That’s Not What You Said; That’s Not What I Meant

A couple has a fight. That fight sounds a bit like this. 

“You said you were going to call the delivery company today,” says Sherry to John. Feeling accused, John defends himself, “Everything else is packed and labeled. I’ll do it tomorrow.” Sherry responds, “Okay, but, why didn’t you call the moving company?” John becomes more agitated, shrilly countering, “The entire house is packed. I’m exhausted. It’s really okay if I call tomorrow.” Confused, Sherry says, “But you said you would call the moving company today. I just don’t understand why you didn’t do it when you said that you would. If you weren’t going to call them today, then why would you say that you would?” Angry, John retorts, “Because I’m a liar, obviously, Sherry.” If she was confused before, Sherry is now utterly lost: “John, I never said that.”

With that, we have a fight. If you are in an autistic-nonautistic relationship, this fight might sound familiar. 

Sherry, Translated

Sherry wants to understand why something John said he was going to do is left undone. She does not intend her question as a challenge to John. She was confused, so she sought an explanation from her partner and never received it, despite her persistence. Then, to add to her bewilderment, John put words in her mouth, accusing her of calling him a liar. When did she ever say that?

Or…..

Sherry asked a useless question at the wrong time. She continued browbeating her husband about the one “mistake” he made for no other than to remind him and make him feel badly. She is resurrecting a long-standing theme in her relationship with John, in which she catches John lying about something small that leads to a long conflagration. They always seem to work out the miscommunication, but John repeatedly seems like a liar. Sherry is concerned. 

John, Translated

John is tired and does not want Sherry repeatedly telling him what he did not do. He feels attacked, interrogated, and doubted. He feels his efforts are being ignored and disregarded. He would prefer validation to judgment. Instead, he finds himself questioned so thoroughly that he believes this question must be a harbinger that Sherry is upset about something else. Already exhausted from his day’s packing and this bizarre miscommunication, he is not looking forward to another argument. 

Or….

John overreacted to Sherry’s question. He assumes she wants a fight, when all Sherry wants to know is the reason he did not call the moving company. Maybe he ran out of time, maybe he forgot, maybe he is too tired from packing all day to deal with it right now. Whatever the reason, Sherry is looking for “why”, not a fight. 

Content, Only Content

While the argument between Sherry and John could be dismissed as an outgrowth of pre-move stressors, the assumptions and interpretations made by both are critical to understanding the communication paradigm of each participant.  Completely unbeknownst to either participant, they are not having the same conversation with the same information. And, neither party may even be aware. 

Autistics tend to hear the stated content, derive meaning from this content, and respond to this content. Autistics do not deal in hidden or implied meaning; what you hear is what you get when it comes to communicating with an autistic. These interpretations are logical, clear, and predictable. No assumptions are silently made. Put another way, if Sherry thought John was lying, she would have clearly stated so because that was a fact, not an accusation or guess. 

John did not do something he said he would. Sherry is searching for clarification to end this inconsistency in her head. It bothers her, like one red balloon in a sea of green balloons. The answer goes to John’s credibility as someone who does what he says he will. Sherry is assessing John’s consistency, a quality that is vitally important to a sense of safety and security in what is often a confusing and turbulent world. Establishing and maintaining this sense of credibility and consistency allows the autistic to build and maintain a solid sense of trust in the relationship.

John interprets Sherry’s repetition of the same question as a conversational tool to evoke an emotional response from John. From his perspective, there is no other reason to repeat it. However, Sherry is not seeking to attack or offend; she is seeking to understand and clear up her own confusion. She is not trying to create an argument, let alone trolling for ammunition to keep it going. Sherry is not aware an argument is occurring at this point in the interaction. She will later, though, when her emotions have calmed and she can review what happened. 

Sherry’s questions during the argument with John demonstrate how autistics process and respond to information at face value as they see and hear it. This is an in vivo communication style. As they receive verbal information, and they process this verbal information, and they respond to this verbal information, three patterns play out: 1. Some current communication is missed, 2. Information from previous interactions is not at their disposal, and 3. Predictions for the future (even if that future is seconds away) are too taxing. 

To begin with, Sherry is not reading John’s current emotional state as an explanation for his behavior. Internally, this process may sound like, “Oh, gosh he is tired. It’s not like him to forget to do things like this. I’ll give him a break.” Sherry is not predicting what her repeated questions will do to John both emotionally and mentally. She is in dogged pursuit of information, but she finds only John’s anger and irritation. Lastly, Sherry is not recalling previous situations in which elements of this situation have occurred to help her predict or interpret. Applying these three trends to Sherry and John’s interaction reveals from what drastically different points these two communications styles begin.

Sherry’s commitment to the present can be heard in the verbal communication she offers. Confused and stuck, she repeats iterations of the same question. Like Sherry, when an autistic person becomes confused with what they are hearing, they rely on phrases that hone in on the exact area(s) of confusion. These phrases could sound like: “But, you said”, “Then why would you say”, or “If you didn’t mean”. While they read/sound like emotional slaps to the face, they are clues to the conversational partner about where the miscommunication started.

Content to Intent

The factual probes and content-focused information so helpful for the autistic are simultaneously emotional triggers for the nonautistic. Non Autistics hear the stated content, derive all types of emotional information from this content, and respond to the implied content. In other words, non autistics hear intent, and content becomes much less vital. 

Emotional data provides an almost endless source of information for the nonautistic. It is gathered through a complex process of observation of nonverbal and verbal communication that most non autistics cannot explain (for they assume you “get it”). These observations are reflexive in nature and require limited cognitive energy to gather or interpret. They connect to webs of content that endlessly stratify, only to almost magically converge in a response that is often ten thousand jumps from the original comment. 

We purposefully end John and Sherry’s story with the clearest example of the reflexive mystery of these “jumps” and how quickly such interpretations lead the interaction astray: John’s “liar” accusation and Sherry’s response. This is the watershed moment, relatively early in the miscommunication. Sherry’s words — “I never said that” — again provide the clue to where the breakdown has occurred. 

For the nonautistic, how something is said is substantially more important than what is said. To an autistic, words matter. The meaning of words, the actual content of sentences, the exact words chosen are very important. To a nonautistic, other things - tone, body language, facial expression, past history with the person, their reputation - factor in much more heavily than the *actual words* that are spoken. 

These pragmatic aspects of communication are not necessarily accessible to the autistic. The very nature of autism means that these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, for the autistic individual to read in their conversation partner, or to monitor in themselves. Without the ability to monitor these things in one’s self, the autistic may be broadcasting a message they are unaware of. More importantly, they may be unintentionally sending unspoken information with which their mind might not agree. 

Different, Not Incompatible

Ending the miscommunication with Sherry’s refutation also allows for two important observations. First, the intensification of the argument is NOT inevitable. John can: (1) switch to content-only mode, so he can hear the content of Sherry’s questions; (2) tell Sherry how he is feeling and ask if that was her intention; (3) remember that he is most likely assuming an intent that is faulty. Sherry can: (1) pause to ask John what he is interpreting/what he believes her intent to be; (2) explain to John what her actual intent (e.g. understanding why he did not call the movers in order to understand why he did not do something he said he would do); (3) explain her motivation/need to know why John did not follow through on what he said he would do (consistency/trust).

Second, the miscommunication turns into an emotionally charged argument because intent is prioritized over content. The reading of intention is not a process that autistics can follow automatically. It is also not a process that nonautistics can explain automatically. As more intent-based comments and questions drive the conversation (and fuel the emotion of the conversation), the autistic becomes increasingly unmoored by what appears to be non sequitur commentary. In turn, the nonautistic settles into their emotional logic. Without taking time to pause and reflect, everyone ends up more confused and upset because nonautistic assumption leads to autistic confusion, which leads to more assumptions and so on and so forth until the snowball is an avalanche. 

Understanding the straightforward, present-focused, truth-seeking communication style of the autistic allows us to begin to see how easy it is for miscommunication to happen in an autistic/nonautistic relationship. While neither is right or wrong, the communication styles of the two individuals are fundamentally different, though not fundamentally incompatible. 

(Written with @Missy_Woford — Check her out)