Communicating is an interesting task. One person takes their thoughts, forms words, and delivers it to another person, who interprets those words, combined with non-verbal messages, and responds. The response is a process of the second person taking their thoughts and... Hang on. That sounds complicated! It is. Communicating with a person who has Aspergers can be fascinating or challenging, depending on how you approach it. A few helpful hints can make all the difference, when you care about someone who has Aspergers.
Put aside what you think you know. Communicating with someone who has Aspergers, while holding on to what you think you know about how people communicate and what certain things mean, can create unnecessary stress! The person on the other side of your message is also a, um, person. A person who thinks about things in a different way than you do.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. When a remark sounds ambiguous, it's perfectly fine to say "what do you mean, exactly?" Here is a secret: Aspies know that NTs ("neuro-typicals", or non-autistic individuals) have a hard time understanding what they say. You are likely to raise more flags if you don't ask questions about their meaning, than if you do.
Think about your words. Many Aspies listen to each word which is spoken, and they interpret your meaning based on their understanding of the definition of the words you use. Most NTs are able to generalize a little better when another person says "could you put a lot of mashed potatoes on my plate?" Say this to a person with Aspergers and you might get a blank look! When the message is in the words, it pays to be as specific as possible. Doing so can save time in the long run, preventing repeat requests or lengthy explanations, when a more precise word is all that is really needed for the Aspie to get your meaning.
Consider your verbal vs.. non-verbal communication. Most Aspies will fall into one of two categories with this regard. They may either rely more heavily on your words, and less on body-language, (compared to the subconscious interpretations of your NT pals) OR the person with Aspergers may rely on body-language, but result in higher frequency of misinterpretation. Your key? Find out which your dear one does. How? Listen. If you find that s/he is frequently misunderstanding you without stopping to consider that they are completely off base, they may be misinterpreting your body-language and otherwise non-verbal messages. (Things such as expressions, tone of voice, conversational pauses, etc.) On the other hand, if the person repeatedly asks questions about what you are saying, they are relying more heavily on your word usage.
Adjust your words. Once you know whether your loved one is relying more on words or non-verbal messages, take an extra step to be clear in that area. Verbal: Use specific words, think about how you want to explain what you want to say, communicate in email if practical, so the words can be read and re-read if necessary. If you believe you are being misunderstood, ask! Check for clarity. Phrases like "If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you are saying..." and "Help me understand what you mean by..." On the other side, you could also say "Does that make sense?" or "I'm not sure if I'm getting my message across." This opens the door for the other person to say "Actually, could you explain further?"
Adjust your non-verbal messages. If the other person seems to be misunderstanding things such as your tone of voice, body language, pauses, breaks in communication, expressions, you can educate the person to understand your messages in a non-threatening way. With regard to body language, make an exaggerated (seemingly, to you) connection between the motion and the emotion. If, for you, crossed arms mean you are thinking, not angry, you could nod thoughtfully (with arms crossed) saying "Hmmm.... Yes, I'm thinking about that." Same with leaning in, turning away, etc. Make the connection clear. The good news is that with this type of "lesson" the person is likely to learn your messages fairly quickly. Communicating tone, pitch, volume, etc., is a little more overt. If you are cognizant of the misinterpretations, simply say how you are feeling or thinking at the time. The way this is different from the above is that it's direct information instead of stongly implied. If your tone of voice seems to frighten your loved one, simply say, "I know my tone may sound firm to you, but that is because I am very worried about this situation." or "I'm pausing for a minute here to think." With this type of information, your communication is likely to need to continue, as tone of voice, etc., is a very subtle change and has more room for frequent misinterpretation. Body language is a little more consistent.
Keep your eyes and ears open for signs that your loved one is trying to understand. Communicating is not a one-way street, and the responsibility of connecting with information should not rest solely on your shoulders. And although it may seem like it sometimes, you might not be aware of what your loved one is doing to try to understand. You process information differently, so the things you would do to try to understand him or her may not be the same things they would do. Watch for things like concentrating intently in a conversation, questions about what you are saying, and repeating back to you what you just said. Using "five dollar words" is another way that adults with Aspergers try to be very clear. (And not necessarily an attempt to "show off".) People with Aspergers are intelligent and don't always realize that another person, although also intelligent, might not understand the difference between close synonyms. Another trait which might be frustrating to some NTs, yet has a practical purpose, is when Aspies over-explain. If you can see this as an attempt to be clear, you can re-frame your perspective and possibly feel more comfortable in saying "Ok, yeah, I gotcha." You may be surprised to find your dear Aspie a little bit relieved that you get what they are saying!
Items you will need
- A mouth
- Good intentions
- If the individual you are communicating with is not a very close person to you, it may be helpful to maintain a more formal tone in your communication. Not that it is necessary, but the type of communication used in more formal verbal communication can be very comfortable to people with Aspergers.
- Intellectual icebreakers can put people with Aspergers at ease. Discussing something you learned or read about can reduce the stress in the Aspie and very likely improve the success of the conversation.
- The more comfortable an Aspie is, the more likely s/he is to be relaxed in conversation and easier to communicate with, understand, and be understanding. Trust the person with Aspergers who demonstrates a wish to do something relaxing in the face of important issues. Reduction of stress can be critical in important situations, and might not be considered as a lack of understanding about the urgency of the situation.
- When an Aspie looks away during communication, see it for what it is: Reducing visual stimulus to be able to better process what is being heard, or to more clearly determine what they want to say. Shifty eyes do not neccessarily mean deceit!
- Agitation, or a sense of nervousness, being hyper, etc., is often a result of stress in the person with Aspergers. If you see increased "activity", you can actively participate in dialing down the intensity by saying things which mught be relaxing. "Ok. Let's take a step back here.
- Be aware of the Aspie's personal space. They may have a space defined differently, spatially. If you see that they seem agitated or divert gaze when you are within a certain distance, you can trust that you are within their personal space.