If you’ve ever asked an autistic person a question about themselves and received a one-word answer, or they suddenly become flustered and don’t respond how you’d expect, you may be wondering why. After all, humans are social creatures who are generally quite good at chit-chat. So what gives?
In my experience, the answer is this. Firstly, some autistic people have alexithymia, which means we have difficulty processing and understanding emotions, making it hard to come up with a socially acceptable response to questions such as “How are you?”. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re feeling on the spot, and suddenly we’re firing on all cylinders. Where do we begin? Do you want an honest answer, or are you asking to be polite? There are a host of variables that could change our responses entirely. Context is everything, which can be overwhelming since we are used to being misunderstood. I want to give you the most accurate, nuanced answer. I feel a strange sense of guilt if I say something that doesn’t entirely cover it, which generally leads to overthinking and avoiding communicating altogether.
Growing up, “I don’t know” was one of my most used phrases, but it’s not because I didn’t have anything to say; it was the opposite.
Secondly, we may not see the point in engaging in small talk. To us, questions like these often seem pointless and without substance. Finally, many of us think in complex ways, so when people ask us a question that doesn’t have a straightforward answer, we may have trouble coming up with a response.
If you want to get autistic people to open up and answer questions about themselves, you need to make your intentions clear, be patient and understand that we may need some time to process what you’re asking and formulate a response. Once we’ve had a chance to do that, here are three tips for asking questions that will get us talking:
1. Avoid Yes/No Questions: Asking questions we can answer with a simple “yes” or “no” is more likely to result in precisely that. Instead, try asking open-ended questions that require more than a one-word response. For example, instead of asking, “Do you like animals?” try asking, “What’s your favourite animal and why?”.
2. Focus on Specifics: Vague questions can be difficult for autistic people to answer because we often think in great detail. So instead of asking, “What’s your favourite colour?” try asking, “What shade of blue is your favourite and why?”.
3. Be Prepared to Answer Your Questions: Many autistic people find it easier to engage in a conversation when the other person takes the lead by answering their questions. So if you want us to open up, be prepared to do the same!
Asking autistic people about themselves can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! By following these three simple tips—avoiding yes/no questions, focusing on specifics, and being prepared to answer your questions—you can encourage even the most introverted autistic people to engage in conversation. And who knows? We might surprise you with how much we have to say!