“The key is acceptance”: Exploring autistic adults’ social communicative wants, needs, and expectations


Autistic people often find communication and social interaction difficult. These difficulties are linked to problems accessing health and social care, difficulty communicating with care providers, poor health outcomes, and increased mortality rates in autistic adults. Historically, research assumed autistic social/communicative difficulties occurred due to inherent impairments in the autistic person. Recent research, however, has suggested that these difficulties occur due to a mutual misalignment between autistic and non-autistic people regarding their lived experiences and communicative wants, needs, and expectations (i.e. due to a different communicative ‘style’). Improved understanding of the autistic communicative style could reduce miscommunication between autistic people and non-autistic care providers, improving health outcomes for autistic people. In order to explore the autistic communicative style, we ran an online, asynchronous, forum-style focus group with 9 autistic adults over the course of two weeks. Questions posed to the group focused on five topics- (1) signalling social interest; (2) what feels rude, polite, natural, and unnatural during communication; (3) differences in talking to autistic vs. non-autistic people; (4) what makes a social interaction a positive one; and (5) anything else the participants wanted to say. The data collected was analysed using thematic analysis, and five themes were identified- (1) External factors affecting communication; (2) Internal factors affecting communication; (3) Using intellect to overcome communicative challenges; (4) Protective factors against an unpleasant social/communicative experience; and (5) Strongly held principles of autistic communication. These themes point to challenges created by a social environment designed to non-autistic norms, and the level of effort required by autistic people to overcome these; to fundamental differences in the autistic experience of social interaction and communication, as well as in the purpose and expectations surrounding these; and to the capacity of understanding and acceptance to bridge the gap between autistic and non-autistic communicative styles.

May 1, 2022 12:00 AM
ReSpect Lab, Kings College London, London, UK
Holly E. A. Sutherland
Holly E. A. Sutherland
Doctoral Candidate