If you have an autistic loved one, it’s important to understand how they interpret and interact with the world to avoid traumatic misunderstandings and unintentional gaslighting.
Here are 8 things that autistic people do naturally that you may be misreading as a neurotypical person:
For most neurotypical people, sighing and yawning are signs of tiredness and/or boredom. For autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, however, frequent yawning and sighing can be used as emotional regulation tools (especially when it comes to managing sensory overload).
I’m someone who yawns and sighs very frequently, and, since I don’t use it as a social cue to indicate boredom, I’m usually not even aware of it or the effect it can have on others around me.
It took me until adulthood to realize that yawning and/or sighing was used as a social indicator of ANYTHING, let alone an indirect way to say I was uninterested in what someone was saying to me!
Being told off and asked, “Am I boring you or something?” was VERY confusing for me because I hadn’t even realized I was yawning, so I just thought people were randomly asking the question angrily, and it scared me and made me think that neurotypical people were, by and large, emotionally volatile!
It’s the same thing with sighing. I sigh all the time. I didn’t even realize I was doing it when I was a kid or a teenager, so when somebody would suddenly interrupt me and get in my face and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” it just confused and startled me.
Nobody said, “You’re yawning. That usually means you’re bored. Are you bored?” or “You’re sighing a lot. Sighing usually means something is wrong or you’re giving a subtle signal you want to talk about something. Is that the case?”
Another thing that really messed with me is someone I was friends with as a teen thought I was trying to TURN HER ON by sighing around her all the time. I kid you not, and that traumatized me because my natural autistic traits had been sexualized in my past when I had no intention of drawing that kind of attention.
2. Throat Clearing
Frequent throat clearing is often lumped into the “stim” category, and while it can be, that’s not always the case. There’s evidence to suggest that autistic people have more frequent sinus problems as a result of altered digestion. This means, there's a literal wad of phlegm in the throat that needs to be cleared out so the person doesn’t choke on it.
This definitely describes me. I have chronic post-nasal drip that has been with me since birth. I have year-round allergies, and my nose runs every time I eat. I’ve tried every prescription, over-the-counter, and natural remedy I can get my hands on, and I still suffer. Weirdly, I’ve mostly gotten used to it and don’t even notice it that much until I meet someone new, and they point it out.
Unfortunately, when I was a kid, my throat clearing was seen as yet another thing I did “for attention” or as a “nervous habit”. Nope. I have wads of phlegm stuck in the back of my throat, and if I don’t clear it frequently, I choke.
There’s no hidden social meaning behind it. I’m just trying to stay alive.
These days, there’s a lot more information on stimming and the importance of it for autistic people than there was when I was a kid. However, there are still many neurotypical people who aren’t aware of its function and give these traits hidden social meaning when there is none.
Humming, flapping, rocking, swaying, tapping, and fidgeting are just some examples of stims that are common and natural to autistic people that can sometimes be misinterpreted.
Stimming can be misperceived as rudeness, inattentiveness, boredom, disinterest, and disrespect--just to name a few things.
When these behaviors are misinterpreted so drastically, it can cause trauma for the autistic person who doesn’t understand why the neurotypical people around them are “suddenly” angry.
When a neurotypical person lashes out at their autistic loved one for stimming, the autistic person doesn’t learn to stop stimming (because they are not connecting your reaction to their natural, unconscious behavior), they learn to be afraid of you because, in their eyes, you’re an unpredictable and frightening person!
The best thing you can do when your autistic loved one stims during everyday interactions? Ignore it. If they don’t seem like they are in distress, and these are common behaviors for them, don’t point them out or make a big deal about them. Just continue the interaction!
4. Asking Questions
Autistic people need to ask lots of questions in order to understand what’s expected of them or to learn a new task. When we ask questions, we are looking for answers, nothing more, nothing less.
It took me until my thirties to realize that some neurotypical people ask questions as a passive-aggressive attempt to undermine someone else’s authority!
When a neurotypical person misunderstands their autistic loved one’s intentions when asking questions, it can cause the autistic person to develop learning trauma. We become terrified to ask questions because people become angered by them (which only makes those of us with learning differences fall even further behind).
5. Taking Things Literally
Autistic people take things literally, and this is another common source of misunderstandings between the neurotypes. We’re not being “purposefully obtuse” or being a “smart-ass”. It’s just the way our brains are wired.
The neurotypical person says something they think is funny, or they use an idiom the autistic person isn’t familiar with, and a misunderstanding ensues.
The neurotypical person thinks the autistic person is being sarcastic, and the autistic person thinks the neurotypical person is getting angry for no discernable reason.
It’s frustrating for you and frightening for us.
6. Speaking Formally
Autistic people are often accused of being rude or “above it all” because of the way we speak. When I was a kid, I was told I was condescending all the time, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about!
I couldn’t hear the difference in my tone or manner of speech in comparison to other kids, so when someone mocked me by imitating my speech back to me, I thought they were starting with me. I didn’t learn anything from their behavior other than to be wary of others and avoid them.
I actually didn’t realize how monotone and formal I sounded until I started recording myself. I was amazed because that’s not how my voice or intonations sound to my naked ears!
7. Looking Away
For many autistic people, direct eye contact is painful. For me, it feels like I’ve skipped a step going downstairs. It makes my stomach lurch, and I feel a bit light-headed.
So, looking away when talking to someone is totally natural to me. It makes me feel safe and comfortable, and it greatly increases the likelihood that I’ll both remember what I intend to say and be able to pay attention to what the other person is saying to me.
If your autistic loved one is looking away from you, your first thoughts may be that they have something to hide or they’re uninterested in what you have to say.
Neither is true. Direct eye contact is uncomfortable for us, so we look away. There’s no hidden social meaning behind it.
8. “Guilty” Gestures
There are many natural autistic traits that neurotypical society views as “guilty” gestures. Fidgeting, tense shoulders, wringing hands, darting eyes, and atypical breathing patterns (frequent yawning and sighing, for example) are often signs of anxiety, which autistic people feel at least an undercurrent of all the time because we live in a world not built for us.
I used to be accused of “hiding something” all the time when I was a kid, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I was just told, “You look guilty all the time”, but nobody explained what it was that I was doing that made them feel that way, so I spent most of my time perplexed and hypervigilant.
These common misunderstandings between the neurotypes, when added up over a lifetime, can cause complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which I have. I write about what I’ve experienced so your autistic loved ones don’t end up with it, too.
The more you understand about the autistic brain and how we function in the world, the better a parent and/or ally you will be!
Want to know more about how autistic people think, live, and process the world? Visit my website: www.thearticulateautistic.com.