We’re ALL human, so why do neurotypicals struggle to understand autistic people?

Understanding oneself in the context of social interactions can be a complex journey for many people.

However, for those on the Autism Spectrum, this journey often takes on unique challenges that revolve around the struggle to comprehend why others can’t seem to read them.

One of the central aspects of autism is the variability in its manifestation, giving rise to the term “spectrum.”

Individuals on the Spectrum can exhibit diverse strengths and difficulties, making each person’s experience unique.

That’s why most Autistics embrace the saying, “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.”

The Social Communication Challenge

©Lorra Garrick

Communication lies at the heart of human interaction, and for those with ASD, navigating this intricate landscape can be akin to solving a complex puzzle.

Challenges in social communication may surface in different ways, such as difficulty with nonverbal cues, maintaining eye contact or understanding the unspoken rules of conversation.

As a result, Autists might find themselves puzzled by the seeming inability of others to grasp their thoughts, feelings and intentions.

I’ve read all the threads on the two biggest autism forums and on Quora about eye contact.

There are posters who said they hardly gave eye contact because they didn’t know they were supposed to until it was pointed out to them.

This is an example where a type of nonverbal communication, which comes very intuitively and naturally to neurotypicals, escapes some Autistic minds.

In an NT-dominated world, minimal eye contact can come across as being bored with whomever is talking to them. That’s a major roadblock to being accepted by that neurotypical, especially if the Autistic has no idea that they’re “supposed” to give a certain amount of direct gaze.

The Struggle to Convey Emotions

©Lorra Garrick

Expressing emotions can be particularly challenging for the Autistic person.

The nuance of emotional expression, which is often conveyed through subtle facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, might elude those on the Spectrum.

This can create a sense of frustration and confusion, as they grapple with the perception that their emotions are not being accurately interpreted by others.

There’ve been SO many times in my life in which I acknowledged that a particular person “failed to read me” or “couldn’t read me.”

I now wonder if I had been sending the wrong signals (e.g. facial expression not matching the words coming out of my mouth, inadequate body language, too much eye contact) to these people.

The Unspoken Social Code

Social interactions come with a set of unwritten rules and conventions that neurotypicals often grasp effortlessly.

For those with ASD, deciphering this unspoken social code can be an ongoing puzzle.

They may not even be aware that any deciphering needs to take place.

Many times I have gotten feedback from a third party that I had offended someone, even though I couldn’t locate the infraction no matter how many times I replayed the interaction in my head.

Often, I don’t get a specific example, but in ninth grade, I did.

A group of girls I’d been eating lunch with (I didn’t feel like I belonged, but I didn’t want to be seen eating alone, either) were off-put when I casually stated that a chocolate candy from a box, that one of them had passed around, tasted like soap suds.

I had received the feedback later on by one of the girls (not the one who had brought in the candy), and was shocked that such an innocent comment could’ve been taken so hurtfully.

The inability to intuitively understand social norms may lead to a constant sense of wondering why others find it challenging to read their intentions or interpret their actions correctly.

Many autistic people who are diagnosed in adulthood will have gone through life with the same questions on playback in their heads:

• “What is it about me?”

• “What did I say?”

• “What went wrong?”

Hyperfocus and Intense Interests

©Lorra Garrick

Autistic individuals often exhibit areas of intense interest and hyperfocus.

While this can be a source of passion and expertise, it may also contribute to the perception that they are not easily understood by those around them.

The depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for niche subjects may lead to social interactions where their interests dominate, leaving others puzzled about their priorities and communication style.

Suffice it to say, in junior high school, I talked about sharks way too much.

Coping Strategies and Masking

In an effort to fit into social expectations, Autistics may develop coping strategies, such as masking their true selves.

Masking involves suppressing autistic traits and adopting NT traits to conform to societal norms, but this can be mentally exhausting.

As a result, they may find themselves constantly questioning why others can’t see through the facade and understand the challenges they face in navigating social interactions authentically.

The Need for Empathy and Understanding

Enhancing empathy and understanding within society is crucial for creating an inclusive environment for individuals with autism.

Educating others about the diverse nature of autism can garner a greater appreciation for the unique perspectives and challenges faced by Autists.

It’s essential to recognize that the quest for social connection and understanding is universal, and autistic people contribute richly to the tapestry of human diversity.

“People can’t read me. What’s wrong with them?”

In the intricate dance of human interaction, those with ASD may often find themselves wondering why others struggle to read them.

“How much clearer could I have been?” This is another one that has often played back in my head.

The challenges in social communication, coupled with the diversity of the Autism Spectrum, contribute to a complex and nuanced experience.

But the more that humans make the decision to embrace neurodiversity, the more everyone will move towards a more inclusive society.

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. 


Top image: ©Lorra Garrick