An important reason why it’s often hard to communicate with someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder is the fact that they tend to think concretely and literally. They focus on what they see, hear, feel and experience in the here and now rather than concepts, metaphors, figures of speech and other abstract forms of thinking. A classic example of the difference between these two types of thinking is the figure of speech, “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” A concrete thinker would interpret this as referring literally to breakable panes of glass, whereas an abstract thinker understands this figure of speech to mean that people who have faults of their own shouldn’t criticize others.
The nuances of relationships don’t easily lend themselves to concrete, literal thinking. It is hard to discuss one’s feelings, impressions, assumptions, and expectations in concrete terms, as these concepts and experiences are abstractions. They refer to one’s personal experience, and understanding them requires reflecting on the particular meaning of them for that specific person.
If you are in a relationship with someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, the work of creating and maintaining effective communication may fall largely on you, given the likely difference in the way the two of you think. Here are five suggestions for creating the kind of communication you and your partner need for a closer, more enjoyable relationship.
1. Make Clarity Your First Priority
Clear and direct communication works best for someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Try to be as specific as you can be, using clear, simple words. Don’t rely on nonverbal communication, such as gestures, body language, facial expressions and other indirect forms of communication, as these are difficult for someone with Autism to understand.
When you talk about your feelings, worries, expectations, etc. try to translate these into direct, specific language so that your partner has a better chance of understanding what you mean. If, for example, you value transparency, give specific examples of what this refers to so that your partner can recognize what it is you mean in the here and now. In moments of anger, to use an example, rather than saying you’re angry and expecting your partner to know what that experience is like, describe what specific actions lead you to feel that way and what exactly could be done to ease that anger.
Be sure to encourage your partner to be specific and concrete in describing his or her own experience of your relationship, avoiding the abstract language that is likely to create confusion between the two of you.
2. Start Communicating Now
The best time to create effective communication is at the beginning of a relationship, before misunderstandings and rigid patterns develop. People with Autism have a hard time making changes once communication patterns are entrenched.
If it’s early in your relationship, focus on what needs to change in how the two of you are talking with each other. Let your partner know what you expect and want. Develop a plan of using direct, specific communication and work to implement that plan regularly and consistently.
The same can be said if your relationship is in a mature phase. The time to change ineffective patterns is now. Waiting for things to change on their own is generally ineffective and only makes the needed change harder to create.
3. Use Written Communication Often
Make a list or chart of the nonverbal expressions that you tend to use and what they mean. Go over this list with your partner and make sure whatever is confusing is clarified so that both of you are on the same page. This will promote effective understanding and minimize the confusions and misconceptions that are likely to occur due to the limitations of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
4. Make Criticism Constructive
Your Autism Spectrum Disorder partner is probably used to being corrected, even criticized, for the way he or she communicates, to the point where this is what is expected. Even though you are not trying to be judgmental or critical you may appear to be so, because this is what your partner has experienced so often. Perception is everything when it comes to communication.
You don’t need to hide your feelings, needs, and expectations just because they’ve caused problems in the past. Instead, focus on making sure you let your partner knows that these are your feelings, needs, etc. and not indirect criticisms of your partner’s shortcomings.
Instead of pointing out what your partner is doing that you don’t like or is not doing that you would prefer, frame the conversation in a positive way by focusing on how improvements can be made. Make a point of stating exactly what is needed for the two of you to communicate better and be sure to include what you can do to help with those improvements. Focusing just on how your partner should change without including what you can do to make things better will likely reinforce your partner’s assumption about being criticized and judged.
5. Be Strategic
The fact that your partner has trouble understanding what you are thinking and feeling is good reason for you to take extra measures to communicate effectively yourself.
For example, try to avoid accusations. That only leads to greater misunderstanding and eventual resentment. Be patient but persistent. Give your partner time to reflect on and respond to your concerns. Stay calm and take a deep breath in the midst of misunderstandings. Focus on facts rather than assumptions. Work on compromising as much as you can.
Furthermore, take one topic at a time. Too much subjects all jumbled together will be hard for your partner to understand and difficult for the two of you to achieve.
Work as a team. Neither of you is right all the time, just as neither of you is always wrong. You will need to reach your relationship goals by working together, focusing on the specifics of what needs to change and viewing that change as a joint venture.
As you and your partner work towards better communication, consider the advantages of making small steps towards that goal. One step at a time, rather than rushing forward all at once, is a time- honored technique.
As the saying goes, “take small steps each day. You may not get there today but you’ll be closer than yesterday.