Written in July 2022
Autistic behaviour is difficult for non-autistic people to read, in exactly the same way that non-autistic (or neurotypical) behaviour is difficult for us to read. The difference is that autistic people are expected to learn about non-autistic behaviour, but non-autistic don't have to learn about us in return. This leads to all sorts of problems, so to enable a proper working, social or romantic relationship with the autistic person or people in your life, I have translated and explained some common autistic behaviour.
There are lots of possible causes for this. We might not have heard you (if we're wearing noise cancelling headphones or earplugs we definitely haven't heard you!). If we go mute during an exchange we may be processing what you've said, we may be processing our response, or we may be starting to shut down.
Situational mutism is quite common in autistic people, more so than you might expect. Despite normally being quite hard to shut up, I can go mute during stressful and frustrating exchanges or situations. It can happen when something unexpected happens or there's a change of plan too. Situational mutism is not something we can control, and being told to “use our words” or that we “can't just ignore the situation” is upsetting at best, harmful at worst.
Lack of eye contact
As one of the most commonly known traits of autism, a lack of eye contact doesn't mean anything like it does if a neurotypical person doesn't make eye contact. We're not being shifty, we are not ignoring you, we are not lying, or anything else nefarious. It's simply that making eye contact ranges from being very difficult to full-on painfully overwhelming. We often can't listen and process information when we have to make (or fake) eye contact – it's the opposite of the old “look at me when I'm talking so I know you're listening” idea. You're just going to have to get used to the fact that we're perfectly capable of communicating without eye contact, and we're paying more attention to what you're saying than most people. Yes, we don't get the body language signals if we're not looking at you, but we don't typically use them anyway – we're not missing anything!
This is something that seems to really rile people up. There's some kind of secret (and flexible) limit to the amount of questions a person is allowed to ask and we don't get the memo about this, or when we've reached the limit. We ask questions because we don't understand, just like anyone else. You might not understand why we are asking, but trust me when I say we need to. We're not in the habit of entering into pointless social interaction for the sake of it. You might think we're asking silly questions, or ones where the answer should be obvious, but clearly, we don't know the answer, or we wouldn't be asking (I can't believe I have to explain this, but here we are).
Similar to the above, as it often takes the form of questioning, we are not “deliberately picking holes” or whatever else you want to call it. We're not questioning anyone's intelligence (OK sometimes we are), or trying to belittle anyone, we are just really really good at detail. It's how we understand things and relate to things and sometimes we need to know, or scrutinise every single detail so we can understand something. This is read as nitpicking, and it's really not. We're also generally perfectionists (and that's why we get very upset if something doesn't go right), so getting the tiny details right, or being sure we've paid attention to every possible aspect, is how we roll.
Changing the subject
Again, because we are detail oriented, we are able to make links between seemingly unrelated things because we're so involved in the detailed, granular level of things. We're unlikely to be changing the subject to avoid a difficult conversation or to divert attention, because this is the kind of social manipulation we do not indulge in. Hear us out if we seem to be changing the subject. The exception here is if we just keep diverting back to our special interest – then we really are trying to get to a topic we're comfortable with and it will often be because we're finding it hard to cope with a situation and might need some quiet time.
Talking about ourselves
This is one of the ways we show empathy. We have it, we experience it differently and we show it differently, but it is there. If you tell us about something that happened to you, we'll tell you about a similar (or the same thing) that happened to us or someone we know. We're telling you that we understand, that we know it feels bad (or good) and we're actually just trying to make a social connection with you. We're saying “ask me about this, talk to me about this, I have experienced this and I want to share it with you”. Yes, it's read as attention seeking but it really truly isn't.
Agreeing to or with everything
Sometimes this is read as passive aggressive, which is another kind of social manipulation we don't do – we'll just be blunt if the situation calls for it! Agreeing to (or with) everything can be because we want to fit in and divert attention away from ourselves or our contribution, but it can also be one of the basic responses. There's fight and flight, and then there's freeze (often involving silence or a shutdown), and also fawn, which is the agreeing with everything response. It's a fear response, and it's usually because we want whoever or whatever to leave us alone and saying yes is the quickest and easiest response. It is also why lots of autistic people get taken advantage of, so while it might make your life easier to pressure an autistic person into a fawn response, it's also emotional abuse. Not fun.
Having no answer
Different to silence, having no answer is when we revert to an “I don't know” answer to things. This is often where we end up after a conversation or interaction where we've asked questions and exceeded the secret limit on how many we're allowed to ask, thereby infuriating the other person. Then, we are unable to answer or respond because we're not allowed to ask for clarification without risking further annoying the other party. It is the safest answer in a lot of situations that might otherwise escalate, and is often a sign of self-awareness (because we can see we're annoying someone, and this has always ended badly for us in the past, so we're trying to avoid further abuse). We also might not have enough processing time to give you an answer straight away, so “I don't know/care”, or repeating back to you the last option, is the best we can do with a time pressure.
One word answers
A single word might be all we can muster, or it might actually be a perfectly reasonable answer to a yes/no question, just delivered without all the social garnish that neurotypicals have to use. Take “would you like a cup of tea?” as an example. This is a yes/no question (at best it's a now/later question). We're likely to just say yes or no, where a neurotypical will add a flourish thusly “oh yes that would be marvellous thank you so much”. The question is answered in both cases, but without all the garnish it can seem rude. It's not actually rude, we're just being efficient. Doubly so if you've interrupted something we're doing to ask.
Obviously, another detail based behaviour! We are quite likely to tell you everything in response to a question – this is the exact opposite of a one word answer but they're applicable to different situations. Because we operate using a lot of detail (usually more than other people are even aware exists) we'll tell you all of what we know, so you have all the information you need to understand or make an informed decision. We might not know what exact answer you want or need, or what information you're trying to elicit (and if everyone asked direct, clear questions this problem would not exist) so we just tell you all of it. That way, we can't be accused of withholding anything, lying by omission, or receive the nebulous “well you should have known what I was really asking”. We're actually doing you a massive favour here by sharing our immense knowledge, you'd think people would be more appreciative...
This list isn't exhaustive, but it can't be, because there's no way I have time to dissect and explain every single aspect of autistic behaviour. I've focused here on the ones which are often “read” as resistant, rude or trouble making. Every autistic person is different so not everyone will have all these behaviours, just as not all neurotypical people require verbal garnish, eye contact or subtext/implied meanings to communicate. We've learnt about neurotypical communication, so now it's time to learn (at least a little bit) about us.