Copyright © Barbara Bissonnette 2013
Figuring out what the social rules are depends on the context of a particular situation, and the type of relationship you have with the person to whom you are speaking. To the degree that an individual has trouble grasping situational context, he will struggle to say and do the “right” things. It is also important to understand your audience—that others have thoughts, desires, knowledge and motives that differ from your own. This “theory of mind” ability means that you can predict how someone is likely to react to a situation, and what he expects you to do.
The ability to infer another’s emotional state is another component of effective communication. This information is often communicated nonverbally, through a person’s facial expression, body language, and tone and volume of voice. Research has shown that only 7 percent of what people communicate about their attitudes and feelings comes from their spoken words. The vast majority—93 percent—comes from facial expression and the way that words are spoken (Mehrabian 1981).
Many individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome have trouble noticing and/or interpreting nonverbal signals. They may not realize that someone is upset with them, or understand an implied request from a supervisor. They may not understand jokes or sarcasm.
Additionally, individuals may not be aware of the nonverbal messages they are sending by not making eye contact, standing too close to others, or speaking in a monotone.
Difficulty with social skills and interpersonal communication can cause people with Asperger’s Syndrome to behave in ways that seem willfully rude or insubordinate. They may offend others with candid remarks, which they consider to be honest and factual. The literal interpretation of language can lead to serious, sometimes comical, misunderstandings: “How come you’re not using the new scheduling software?” asks Kevin’s manager, “I told you to take a look at it two weeks ago.” “I did look at it,” replies Kevin, “and didn’t think it was useful so I deleted it off my system.”
Unlike most people, who can subconsciously process contextual clues within a fraction of a second, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome must consciously notice and put the clues together. This takes time and mental effort (Vermeulen 2012). These individuals may not be able to figure out another person’s motive, or know what is expected, based on inferences and previous experience, in time to react to the situation. Things that are obvious to most people are not obvious to Aspergians.
Common communication challenges:
- literal interpretation of language, misses implied meaning or sarcasm
- too honest and direct, unintentionally offending others
- neglecting to make eye contact or to smile (even though the individual is friendly)
- doesn’t know how to engage with co-workers (e.g. make small talk)
- talks at length about areas of interest; doesn’t notice that others want to end the conversation
- speaks to a supervisor in the same way he speaks to a peer
- interrupts, because he can’t tell when someone is done speaking, or doesn’t want to forget a point
- speaks too quickly or slowly; too loudly or softly
- ends conversations by simply walking away.
It must be stressed that these individuals want to interact with others, and are often surprised to hear that they have offended someone.