Life on the Autism spectrum

Communication, interaction & autism

The characteristics of autism vary from person to person but are generally divided into three main groups; difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination (or the theory of mind). Difficulties in communication involved difficulties understanding communications from others (including misunderstandings) and difficulty in knowing how to communicate with others. Difficulties with interaction include the desire for social interaction but also the exhaustion and frustration of finding interaction uncomfortable, dull or confusing. Lorna Wing originally described the triad of impairments as social interaction, language and rigidity of thinking and behaviour.
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The people we talked to explained how some or all of these kinds of difficulties affected their lives and those of their partners and family members. A few people we interviewed had limited speech and were supported by key workers. 
 
Misunderstandings
People on the autism spectrum may have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. They can find it difficult to use or understand facial expressions or jokes and may not understand the ‘give and take’ nature of conversations. 
Understanding things literally was a common area for misunderstandings. John, for example, felt that he took the instructions from his father when he was young to “be no trouble to his Nan” and “you’ll never get anywhere without maths” so literally that they have coloured his whole life. Being literal also led to people being overly trusting. Laurie commented “I basically think I’m rubbish at relationships and I am slow to figure things out sometimes. I’m not savvy and I think life could have been so much different if I had been a little bit more streetwise”.
Difficulties in social interaction
The unspoken rules about conversations and turn taking were not understood by several people. They did not understand how to greet people or how to maintain a conversation. Some people wanted to interact with other people and make friends, but they were not sure how to go about it (see ‘Friendships’). Some people experienced ‘face blindness’ and sometimes could not recognise people they knew in a different context or setting.
There were also difficulties in processing details quickly enough to keep up with conversations. This, in turn, was often related to distractions caused by anxious or obsessive thoughts or sensory sensitivities (see ‘Sensory sensitivities’).
“I try to improve on my conversation for the next time”
People were often aware of these problems and worked hard to try to overcome them. Several reflected on conversations afterwards and tried to work out where “it had gone wrong”. 
Partners also found socialising tiring. Julie, for example, felt she had to be over sociable to compensate for Tim’s quietness in company. Susie has helped Oliver to learn to ask people questions and to talk about things he may not be interested in.
 
Some people talked about a preference to being on their own while others talked about the tension they felt between wanting to be on their own but also wanting the company of others. A further difficulty was the difficulty some participants had in assessing people and their motivations.

Last reviewed July 2016.
Last updated July 2016.

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