodivergent) loved one will understand it as a request, they may feel ignored when the ND person doesn’t do what they “asked”, which can look like the ND person doesn’t care or can’t be bothered.
While I’ve learned to pick up on many NT subtle hints, I still miss the mark entirely quite often, especially if it’s a new person or situation.
- We talk about our stuff when you tell us about yours
This is something I wrote in length about in an article called, “Why Do You Make Everything About You?”
When neurotypical people tell each other about something bad that happened to them, they expect their friends and family to say something like, “Oh, I’m sorry” and “Gee, that must be hard”. This makes them feel heard and valued.
When a neurotypical person tells an autistic person about something that happened to them, the autistic person will likely tell a similar story about something that happened to them in an attempt to connect and show solidarity.
Unfortunately, this makes the neurotypical person believe that the autistic person is trying to turn the conversation around to themselves. Not so at all. It’s just a marked difference in communication.
For autistic people, saying, “Oh, that must be hard” sounds like empty platitudes whereas telling a similar story shows understanding and empathy.
I was asked why I made things “about me” time and time and time again from NT people, and I had no idea what they were talking about until either someone finally broke it down for me, or I read it in a book.
- We go straight into conversation without greeting
I’m not sure why this is, but greetings are something I have always had to force myself to remember. When I want to tell someone something or start a conversation, it never occurs to me to say, “Hi, how are you?” or “Good morning” and then jump into a topic; I just dive straight in.
While most autistic people don’t mind this approach and actually prefer it, neurotypical people often feel this is too blunt, and it takes them off guard.
This can make it appear as though the autistic person is selfish because they haven’t bothered to ask how the other person is before asking a question or making a request, when, most of the time, we’re just trying to be efficient and not forget what it is we wanted to ask.
See my article, “Why Borrowing Someone’s Stapler Is Harder for an Autistic Person” for more on this.
- We’re blunt and straightforward
Another common reason neurotypical people mistakenly believe that autistic people are selfish and don’t care about others is how blunt and straightforward we are. Neurotypical people use subtle language, hints, and white lies to spare the feelings of others and make criticism (or anything that looks like it) more palatable.
Autistic people, on the other hand, just come right out and say what we’re thinking. Again, this is not an attempt to be rude or hurtful, it’s just how our brains are wired.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally hurt someone’s feelings because I didn’t have any idea that I was expected to phrase something a different way or wait until a different moment to speak.
It never would have occurred to me had somebody not broken it down for me, or…you guessed it, I read it in a book.
Neurodivergent and neurotypical people speak different neurological languages, and it can be very easy for both neurotypes to misunderstand one another and mistake the other as being selfish and uncaring when that’s simply not the case.
If you’re NT, and you have an autistic loved one, get to understand their motivations, intentions, and language, and reflect on those before responding to a behavior the way you would to a neurotypical person.
Reacting to autistic traits and behavior through a neurotypical lens can cause serious and lasting emotional damage to the autistic person. For us, we’re being screamed at, ostracized, told off, neglected, and abused for absolutely no reason. We were just living and existing when somebody came out of the clear blue sky to abuse us.
As I’ve said in a previous article, “We Have Trouble Connecting Our Behavior to Your Response”.
This doesn’t mean that you have to tip-toe around us or not mention something that we’ve said or done that has unintentionally hurt you, but don’t just come AT us suddenly and angrily. Explain what’s wrong and make sure we’re both on the same page first.
Follow me on Instagram.
Want downloadable, PDF-format copies of these blog posts to print and use with your loved ones or small class? Click here to become a Patreon supporter!