Autism and Relationships: Four Surprising Benefits of Written Communication

Photo Credit: Jonas Leupe


In this post, Dr. Regan discusses four significant advantages to written communication for the autistic. Keeping these benefits in mind will help you facilitate exchanges that may not occur face-to-face.

WHY DOES ONLINE COMMUNICATION HAVE A BAD RAP? 

How often has someone said to you, "Look at me while I'm talking to you!" 

Most neurotypicals value the nonverbals that are intrinsic to the in-person dialogue. We feel we receive more abundant information, more pieces to the puzzle, than with the words alone. The look in the eyes, tilt of the mouth, and cadence of speech invite us into more in-depth understanding.


Does the speaker mean what he is saying? How hurt is she about what happened?


We tie all the clues together to navigate the exchange. 

And yet, is it not valid to consider ways in which the autistic individual experiences better communication using text or email than in-person? 

Keep in mind the diagnostic challenges that are part of the autism spectrum itself-- things like difficulties navigating the back-and-forth of conversational flow, problems using and understanding nonverbal information, and struggles with the social nuances of language (like sarcasm). 

4 WAYS THAT THE WRITTEN WORD FACILITATES COMMUNICATION IN AUTISM

  1. Provides Time to Process

Many on the spectrum would rather receive an email and have time to translate and process it before feeling the pressure of responding. They are relieved not to have someone watching them and wanting a formulated reaction quickly. Having breathing space is a luxury. 

2. Provides Reliable Nonverbal Emojis


Rather than having to think about how her face looks and what the mood of the speaker is, the individual can use emojis. One autistic woman said, "I don't know what my face is supposed to look like, but I know what the emojis for "shocked" or "disgusted" are. They are always the same, and I can count on their meaning. I feel more secure that I said the right thing, and people understood me." 

3. Reduces Intensity


For many on the spectrum, face-to-face communication feels very intense, particularly for emotionally charged conversations. Whereas a neurotypical individual may want to talk about emotionally impactful subjects in-person, the ASD individual may need more space to process the topic without shutting down or feeling overwhelmed. Once the individual shuts down, he is unable to process the content of the conversation effectively.

4. Reduces self-consciousness


ASD individuals who experience significant social anxiety can feel less embarrassed during text or email exchanges than face to face. If the autistic is less uneasy (as is often the case online), he may be able to reveal his true self to others in a way that feels impossible face to face. 


SHOULD THE ASD INDIVIDUAL ONLY COMMUNICATE ONLINE?

Before I send the wrong message -- that I recommend online communication for all exchanges -- I'll balance my statements. 

Having strategies for making in-person visits successful is vital. For example, see the blog post about giving the individual a role to play at a gathering. We know that being able to gather with a group of family or friends is important.

The intent of this article is to help us focus on the value of reducing the social and emotional complexity of some exchanges. By doing so, we allow the autistic individual options for expressing his needs and processing input from others. 

I know in my home, I had some of the most relevant conversations with my ASD son when we were sitting in the dark, texting, or driving in the car (him sitting behind my seat). I know that if I had insisted on a face-to-face exchange in those instances, we would have lost the moments. 

THE BOTTOM LINE?

Be creative and flexible. Consider the ultimate goal. If the goal is to have a meaningful exchange about essential topics, consider offering the autistic space, time, and calm. If the goal is to create opportunities to participate in a social group, use strategies to ensure success.



©2020 by Theresa Regan