Autistic social communication: ‘a minefield of problems’, or ‘a difference in typical values’?


Much of the research on social communication in autism focuses on ‘deficits’ in autistic social communication. However, more recent research has found that communication between autistic people is both enjoyable and effective – in contrast to the communication breakdown often seen when autistic and non-autistic people interact. These findings support of the Double Empathy Problem’s conceptualisation of autistic social communication, and point to the possible existence of an autistic ‘communicative style’ that is intuitively understood by other autistic (but not non-autistic) people. In order to better understand what the features of an autistic communicative style might be (and how these might differ from a non-autistic communicative style), we ran an online, asynchronous focus group with 9 autistic adults over the course of two weeks. Questions posed to the group focused on five topics- (1) how to signal interest in another person; (2) what feels rude, polite, natural, and unnatural during communication; (3) how communication with other autistic people feels different to communication with non-autistic people; and (4) what makes a social interaction a positive one. A space for participants to provide any other information about autistic communication that they felt was relevant was also provided. The data collected was analysed using thematic analysis, and five indicative themes were identified- (1) External factors affecting communication (perceived danger, inflexibility of non-autistic people, dishonesty of others, unwritten ‘social skills’, environment); (2) Internal factors affecting communication (fragmented attention, low ‘social energy’, self-monitoring/managing, variable sense of self); (3) Using intellect to overcome challenges; (4) Protective factors against an unpleasant communicative experience (autistic friends, accommodation, autistic identity); and (5) Strongly held principles of autistic communication (honesty, purposeful conversation, unique interactional styles, boundaries/routines, and mutual accommodation). These themes are currently undergoing member-checking by participants, and are therefore subject to change.

At Autistica Research Festival 2022