You have a friend or love with High Functioning Autism (Asperger's), and you don't understand him or her, so it's making you crazy? It doesn't have to be that way. Remembering a few things will enable you both to have a very rewarding relationship:
1. Accept that people with HFA are intelligent, and may have extraordinary skills that you may or may not understand, but very possibly lack what will seem to you to be common sense. The best way this was described to me one day was this way: “HFA is one of the 'unkind' disorders. Most individuals can't understand how an HFA adult can solve very complex problems, but doesn't know to get out of the rain.” What this means in your relationship is that the partner you care for is intelligent enough to come up with solutions, even complex ones. Making things simple is the harder part. Accept that if he/she says ''I need help with ___'', that is what he/she needs help with, even if it doesn't seem possible. The other side of the coin is if your partner says ''I am capable of ___'', it is a good idea to trust that. A diagnostic measure of HFA is that these individuals must be of at LEAST average intelligence. As such, the man or women you care about is more likely to know his or her limitations.
2. Accept that HFA people need love and understanding. Individuals with HFA (despite what has been widely written) do have emotions. In fact, more often they are rich with emotion, not devoid of it. More modern literature is starting to reflect this more accurate position. The difference is that the response is different in them. Individuals with HFA are often very lonely and can become depressed as a result of feeling out of place in the world.
3. Accept that you and your partner don't think alike. This means that you are likely to misunderstand each other. Knowing this will enable you to do three things:
- When he/she says or does something that seems hurtful, you can trust that it may not have been intended the way you thought, even if it seems very clear to you.
- When you say/do something that your partner takes offense at, you can trust that he/she is misunderstanding you honestly and not trying to be critical.
- When family members, co-workers or friends seem to be having a ''group opinion'' in the negative about your partner, you have the insight to be able to say, ''It may appear to be that way, but I think it's a big misunderstanding''.
4. Accept that you don't experience life the same way as your HFA partner, so his/her obstacles, interests, complaints, frustrations are likely to seem illogical to you and those around you. There are many issues which contribute to the way HFA people view the world around them. There are communication issues, stigma, sensory, stereotypical interests, unique responses to social issues and stressors ...many more things than you may be able to imagine. If you look at it as if they are dodging paintballs all day long every day (paintballs which are invisible to you), it may make a little more sense that they move the way they do, talk the way they do, and make the decisions they do.
5. Adjust your non-verbal messages. If your HFA partner seems to be misunderstanding things (e.g., your tone of voice, body language, pauses, breaks in communication, expressions, etc.), you can educate him/her to understand your messages in a non-threatening way.
With regard to body language, be sure to make an exaggerated connection between the motion and the emotion. If for you, crossed arms mean you are thinking and not angry, you could nod thoughtfully (with arms crossed) and say, "Hmmm.... Yes, I'm thinking about that." The same goes with leaning in, turning away, etc. Make the connection clear. The good news is that with this type of "lesson," your partner 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 strongly implied. If your tone of voice seems to frighten your HFA partner, 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.
6. Adjust your words. Once you know whether your HFA partner is relying more on words or non-verbal messages, take an extra step to be clear in that area. 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 your HFA partner to say, "Actually, could you explain further?"
7. Agitation, or a sense of nervousness, being hyper, etc., is often a result of stress in the individual with HFA. If you see increased activity, you can actively participate in dialing down the intensity by saying things which might be relaxing (e.g., "Ok, let's take a step back here").
8. Be aware of your HFA partner's personal space. She or he may have a space defined differently, spatially. If you see that your partner seems agitated or diverts gaze when you are within a certain distance, you can trust that you are within her or his personal space.
9. Consider your verbal vs. non-verbal communication. Most HFA people will fall into one of two categories with this regard. They may either rely more heavily on your words and less on body-language, or they may rely on body-language, but result in higher frequency of misinterpretation. Find out which your HFA partner does. How? Listen. If you find that he/she is frequently misunderstanding you without stopping to consider that he/she is completely off base, he/she may be misinterpreting your body-language and otherwise non-verbal messages (e.g., expressions, tone of voice, conversational pauses, etc.). On the other hand, if your HFA partner repeatedly asks questions about what you are saying, he or she is relying more heavily on your word usage.
10. Don't be afraid to ask questions. When a remark sounds ambiguous, it's perfectly fine to say, "What do you mean, exactly?" People with HFA know that "neurotypicals" (i.e., people without autism)) 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.
11. If the HFA individual you are communicating with is not very close 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 adults on the autism spectrum.
12. Intellectual icebreakers can put individuals with HFA at ease. Discussing something you learned or read about can reduce the stress in this person and very likely improve the success of the conversation.
13. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs that your HFA partner 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. Although it may seem like it sometimes, you might not be aware of what your HFA partner 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 he or she 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 "big" words is another way that adults with HFA try to be very clear. They are intelligent and don't always realize that their neurotypial partner may not understand the difference between close synonyms.
Another trait which might be frustrating to some neurotypical partners is when HFA people 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 HFA man or women a little bit relieved that you get what he or she is saying!
14. Individuals with HFA don't respond to criticisms, threats and manipulation the way typical people do. Even if you don't think you are, if your interaction is perceived this way (even falsely), you are likely to get an unexpected response. Diffuse the situation by saying something caring or suggesting a break.
15. Put aside what you "think" you know. Communicating with someone who has HFA (while holding on to what you think you know about how people communicate and what certain things mean) can create unnecessary stress. The individual on the other side of your message is also an individual -- a person who thinks about things in a different way than you do.
16. Reaching out to someone who has HFA may open more questions for you than provide answers, but a greater effort is likely to yield a greater reward in the long run.
17. Stress increases behaviors you may find frustrating. Decrease the stressors, however small, and you will decrease behaviors which you both find frustrating.
18. The more comfortable an HFA person is, the more likely he/she is to be relaxed in conversation and easier to communicate with, understand, and be understanding. Trust the individual with HFA 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.
19. Think about your words. Many people with HFA 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 neurotypicals are able to generalize a little better when someone says, "Put a pile of mashed potatoes on my plate ...I'm starving." Say this to a person with HFA and you might get a blank look. When the message is in words (rather than body language), 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 or phrase is all that is really needed for the HFA partner to get your meaning.
20. When an HFA person 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 he or she wants to say. Shifty eyes do not necessarily mean deceit!
Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples