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Asperger’s: tips for talking to neurotypicals

Low-stress, nonconversational outingNeurotypicals (the Asperger’s term for people without autism) are complex, fascinating, and frustrating, and communicating with them often feels like you’re playing a complicated game without knowing the rules.  To help simplify things, here are some guidelines about communicating with the non-Asperger’s society.

Look them in the eyes.  In simple terms, the rule (at least in the USA) is to make eye contact about 75% of the time.  That’s 45 seconds out of every minute.  But when exactly should you gaze into somebody’s eyes?  Here are the rules:

1. Increased contact: make more eye contact when the other person is speaking.  80% is the norm.  You’re “showing interest” by searching out their eyes.

2. Decreased contact: you can make less eye contact when you’re the one talking.   Imagine that you’re looking away because “you’re trying to decide what to say.”  60% is about right.

The easiest approach: round it off to 70-75%.  If that much feels like too much, it’s okay to reduce eye contact to 50%.  Your companion will probably guess you’re shy and not think more of it.  Some people find it hard to look directly into another person’s gaze.  If that’s true for you, focus on their nose, forehead, or general face.  Remember, be careful not to stare!

Watch that volume.  Remember to talk as loud or soft as the other person in the conversation.  That usually means talking loud enough so your companion can hear you, but not so loud the other people in the room stop to look.  If you’re having doubts about volume, ask your neurotypical companion: “Am I talking too loud?” or “Am I talking too soft?”

Choose a distance. Comfortable distance between people differs according to the person and situation, and some cultures give a wider berth than others.  In the States, the typical distance between acquaintances is about 5 feet or more, but some people will stand closer if they feel comfortable with you. Not sure how much space is right?  Consider staying in one place and letting the other person find a comfortable distance from you.

Be empathetic.  Empathy is the ability to see the world from another person’s point of view.  This can be very challenging for someone with Asperger’s, but learning “empathy phrases” can help.  Empathy phrases are ways of expressing you care about the other person.  They vary according to the situation.

(1) angry fellowUpset companion: if the other person is tearful and using negative words (“sad,” “angry,” “disappointed,” “upset”), that’s a negative emotion. An appropriate empathy phrase would be something like, “That sounds very hard” or “I’m sorry to hear that.”  Remember, if your companion is getting loud, sticking out their chest, stepping towards you in a mean way, and making fists, this means they’re very angry.  Your best bet is to get away — fast!

(2) Happy companion: if your companion is smiling or laughing, and they’re using lots of positive words (“excited,” “happy,” “overjoyed”), it’s likely something good has happened.  Consider saying, “That sounds great” or “I’m very happy for you.”

Keep the conversation two-way.  You might enjoy talking about things you like, and people will appreciate your enthusiasm.  But if the other person introduces a subject that’s important to them, make sure to give them time to talk.   Try to share the conversation 50-50, though it’s always a good thing to let the other person talk more than you.  Avoid giving monologues that last more than five minutes, unless your companion is asking you questions

Listen to the other person.  You want to impress people around you?  Become a good listener!  The trick is to give your companion your full attention when they talk.  You can nod, mutter “uh huh,” but don’t talk until he or she pauses for a few seconds, the signal that it’s your turn to speak.

Talk.  You’ve listened faithfully to that other person, really tried to pay attention, but now it’s your turn to say something.  Don’t know what to say?  Here are some ideas:

(1)   Summary statement.  First, repeat back what your companion just told you, but in your own words.  One general sentence is enough.  Somehow neurotypicals feel understood when someone repeats what they’ve just said, and helping people feel understood is important to establishing good conversation.

For example, if the other person says, “I really like going to the museum. My favorite artist is Dali, but I love art in general.  It’s really inspiring.  My favorite museum is the one in France.”

You could say: “You really love artwork.”

(2)   About me and about youGive them an “About Me + About You” equation.  This technique involves offering a small piece of information about yourself, then posing a question to the other party, something related to what you just said.  For example, “I just read this post on social skills for people with Asperger’s.  Do you want to read it?”  or “I really like the coffee here, though the decaf really stinks.  What do you think?”  If you’re in the middle of a conversation, make sure the “About Me” statement is linked to the subject under discussion.

For example, for the art-lover scenario, she says, “I really like going to the museum. My favorite artist is Dali, but I love art in general.  It’s really inspiring.  My favorite museum is the one in France.”

You could say: “Personally I don’t know much about art but I love to draw.  I’ll have to show you my artwork sometime.  Do you like to draw?”

(3)   Ask questions about what interests them. If your companion has just shared information about something that’s important to them, ask then questions about this interest.  The subject might be confusing, boring, or strange to you, sure, but that’s okay.  Showing curiosity about things that don’t interest you is a sign that you care about the other person.  Here are three questions to try out:

“That sounds interesting.  Can you tell me more about it?”

“How long have you been interested in [X]?”

“What do you like about [X]?”

Happy old lady with dangerous caneDecipher body language.  It might feel like you need a foreign language interpreter to understand neurotypical body language. People are complex.  “Touch the forehead and smile” means this. “Shrug the shoulders and offer a sad face” means that.  There are too many rules.  To make things worse, the meanings behind body language vary from region to region.  Luckily there are some general signs that seem to be universal.

(1)   How do you know if a person is interested in talking to you?  Typically they’ll smile, lean towards you, and ask you questions about what you’re talking about.

(2)  How do you know if somebody isn’t up to talking?  Usually someone who’s indifferent to conversation will avoid eye contact, offer short answers, and stop asking questions.  Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t feel like speaking. It’s possible you caught them on a bad day.  They might just be busy.

There are exceptions to these rules, but if the other person is asking you questions about what interests you, they’re probably interested in what you have to say.

Consider your own body language.  Record yourself on video talking to somebody and ask a trusted friend or family member to give you feedback about your body language. Watch for intimidating or uncomfortable gestures, like pointing, laughing too loudly, being super fidgety or wiggly, or having broad hand movements that could hit someone if they get too close.  Also, practice smiling a happy smile.  A genuinely upbeat smile is a ray of sunshine for neurotypicals.

Boy with questionsAsk for clarification.  If you don’t understand what the other person is saying or believe there’s a hidden message you’re not picking up on, it’s okay to ask for clarification.  If you don’t understand what the other person is saying or believe there’s a hidden message you’re not picking up on, it’s okay to ask for clarification.  Consider saying, “I’m not sure I understand.  Can you clarify what you mean?”  If you’re not sure whether a topic is appropriate to discuss, ask the other person: “Is it okay to talk about this?”  If you’ve somebody, explain the situation, tell them why you made that specific mistake, and clarify that you didn’t mean to upset them.  It’s okay to tell others you’re autistic.

End a conversation.  Finishing a social interaction doesn’t have to be difficult.  Just excuse yourself from the conversation.  Try using the “You’re important to me but I have to go” approach.  For example, “I care about what you have to say, but I really have to leave” or “This conversation means a lot to me, but I’m a little worn out right now.  Maybe later?”

That’s a brief introduction to socializing with non-autistic people. Thanks for reading and enjoy all future conversations!  Drop me a message and let me know how they went.


Note that the new diagnostic manual in psychiatry (DSM5) has removed the diagnosis Asperger’s Syndrome from the books. Everyone is now diagnosed as having an “autistic spectrum disorder.” Additionally, the term neurotypical isn’t a clinical term. However, I’ve used the words Asperger’s and neurotypical here because I believe it best explains the premise of the article.

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