Why Your Autistic Loved One Doesn’t Appear to Reciprocate in Conversation
I watched a video a few years ago that still sticks with me because it broke my heart and reminded me of so many unfortunate social situations I’d also once found myself in. In this video, a young, autistic woman was upset and confused because her friend had suddenly dumped her after being angered by one of their text conversations. She had no idea what had happened, and she turned to social media to vent her feelings of hopelessness and confusion.
Her experience went something like this:
Neurotypical Friend (expecting a conversation to start): “Hope all is well with you and yours!”
Autistic Friend (unaware of expectation): “Everything’s great! Thanks!”
Neurotypical Friend (hurt): “You know what? I’m done trying! All you do is care about yourself!”
Autistic Friend (as shocked as if she’d been punched): “What???”
Neurotypical Friend (angry): “You can’t even be bothered to ask me how I am?? I see how you are!”
Autistic Friend (frantically reading through the exchange to try to decipher what social cue she missed): “I don’t understand. What do you mean??”
Neurotypical Friend (exasperated): “There’s no reciprocity in our friendship!”
Autistic Friend (having a panic attack): “I don’t understand!”
Neurotypical Friend (done trying): “We’re done here.”
I’ve been the autistic friend in this situation too many times. One minute, everything is fine, the next, a friend is blowing up at me, and I can’t even process what happened. It’s so shocking, it’s like the roof of my house fell in.
If you’re the neurotypical friend in this scenario, allow me to explain what’s happening from our perspective.
Making a Statement vs Asking a Question
The neurotypical friend began his attempt to connect with a statement, “Hope all is well with you and yours!” The autistic friend took the words and responded to them at face value. Most autistic people are very literal. For us, there is no subtext, only the literal meaning of words. When someone makes a statement, we respond to it as if it is only a statement, not a subtle request for something more. We’re not messing with you. That’s just how our brains work.
The autistic friend responding with, “Everything’s great! Thanks!” is a literal response to a literal statement. It’s not self-centeredness. There’s no hidden agenda. There’s no attempt to hide or evade. Again, it’s simply a literal response to a literal statement.
Now, had the friend started the conversation with, “How are you and your family doing?”, the autistic person may still have responded with, “We’re going great! Thanks!”
The neurotypical person in this situation may still not make the social connection they are hoping for because there is a second layer to this common inter-neurotype misunderstanding that can complicate things.
Let’s break that down.
Autistic People Just Volunteer Information, We Don’t Wait for a Prompt
While asking a direct question of an autistic person will almost certainly get you a direct answer, the conversation may still not continue in the way you expect because autistic people tend to volunteer information without needing or expecting to be prompted!
When a neurotypical person asks another neurotypical person how their family is doing, they’ll usually get an answer followed by a quick and expected follow-up of the same question. This is how neurotypical people show reciprocity and interest.
However, that’s not usually how autistic people communicate with one another. If an autistic person asks another autistic person how they’re doing, the other autistic person will respond, and the first autistic person will then volunteer information about their own life, unprompted!
No prompting, no waiting to be prompted, just a buzz of delightful, mutual exchange. This is how autistic people show reciprocity and interest!
So, if you ask the question, “How is your family doing?” to an autistic person, you may be waiting for them to ask you in kind, while they’re expecting you to just tell them, unprompted. For you as a neurotypical person, just telling someone without a prompt feels rude, but to us, it feels just as foreign to ask. We figure if you have something to say, you’ll say it, because that’s how WE communicate.
It’s a misunderstanding on both sides, and neither party is trying to be difficult. It’s just a matter of different communication styles!
The Effect of Poor Working and Short-Term Memory
Another reason you may feel as though your autistic loved one is not reciprocating in conversations is that they have a poor working and/or short-term memory. As a person who is both autistic and ADHD, my memory is terrible. Everything that is out of sight is also out of mind.
For example, if you’re telling me about your upcoming surgery, a job you lost, or your grandfather’s funeral plans, I will fully be with you and care deeply in the moment, but my brain simply won’t allow me to remember your concerns much beyond the duration of the conversation. The information will just slide right out of my head, and I won’t remember it anymore.
Since the information has slid out of my brain as though we’ve never discussed it, I won’t follow up with you in a week or two to see how you’re doing. It’s not that I didn’t care deeply in the moment or that I don’t care about you overall, I just won’t remember.
If your neurodivergent loved one has a poor memory, don’t wait for them to contact you. They won’t remember to, and you may end up building misplaced resentment towards them. Instead, be the first to reach out with specifics that will help jog their memory. Such as, “Hey, I just got out of wrist surgery for my carpel tunnel. I have to rest it for a few weeks, but the doctor says everything looks good.”
Hint: “I just got out of surgery” may not be enough information for an autistic person with a very poor memory, and it may also incite panic rather than the connection or empathy you’re seeking because, for them, it sounds like you’re telling them for the first time, and you’ve just had an unexpected emergency. Their reaction of “Oh, my God! Are you OK?? What happened??” may seem and feel out of proportion or even sarcastic, but if they genuinely don’t remember, that’s the response you may get!
Since you won’t want to explain yourself all over again after just getting out of surgery, just lead with the details to avoid confusion, frustration, and panic.
The Effect of Time Blindness
As an autistic/ADHD person, I’m also time blind. I honestly can’t tell the difference between a week, a month, or a season going by between my interactions with another person. If I do manage to remember you have an important upcoming event in your life, I can virtually guarantee that unless I have it stored on a reminder app where it pops up right in my face, I’ll think it hasn’t happened yet.
Then, 3 months down the line, when you post an update about said event on your social media, I’ll gasp aloud like I’ve been underwater for minutes because all the information will come flooding back to me in glaring clarity. I’ll feel terrible in the moment and then consider texting you about it, but I won’t because it might irritate you that I’ve “waited” (I wasn’t waiting, I forgot) so long. Then, I’ll forget again and carry on.
That’s just the reality of my brain, but it doesn’t speak for my heart or intentions.
How to Have More Effective Conversations With Your Autistic Loved One
- Be Specific
If you want to talk with your autistic loved one, be specific in your intentions and your approach. Remember, “Hope all is well” is a statement, not a question. Also, even “How are you?” can be too general of a question for an autistic person’s mind to make sense of. It’s not that we’re slow, it’s that the question feels too vague. Our brains may go into overdrive trying to decipher what you mean. “How am I how? In what way? How is work going? How are my studies going? How’s my family? My dog?”
Vague questions can send your autistic loved one into a tailspin, especially if they have also experienced being told over and over again that they’re responding in the “wrong” way.
Instead, be very specific. “Hey. Did you ever end up seeing that horror movie you were talking about?” or “How’s Spike doing? I know you had to take your dog to the vet for an ear infection. Is he feeling better?”
- Volunteer Information
After you’ve asked your on-topic question and a few follow-up questions, don’t wait for a prompt from them, try volunteering relevant information instead. “Speaking of horror movies, have you seen ________?” or “Yeah, Slinky had an ear infection once. Thought I was gonna lose the poor ferret!”
- Share Videos, Memes, Etc.
If asking questions doesn’t seem to get you the response you’re expecting, try sharing videos or memes relevant to your autistic loved one’s passionate interests. Those can be great ice-breakers. However, if you’re looking to talk about something beyond that, be specific and direct. Otherwise, the autistic person will likely respond only to the video or meme without thinking to ask any follow-up questions.
Important Note: Do not send videos or memes as “bait” to draw your autistic loved one into a conversation. It’s great to get a cute video, but when it’s followed up by something ominous like, “Haven’t heard from you in a while” or “Oh, so you respond to cute videos but not my phone calls”, you’ll immediately activate my fight-or-flight response, and if you do it enough times, I’ll block you as that type of underhanded and passive-aggressive approach makes me no longer trust you.
- Schedule Times to Catch Up
Another way to reduce anxiety and be clear about your expectations and needs is to schedule a specific time and date to catch up with “rain” dates scheduled in. This way, both parties know to set aside time to catch up, but there’s no pressure or admonishment if the first or second appointment doesn’t pan out.
It’s important to keep in mind that autistic people are often anxious people because we’ve lived our whole lives in a neurotypical world not made for us, irritating and offending people along the way, being suddenly yelled at without knowing why, and being corrected dozens of times a day for the way we simply exist in the world.
It makes us wary, distrustful, and exhausted. Please be patient.
- Stop “Keeping Score”
I’ve saved my best piece of advice for last. Stop “keeping score”. What I mean by this is, if you’ve texted your autistic loved one two or three times, and you’ve decided to stop initiating because your autistic loved one never initiates, that may be the last time you ever talk to them.
Remember, reciprocity for an autistic person doesn’t look the same as it does for a neurotypical person, and that’s OK. Both types of communication are valid, and neither party is purposefully slighting the other.
If you, as a neurotypical person, apply the same social rules to an autistic person, you’re going to end up jumping to conclusions that just aren’t true. You’re also going to build up resentment over a story you’ve told yourself about that person and their intentions. Meanwhile, the autistic person will be none the wiser and won’t have a clue why you, for example, make points to avoid them out in public.
You may think you’re making a bold and pointed statement by doing something like that, and that your target is well aware of what they did to offend you, but I promise you, they aren’t. The autistic person isn’t being “properly chastised” for their perceived social slight, they’re just, once again, being mistreated and abandoned for reasons they can’t fathom.
Reasons people consistently refuse to explain to them.
To enjoy more reciprocal and effective communication with your autistic loved one, be the first to reach out, get accustomed to “no” (we may not have the energy or emotional bandwidth to talk), be specific, offer reminders, volunteer information, don’t try to trick us, don’t jump to conclusions, ask, don’t assume, and never keep score.