Why You MUST Be Blunt With Autistic Folks

Young man with brown eyes, a beard, and a blue shirt looking upset, shocked, and confused

“I’d rather not say anything.” “Well, I don’t want to be rude.” “She’s annoying, but I’d never actually say anything to her face!”

Neurotypicals, everything you’ve learned growing up about being polite and not being direct even if someone is irritating the snot out of you works pretty well when you’re interacting with one another, but when you’re interacting with us (autistic people), you need to be blunt.

Neurotypical folks, by and large, aren’t direct with one other. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate irritation, displeasure, and other thoughts and feelings. It’s just that they do it in a way that us autistic folks can’t read. 

By and large, neurotypical people indicate their feelings in an indirect way so as not to appear rude or aggressive. However, that often backfires because, eventually, when these subtle ways of communicating appear to be “ignored” (by autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people), they tend to blow up in anger and frustration, which can seriously traumatize an autistic person because your last straw is our first clue that something is wrong!

I’ll give you an example:

Walter the Whistler

Let’s say you’re a neurotypical person who works with a guy named Walter who won’t stop whistling in the office. It’s annoying you, it’s annoying your co-workers, it’s even annoying the people who deliver lunch every day, but nobody has confronted him about it directly.

Everybody in the office gives each other surreptitious glances and rolls their eyes behind Walter’s back when he starts his tuneless whistling. 

Some people with more sensitive hearing have gotten so fed up, they’ve started giving him dirty looks, huffing and sighing loudly in front of him when he does it, and one guy even banged on his desk loudly and hissed, “Dammit!” as Walter walked by whistling because he couldn’t hear his customer on the phone. 

Employees have finally gone to their boss, and the boss promises to send an email. 

This is how her email is worded: 

“Dear [Department]: It has come to my attention that some employees are having a difficult time hearing customers on the phone due to excess noise on the floor. Please refrain from talking loudly, visiting at each other’s desks (except during break and lunch), and making unnecessary noises during normal working hours. This will ensure a more friendly work environment for everyone.” 

The email goes out, and the boss can see from her read receipts that just about everyone, including Walter, has opened and read it. 

Everybody in the office breathes a sigh of relief. It’s over. Thank goodness! 

But, the next day, like clockwork, Walter starts his whistling again. It goes on for one more week before the guy who slammed the desk finally confronts Walter angrily. 

“Holy sh*t, dude! Walter, stop that freaking whistling. I’m sick of it! You’re driving me nuts. You’re driving us ALL nuts!! Didn’t you read the email?? No excessive noise? Who did you THINK that was talking about. You! You and your constant whistling. Shut the f*ck up already! Nobody wants to hear you! Hell, nobody even wants you AROUND, buddy!” 

Walter stands in the aisle in shock and turns bright red, his throat tightening with emotion. He wants to respond, but he has lost the ability to speak. His heart begins to pound as he realizes that everyone is staring out of their cubicle, their energy* a mix of anger, annoyance, and pity, and it’s all directed at him!

(*The first language of autistic people is energy, not words.)

Wanting to simultaneously punch the guy who yelled at him and burst into tears, Walter does neither. Instead, he turns around, walks out of the office, out to his car, and drives home. Once there, he emails his boss about the confrontation (which she heard because everybody heard it). 

A man sitting in a corner with his face in his hands, looking upset, hurt, and/or embarrassed

Walter is hurt, angry, and confused, and he feels abused. Thankfully, his boss is understanding and tells him, explicitly, that his whistling has been disturbing and annoying others for months. 

He then asks a simple question that takes his boss by complete surprise: “Why didn’t anybody SAY anything?”

Have you guessed it yet? Walter is autistic. He’s never disclosed this to his boss because he’s never gotten a formal diagnosis. He’s had many altercations with co-workers in the past, and it’s always been sudden and confusing for him. He’s even been fired on the spot on a few occasions, but he doesn’t know why nor has anyone offered him an explanation, even when he’s asked. 

Here’s what’s happening: 

For neurotypical people, the sideways glances, the sighing, the pounding on the desk, and the email would be more than enough to indicate displeasure at the whistling and convey the message that it has to stop. 

For an autistic person, however, none of that registers. Our brains are wired differently, so those subtle ways of indicating annoyance are about as effective as a written memo to a blind person. 

It’s not that Walter was ignoring the subtle cues (which is what people eventually thought, causing them to get angrier and angrier because he wasn’t “listening” to their requests), it’s that he wasn’t seeing them at all!

(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:

Why It’s So Important to Be Blunt When Talking to an Autistic Person

Neurotypical culture is all about subtle hints, which other neurotypical people pick up on, so it works just fine when they’re interacting with one another. Unfortunately, autistic people miss these cues, which can create a lot of friction and misunderstandings. 

So, NTs, you’ll need to stretch yourself a bit beyond your comfort zone here. (We actually do this all the time in order to relate more effectively with you. It’s called masking. But, you don’t have to change your entire way of being, just learn how to be a little more direct). 

This doesn’t mean you have to be blatantly rude, however, it just means you need to be very direct and specific in the way you relate to us. We don’t learn implicitly, we learn explicitly, so you have to be blunt in order for us to understand your needs, wants, and feelings. We don’t want to miss this stuff, we just do because we can’t read your subtle signals. 

Let’s go back to Walter the Whistler. Instead of sideways glances, sighing, pounding on a desk, and a subtle email, take Walter aside and say, “Hey, Walter. Do you have a minute? I have something I need to talk with you about. I know you whistle a lot, and you might not even realize you do it, but, when you do, it hurts my ears, and I can’t concentrate on what my customers on the phone are saying. Several other people in the office have spoken up about it, too. Could you stop whistling in the office or do it on your lunch break, so it doesn’t hurt our ears or disrupt our work?”

This follows my formula for letting an autistic person know that something we said or did was offensive or irritating to you:

1) Take a deep breath. Remember, more likely than not, we are not purposely trying to upset you.

2) Make sure you have our full and undivided attention, and tell us, in a calm and even tone, that you have something important you want to talk with us about.

3) Make sure we are alone together or off to the side, so we are not distracted or feeling sensory overwhelm.

4) Tell us what we did or said that offended you. 

5) Tell us WHY it offended you and, where applicable, why it is inappropriate to do or say.*

*An answer to the question “Why?” is absolutely critical to our understanding. 

6) Tell us what we could have done or said instead and why that is preferable. 

7) Reassure us that we are OK and that our relationship/employment security with you is still OK. 

Are you always going to get a completely positive response using this formula? No. It’s still humiliating for us to realize we’ve been irritating you for weeks, months, or even years before we were directly told, but, it will help us better understand one another and have a better relationship in the future. 

Don’t be surprised that even if you confront us in the kindest way, we still stare at you in wide-eyed shock. Selective mutism (a temporary inability to speak) often happens when we feel a strong emotion or are overwhelmed in some way. The emotions may be so strong that we just need to walk away, and that isn’t a reflection of how we feel about you or even how we’re responding to your request. It’s emotional overload. 

Give us some space, and we should come back when we’re feeling more emotionally settled. 

Once again, we are NOT ignoring you when you use your facial expressions, body language, or subtle words to indicate that something is upsetting to you. We can’t read them. Be blunt, be direct, be specific, and we’ll have much more effective communication and be far less likely to trigger and misunderstand one another. 

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