Just because an autistic person isn’t looking at anyone nor speaking doesn’t mean they’re not following what’s going on.
Having been diagnosed with ASD in 2022, I’ve been attending some social gatherings for autistic adults.
The last one I attended was moderated by two neurotypicals who volunteer for my state’s autism society.
When “Jeff” first entered the café/game establishment, he was standing among several other people where there was some talking going on.
The entire time his eyes were on the floor, face expressionless. He seemed confined to his own world, though he was not stimming.
We were then all seated at a table to play a game that was similar to Trivia Pursuit, except that it involved placing bets with chips.
People would write their answers to questions such as, “What’s the average number of eyelashes on the top eyelid,” with markers on small cards. The answers could then be wiped off.
The cards were placed on a board, where players then placed chips beside the answer they thought was the most correct.
Jeff was across from me and three people down, and beside him was one of the moderators.
Jeff barely lifted his eyes and hardly moved his body.
The moderator would write three things on a card, and Jeff would point to one: That was his answer, and the moderator would place it on the board.
After all the answers were laid out, Jeff, on his own, would place a chip beside one.
Every so often I stole a glance at him. Being autistic myself (and I should’ve been diagnosed years ago), I am now very fascinated by this Spectrum condition.
Throughout the entire game, Jeff showed zero emotions and didn’t utter a sound.
I can’t say I myself showed much emotion, and there was another autistic man there who, like me, had a predominantly serious or neutral look on his face.
However, that other man, as well as myself – to any observers – were clearly participating. Plus, we were talking.
I concluded that Jeff had either lifelong nonverbal autism, or, he was being selectively mute due to the anxiety of sitting with a group of strangers.
I assumed that Jeff had been driven there by either the moderators or the mother of the other guy, who was also playing.
Even though Jeff’s eyes barely budged from someplace on his lap or the edge of the table below him, I could still tell that he was paying attention and following the conversations.
There was just something about this nonverbal autistic man that allowed me to intuitively detect that he understood everything that he was hearing.
For all I knew, he was following the remarks of the autistic man beside me who kept talking about his cat. This young man, a delivery driver for Amazon, had excellent eye contact.
However, eye contact is not necessary to keenly hear and track a conversation across a table, either.
Certainly, we’ve ALL had the experience – numerous times – of following conversations while our eyes were focused on the food before us.
I was understanding conversations perfectly while I was busy looking at my nachos, pulling them apart from all the cheese, and dipping them into salsa, then chewing and concentrating on their taste, eyes downward to enjoy the experience. That’s the way I like to eat.
Neurotypicals shouldn’t assume that an autistic person at their table, who’s maintaining a downward, fixed gaze and is nonverbal, is not tracking everything that’s being said.
Throughout the activity, I had been aware of a lone woman seated across the room in a corner.
I realized she was Jeff’s mother when it was time for Jeff to leave.
That’s when I took a seat by her and introduced myself as having been diagnosed with autism just last year.
Turns out, Jeff had become completely mute as a result of the pandemic lockdown, as this had stripped him of school and social activities (he appeared to be 20-something, so I don’t know what kind of school he had been attending).
Being kept from his friends, as his mother had described, caused him to shut down verbally.
Prior to the pandemic, he had always been verbal – but only to the extent of expressing his needs or other essential speak.
His mother said he had never been able to start conversations on a social level. She said he was an excellent reader and would text her inside their house rather than speak to her.
Autism is a Spectrum. Remember that.
The guy next to me wouldn’t stop talking about his kitty cat in between interacting for the trivia game.
The young woman across from me, diagnosed autistic at 17, and appearing to be not much older, was the liveliest and loudest in the group, with great eye contact and so expressively gleeful, talkative and engaging.
NTs should never think, “She can’t be autistic because she’s nothing like my cousin who’s autistic,” or, “No way he’s autistic because he talks a mile a minute, and I knew this autistic man years ago who couldn’t talk.”
Autistic people are no more alike to each other than are neurotypicals alike to each other.
A nonverbal person with ASD can actually be quite adept at following and understanding all the talk around himself or herself.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.