What is it like when autistics spend time together, with no neurotypical people around? I want to give you a peek behind the curtain.
You might think that we go off on long tangents, leaving our listeners to suffer in boredom. But hiding boredom out of politeness is a neurotypical thing.
When I’m with autistics, and one is talking, those who are genuinely interested keep listening, and the others start side conversations. It’s considered rude to fake interest, and kind to encourage others to pursue what stimulates their minds.
You might think that our conversational timing is awkward for everyone involved – speakers who get interrupted, and listeners who can’t figure out when it’s okay to interrupt. But figuring that out from tone alone is a neurotypical thing.
When I’m with autistics, we devise systems to identify a good time to speak. I hold up one finger when I think of something to say, two fingers if I’m second in line, and so on. When the next person starts to talk, everyone after them drops a finger, to show that they’re moving up the line. If this sounds hard to keep track of, trust me that it’s way easier for us than subtle cues woven into the rhythm of speech.
You might think that we misunderstand one another, because of our tendency to use phrases out of context, not realizing that others lack the info needed to interpret our words. But processing information at the moment it’s delivered is a neurotypical thing.
When I’m with autistics, we’re constantly asking one another what we meant – was it this meaning, or this other slightly different meaning? Carving up our communication, uncovering its deeper layers of precision, is a satisfying art form, as well as a safety net of mutual understanding.
Not every autistic friend group is the same. The experiences I’ve described are from a particular combination of humans whom I haven’t visited for several years. They were the ones who taught me that I’m autistic, and introduced me to the true meaning of autism, and showed me what it feels like to belong.