Making Sense of Autism — A Personal Perspective
By Astrid Liddel
My name is Astrid Liddel, and I have autism. You probably have lots of ideas about what I might be like, just by seeing the word ‘autism’ in conjunction with my name. Some of those ideas might have some truth to them, while others might not. So I will tell you about myself so you can see what I am actually like. Hopefully, this will inspire you to see autistic people in a different light.
My autism is probably what you would call ‘high-functioning’. A word of advice about this — some autistic people do not like the ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ classifications, because they feel these labels only lead to discrimination and unfounded assumptions about how autistic people behave. So, even though there are vast differences of functionality on the autistic spectrum, I wouldn’t recommend putting autistic people into categories based on how they behave.
Another thing that might be relevant is that I also have anxiety and depression, which can affect how I function. These additional mental illnesses make it hard for me to simply get up and be productive, so I often struggle to fill my day with activities. I struggle with internet addiction, so as a result a lot of my day winds up being filled by random internet browsing or watching YouTube videos because I am bored. I do go out and volunteer, but at this point my schedule is very empty and very much a work in progress.
In addition, it is difficult for me to read people’s expressions. I know when a cat is angry or hungry because I spend a lot of time around them — I have two cats who provide a lot of emotional support for me — but when I look at people’s faces, they look totally blank to me. I can’t read emotions unless they are extreme, and since most emotions are subtle, that means that most of the time, I have to take wild guesses as to what people are thinking. Imagine being surrounded by faceless robots who you can’t understand, yet you are expected to read like a book. That’s how I feel most of the time.
Social stuff in general is often a total mystery to me. I feel like the only two vocal tones I can recognize are neutral and angry. This makes it often feel like people are upset with me when it turns out that they were not. This also means I have trouble using an appropriate tone of voice when talking to others. I tend to scream when I’m angry, because to me that is the only way that I can convey the intensity of what I am feeling. Because I cannot understand tone or utilize tones properly, this can make me very difficult to communicate with.
I also often take out my anger or frustration on the people around me. This makes it easier for me to end friendships than to start them. Since starting friendships is about as easy as learning a new language, this means I do not have a lot of friends and often spend my time feeling lonely. Lately, it seems that it’s easier for me to have online friends or primarily communicate with real-life friends over text, because then I can monitor what I say and I am less likely to have an outburst and wind up alienating my friends. These online friendships have been incredibly meaningful and supportive, but I often feel pressure to make ‘real’ friends and that something is wrong with me because I don’t have large friend groups like others my age might.
By now, you are probably wondering how to communicate with autistic people in such a way that they can understand you and won’t be intimidated by you. Here is some advice that hopefully will make your relationships with autistic people easier:
- Above all, treat them like normal people. It’s okay to ask about why they might do certain behaviors, but don’t mock them or tease them, even if you think you are only joking. They might not get your tone and feel upset.
- Be very straightforward with them. Explain things that might otherwise seem obvious to you. As an autistic person, a lot of subtleties can slip by me and I am sure other autistic people would want everything told to them exactly how it is, even if it means saying something you think they should be able to pick up on without your help.
- Don’t raise your voice or yell. Some autistic people, including yours truly, are very sensitive to noise, and sudden loud noises can upset or scare them.
- Don’t assume that they won’t get your sense of humor. Autism and a good sense of humor are not mutually exclusive. That said, if they ask you to explain a joke, please do so.
These tips are just the beginning of learning to understand and communicate successfully with autistic people. The most important thing you can do is listen, clarify, and be willing to adapt your behavior to make your conversations easier. By following this advice, you will find out in no time that autistic people are so much more than stereotypes make them out to be.
Astrid Liddel is a CBS staff member and blogger publishing under a pseudonym.