It’s a myth that autistic people with minimal support needs are expressionless or discourteous. It just might not be the what you’re used to.
If you know someone who’s autistic who needs less support, you may have experienced occasions when their conversational tone or behaviors seem emotionless, detached, or even “rude.”
These interactions may leave you confused and wondering how to respond — especially if you’re unsure why this behavior is happening.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person verbally and nonverbally communicates, engages in social interactions, and perceives or reacts to the world around them.
The DSM-5, a diagnostic manual used by some medical professionals to diagnose ASD, categorizes autism into three levels based on how much support the person needs:
- Level 1 describes autistic folks who need minimal support in daily activities, with some social and communication challenges and repetitive or restricted behaviors.
- Level 2 means they face more significant challenges with communication and need substantial support to navigate day-to-day activities.
- Level 3 includes individuals who need more support than level 2, which might require one-on-one help throughout their day.
Level 1 autism includes autistic people who were once referred to as having “high-functioning autism” or Asperger’s syndrome. Some people may still identify with these terms, or as being an Aspie or autist in their community.
Needing minimal support means that challenges faced by the autistic person aren’t substantial enough to require help from others for most daily activities. This individual may live independently, be married or have a long-term partner, perhaps with kids, and autonomously maintain a career.
Autistic people who require minimal support may excel in specific subjects or areas of interest and become very successful in their chosen field of study or employment.
Still, some characteristics of autism can affect social communication, causing an autistic person’s interactions to be misinterpreted as curt or blunt.
Differences in processing sensory input
For most folks, the noises produced by a room full of people aren’t bothersome. But this noise can be so overwhelming for an autistic person with sensory processing challenges that they must escape it — sometimes abruptly.
Difficulties with executive functioning
Executive functioning is the ability to stay organized, control behaviors, and interact with others.
Challenges with this type of functioning may make it seem like an autistic person’s behavior is rude, when in reality, they may be having trouble keeping up with nuanced social cues or multiple people talking at once.
Differences in communication style
An autistic person’s communication style is often misunderstood. Because it may differ from society’s expectations, nonautistic people can misinterpret what they say or do.
As a result, many Aspies feel as if they’re navigating a strange world filled with “neurotypicals” who don’t understand how they interact. There are even online groups, such as Wrong Planet, that offer support for those who feel this way.
Want to learn to better communicate with an autistic person? You can check out this solid resource.
To set the record straight on stigmas often associated with autistic folks and Asperger’s, we dove into research to distinguish fact from fiction.
Hopefully, this helps clarify a bit better why an autistic person may act in ways that might be difficult for you to understand.
Myth: Autistic people have an expressionless face during direct communication
Fact: Although some autistic people seem to have fewer facial expressions during interactions, 2016 research suggests this may be due to the presence of alexithymia, not autism.
Alexithymia isn’t well understood, but is characterized by difficulties with expressing and identifying emotions.
Other research suggests that nonautistic people may not be reading the autistic person’s facial expressions accurately during conversation due to differences in how autistic people communicate.
Myth: Autistic people have monotone speech, even when passionate about a topic
Fact: While it’s true that autistic people who need less support may have less intonation or variation while speaking, this doesn’t mean they lack emotion.
According to a
Researchers said the autistic participants in the study produced emotional speech that was more intense for a longer duration and had longer pitch ranges as compared to neurotypical participants.
These differences in emotional expression may make it more difficult for nonautistic people to read the emotional state of the autistic speaker.
Myth: Autistic people needing minimal support are purposely rude or blunt
Fact: Autism, in part, is characterized by literal thinking and difficulties understanding and responding to social cues. It’s also associated with challenges in perspective-taking or understanding another person’s emotional state and acting on that information properly.
Because of this, autistic people may be seen as brusque, when in fact, they’re just misunderstood.
For example, a person with autism may abruptly end a conversation by saying, “I have nothing more to say to you.” To you, this could appear extremely dismissive, but in reality, this person may have literally run out of things to say and is letting you know it’s time for the conversation to end.
In addition to this, autistic people tend to avoid eye contact when interacting, which may be misinterpreted as disrespectful.
However, just because there’s no direct eye contact doesn’t mean they aren’t interested or listening during the conversation. This is simply a difference in social nuances that you might not be used to.
Myth: Autistic folks don’t understand social cues or etiquette
Fact: Social communication is an intricate dance between two people using social skills typically learned by example from infancy through adulthood.
For autistic people who need less support, this social reciprocity can be challenging to learn just by experiencing it.
That’s why many specialized educational programs include social communication as part of their curriculum.
A good example of a perceived lack of etiquette or missed social cues is when an autistic person interrupts you while in the middle of a conversation with someone else. Although it may come across as blatant, in reality, the autistic person simply might not internalize that society considers interrupting poor etiquette.
In this case, they might have also missed the nonverbal cues you hinted at to let them know the interruption was socially uncouth.
Myth: Autistic individuals lack empathy
Fact: Being autistic doesn’t equal a lack of empathy. This is perhaps the biggest myth of all about autism. However, how an autistic person might process and express empathy may look different from what you’re accustomed to.
This means that an autistic person may not recognize when someone is in distress, but can feel someone’s emotional state and has the drive necessary to respond or offer assistance.
How does this look? Say, for example, you’re struggling to carry groceries. An autistic person may not recognize this means it’s time to offer help. However, telling them you’re having trouble might prompt them to provide the assistance you need.
Myth: Autistic people have communication challenges because of a lack of intelligence
Fact: This misconception associated with autism may be rooted in the general belief that effective communicators are more intelligent.
Autistic people are intelligent. But because of expressive and receptive language challenges, it may present differently.
A conference paper from a 2012 International Meeting for Autism Research reported that when autistic children who had significant challenges completed IQ tests that didn’t rely on verbal abilities, some scored within or above the normal range in intelligence.
This means that fear of social interactions may hamper an autistic person’s ability to communicate effectively. Scientists who conducted this study suggest that treating social anxiety could help increase comfort and enhance communication between autistic and nonautistic people.
On a final note, the myth that autism equals lower intelligence may be one reason why some neurotypical people sometimes feel the need to talk to autistic people in simple, easy-to-understand language.
However, this can hamper an autistic person’s self-esteem. Instead, you might look to respect the person’s abilities by speaking with them as you would anyone else.
When interacting with an autistic person who needs minimal support, some behaviors you encounter may seem rude. If this happens to you, try not to take it personally, as autistic folks may not realize their words or behaviors are negatively affecting you.
Autistic people think differently, and that’s OK. This can offer a fresh perspective on a situation or problem you may not have thought of before.
Practicing empathy toward autistic people and being open to understanding them on a deeper level can help you learn better ways to respond to what initially seems like rudeness.
To do this, you could try:
- looking at the situation from a purely logical perspective
- assessing the interaction and making a mental note of subtle social cues the autistic individual may have missed that you could instead verbalize
- identifying if the environment at the time of the interaction wasn’t accommodating to their sensory needs
- understanding that, most likely, the autistic person isn’t acting ambivalent on purpose
With understanding and compassion, you can help bridge the communication gap and foster the safe space needed to enjoy meaningful connections.