Why Your Autistic Loved One Doesn’t Pick Up the Phone

Man wearing a colorful shawl while talking on the phone. His eyes are closed, and his hand is on his head. He looks stressed or like he's concentrating hard.

If your autistic loved one never answers their phone or calls you, you may think they’re rude or want nothing to do with you, but this is probably not the case. What’s most likely happening is the prospect of talking on the phone is just too overwhelming. 

Here are some common reasons autistic people may be uncomfortable talking on the phone: 

  • Unexpected and loud sound

Many autistic people, myself included, are uncomfortable with loud and unexpected sounds. A phone ringing in a quiet room can sound like a jackhammer to our ears. Also, a lot of autistic people, especially those who have been late-diagnosed, have post-traumatic stress disorder from a lifetime of being misunderstood and bullied. A loud, unexpected sound is a common trigger for those with PTSD. Just hearing a ringing phone can cause enough stress that talking immediately afterward is too overwhelming. 

  • Being interrupted

Hyperfocus is common in autistic people, and it can cause us to go so deeply into our own project/world that we don’t notice anything else around us. Therefore, the interruption of a phone call can feel, to us, similar to being woken up out of a sound sleep by a blaring alarm. It’s disorienting and panic-inducing. 

  • Auditory processing struggles

Many autistic people struggle with processing verbal information and often rely on reading lips, facial expressions, body language, and context cues to figure out what someone is trying to tell us. With just a voice, it can be difficult to understand the words and their intended meaning, and asking someone to repeat themselves over and over can be annoying and frustrating on both ends. 

Redheaded woman with freckles holding a green phone to her ear.

  • Small talk and “chatting” can be confusing 

Calling “just to chat” has never made sense to my brain because I need a subject to talk about, a clear purpose to the conversation. Chatting may happen on a call, but if the expectation of the phone call is “to chat”, I don’t know what that means. It’s too vague, and I don’t know what to talk about. 

  • Sensory overload due to background noise

When I’m on the phone, every background noise is amplified and painful for me, especially if the person on the other end of the line is outside, on a job site, or there are children or animals making noise near them. I already struggle mightily to understand spoken words due to auditory processing challenges, and adding shrill background noise, static, and inconsistent call volume is enough to make me want to scream. 

  • Not knowing when it’s our turn to talk

Turn-taking in conversation can be a challenge for autistic people whether it’s in person or during a phone call. Many of us just can’t read the cues that indicate we have the floor. However, in person, we can at least see someone taking a breath or opening their mouth to speak. On the phone, there’s none of that, which results in a lot of talking over each other, apologizing, and failing to communicate properly. 

A person who appears gender non-binary sitting with a phone to their ear while looking at a laptop, a cup of coffee on the table next to them.

  • Poor memory (working and short-term)

I have both a poor working memory and a poor short-term memory, so I often can’t remember what was said to me on the phone even moments after I’ve hung up. I also struggle to remember what I want to say during the conversation and get it in fast enough before the conversation changes direction. 

  • Pressure to “mask” our voice and tone

Nowhere is masking more difficult for me than on the phone because I have to filter my entire personality through my voice. I have a monotone voice, which makes me sound bored, disinterested, rude, etc., so I have to put a lot of concentration into manually adjusting my tone, cadence, and speech rhythm throughout the conversation to the detriment of my ability to understand or remember what was said during the call later. 

  • Social exhaustion 

Masking is a manual process that requires extensive concentration and effort, which can lead to social exhaustion, especially when talking on the phone. This is because, as I mentioned in the last bullet point, we have to filter our entire personalities through our voices when there are no facial expressions or body language for others to read. 

  • Focus/concentration struggles 

If your autistic loved one is an ADHD-combined type like me, being able to concentrate on the words coming through the phone speaker can be very difficult because our brains are constantly seeking more stimulation (ADHD) while also being overstimulated (autism). Personally, I can only be on the phone for a maximum of 20 minutes before I start dissociating, and that number drops significantly if I’m not doing another (menial) task while talking to keep my mind focused. 

  • Awkward silence/pressure to talk continuously 

When you’re having a conversation in person, long periods of silence are more acceptable. When you’re talking on the phone, however, there are no facial expressions or body language to act as a buffer. The only way to tell that the other person is there and engaged with you is to keep a constant flow of conversation. When there’s any lingering silence on the other end of the line, you don’t know if the other person is waiting for you to talk, they’ve hung up, or the call has been dropped. 

  • Not knowing how to end the call

Ending a phone call has always been a bit of an enigma to me because I can find no natural break or lull in the conversation that would indicate that it’s winding down. Therefore, I’ve been in conversations that have lasted far longer than they should have because I didn’t know how to end the call and the other person didn’t want to “interrupt” me and tell me they needed to get going. 

Two female-presenting people on a video call. One wears corded earbuds, the other wears glasses.

Respect and Accommodation Goes a Long Way 

Now that you understand the many reasons your autistic loved one may struggle with talking on the phone, please respect their wishes if they prefer an alternative method of communication such as text, email, or a video call with live captions (Zoom offers this). 

Alternatively, you and your autistic loved one can schedule a phone call so they have time to prepare for the social interaction and they can be sure that the call doesn’t take place during hyperfocus, resting time, shutdown, burnout, heightened anxiety, or a meltdown. 

Furthermore, please don’t admonish your autistic loved one for not picking up the phone when they do pick up the phone. That’s called “punishing behaviors you want to see”, and it will virtually guarantee that the time between phone calls will get longer and longer until they no longer speak to you because they’ll associate talking to you with being called out for something they can’t help. 

And another thing; please allow your autistic loved one to get off the phone without fear of a guilt trip or intrusive questions as to why they can’t talk longer. The fact that they’re on the phone at all should be appreciated considering all the obstacles it presents, and time boundaries should be respected. 

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4 Responses

  1. Kim Duff says:

    This is a great article! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else explain why it’s so hard to use a phone when you’re autistic, no matter how verbal one is. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. (even though, technically, or at least theoretically, I knew that my issues were common with others with similar disabilities.)

    And the excuses many organizations have made about how the pandemic restrictions have meant they could only provide customer service over the phone have greatly aggravated pre-existing accessiblity issues for many of us! They don’t seem to even realize (much less care) that they are discriminating against a certain portion of their customers. It’s as if disability accessibility is a brand new concept to them, even thought it’s been around for decades.

    One thing I’d like to add is that for those us with movement disorder issues (whether sensory integration/sensory processing related, i.e. motor planning, or other, unrelated movement disorders), not being able to explain why our voice doesn’t initiate when we wanted it to, or why it cracks in the middle of words, or cuts out entirely unexpectedly, or other things (just sounds funny in general) is another barrier we experience. At least in person, someone can tell when we’re having difficulties.

    Oh, and one other comment: I’ve been able to get around the nerve-rattling sound of the telephone by using disability documentation to allow me to use a phone company supplied lamp flasher typically used by those with hearing impairments. It’s not perfect (as if I’m not in the same room, I often don’t see it), and an answering machine/voice mail, so that I return calls when I do notice there’s a message.

  2. Jenny Marshall says:

    I thought this was a great article too. One other thing I would add, and why mobile phones are great, is that as a child I wouldn’t answer the landline because I didn’t know who it was. Although I didn’t realise it at the time (I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until my mid-30s), I now understand that this was because I had no time to prepare in my head before hand how to answer the call or what might be expected of me. Even now I will often, on seeing who is calling, not answer the phone, but ring back a few minutes later once I have had time to prepare. (I do this without realising – it is only now writing this that I have realised what I do!)

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