By Adam Lodestone
As an Autistic (Neurodivergent, or ND) adult, I often hear Neurotypical (NT) people say that I am being rude if I interrupt them when they are speaking or if I happen to talk over them. According to NT social norms and communication rules, such behavior is considered impolite and inappropriate. NT folks often also share with me their opinion that my Autism is just an excuse for bad behavior. But, I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth!
Declaring an absolute such as “that is rude” places a Neurotypical value upon a particular thing, that thing being interpersonal verbal communication. When Autistic people (or other neurodivergent individuals, such as someone with ADHD or a TBI, for example) interrupt, it is often involuntary and has a lot to do with our cognitive function, our memories, and our relative inability to read pauses in conversation accurately.
Rather than insisting that Autistic/ND folks *always* adapt to Allistic/NT expectations based upon Neurotypical values, how about Allistic/NT people at least meeting Autistic/ND folks halfway?
What would that look like?
A few examples are:
- Pausing one’s own verbal communications once in a while to ask if the other person is following the topic or if they need space to respond or share something. It may be that the other person only has the stamina and attention for listening to a few sentences at a time.
- Actively acknowledging that the other person, who happens to be Autistic/ND, has limited cognitive flexibility, executive functioning, and energy with which to follow a thread of conversation for very long.
- Remaining conscious of the fact that your conversation partner has limited cognitive flexibility, executive functioning, and energy with which to maintain hold of what they may need to share (or how it is they are going to reply).
- Remembering that verbal communications, and all of the social rules and conventions that go along with them, are often quite exhausting for Autistic/ND folks, on many levels.
- Making sure that the cadence ~ the give and take of the conversation ~ is brief, with shorter stretches of each person talking in turns.
- Being mindful of the fact that what is being talked about will impact the energy levels and concentration of Autistic/ND individuals. Small talk and gossip tend to drain us. Personal stories, if we are fairly close to you, will likely not drain us but how focused we can be might depend upon our current levels of sensory stimulation or other stresses. Practical communications might need to be communicated like a list of bullet points without a lot of extraneous detail or elaborate context.
These accommodations are not only polite and considerate, but they are also EXTREMELY helpful for the Autistic/ND people one encounters and engages with, in one’s life. Autistic/ND folks would experience this way of communicating as an empowering and affirming change from the demand to comply with expectations that they simply cannot meet, either at all or not without doing harm to themselves.
And trust me… it costs a lot of energy (spoons) and causes harm to mask and to try to suppress every impulse or try to guess at the right actions at the right time according to criteria we don’t understand— so as to make the Neurotypical people around us more comfortable and less stressed.
My own friends, family, peers, my therapist, and my colleagues all make use of the above-recommended techniques when communicating with me, with great success and resulting in easier, more pleasant, more effective exchanges for everyone.
If you are an Allistic/NT individual, making reasonable accommodations for another person who is challenged by things that are relatively easy for you, such as an equal exchange of time and attention in conversation, would be the kind, compassionate, and empathetic thing to do.
I urge NT people to resist the urge to call interruptions by Autistic/ND folks “rude” and to examine the situation a little more deeply. Ask what challenges your Autistic/ND conversation partner might be experiencing and adapt your own approach so as to reduce or eliminate those challenges. One might ask, “I seem to be doing all of the adapting now. How is that meeting Autistic/ND people ‘halfway’?”
And that is a fair question to ask.
My reply: Autistic/ND people are already working so hard, in ways that you often can’t see, just to remain present during a conversation: thinking about making eye contact or not making eye contact, trying to keep track of the cogent topical points, caring about the other person’s meaning and intention, wondering if they are interpreting the words correctly, being distracted by what they are feeling in their body or by other sensory input, and so much more… just participating in a conversation is an incredible amount of work. Allistic/NT folks taking on responsibility for a more balanced give-and-take and allowing for some grace around all of this, which Autistic/ND individuals experience while trying to hold a conversation, may not even be half of the load.
So, my Neurotypical readers, the next time it is tempting to label an interruption from an Autistic/ND friend, co-worker, family member, or casual acquaintance as “rude,”pause. Check in. Assess the challenges that are present. Give a little less at one time. Offer more time for digestion and processing. More than anything, let your conversation partner know that you know they want quality communications, too, and you are wanting to do your part to make sure you both get them.
And chuck the Neurotypical expectations in the trash bin, along with the labels for misunderstood behavior.