It is possible to have nuanced and productive conversations online in text-based interactions.

It is possible to have nuanced and productive conversations online in text-based interactions.

Some of the skills that are important online overlap with the skills that are important offline, eg:

  • Making sure that you’re understanding someone correctly and that you’re understanding them correctly (some of the mechanisms are different, but the need to remember to do it is the same).
  • Remembering that no one knows everything, including you.
  • Remembering that you can decide who you want to talk to, and that you don’t have to have intense conversations with everyone who pays attention to you.
  • Keeping in mind that the person you’re talking to is also a real person.

Some skills that can be useful in person don’t work online, for instance:

  • Paying attention to other people’s body language can be useful in person, but online no one can see body language.
  • Expressing your thoughts through body language can be useful in person, but online no one can see body language.
  • Making or faking eye contact can be a useful way of signaling respect or attention in person, but it doesn’t work online. (It’s not always useful or possible in person either, it just can be sometimes for some people.)
  • Paying attention to tones of voice can be useful in person, but tones of voice aren’t available in text in the same way. (There are other ways to convey tone online though.)
  • In person, clothes or physical space can sometimes express certain things about what kind of conversation it is. Online, this is much less possible even if you post pictures.
  • (A caveat: I’m mentioning these skills because they are things that a lot of people rely on heavily, but none of them are universally useful or universally possible. For instance, sometimes eye contact can make it impossible to have a conversation.)

Some of the skills used for online conversations are different from the skills used in person, for instance:

Short version: Having good conversations on the internet is very possible, but some of the skills are different from the skills of in-person conversations. It can be a learning curve, especially at first — and it helps to keep in mind that it’s possible.

Solidarity with disabled presenters who are subjected to ableist laughter

A challenge to disability professionals and disabled presenters at conferences and panels: Please find a way to respond to the routine contempt that presenters with disabilities are treated with.

I’ve gone to a fair number of disability-related conferences in the past few years. At nearly every conference, I saw an audience laugh at a presenter/panelist with a developmental disability. This happened particularly often to presenters with intellectual disabilities, but I also saw it happen to autistic presenters and presenters with speech disabilities.

This isn’t a matter of random jerk encounters; it’s a major cultural problem. Even disability professionals who pride themselves on inclusivity and respect tend to behave this way.

This isn’t nice laughter. It’s not a response to something funny. It’s a response to presenters talking about what they’re proud of, what they’re good at, or talking about wanting control over their own lives. People also laugh similarly when parents and siblings talking about their disabled relative wanting autonomy or objecting to being treated like a little child. This happens all the time, and it needs to stop.

If you’re moderating a panel and the audience laughs at a panelist, here’s one method for shutting this down:

Be proactive about taking the panelist seriously:

  • Don’t look at the audience while they’re laughing, and *especially* don’t laugh or smile yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing.
  • Pause briefly before going on. This will make the laughter feel awkward.
  • Ask the panelist a question that makes it clear that you respect what they’re saying.
  • You can explicitly ask “Did you mean that seriously?”
  • You can also be a bit less direct, and say something like “That sounds important. Can you say more?”
  • You can also ask a follow-up question about the specific thing they were saying.

I think that we all need to be proactive about changing this culture. (Including disabled presenters who get laughed at; we need to insist on being taken seriously. More on that in another post).

Show explicit respect for your audience

When you’re giving a presentation, it’s important to show explicit respect for your audience.

Good presentations are essentially a collaboration between the presenter and the audience. You try to teach in a way that they can understand — and they try to listen and understand.

It’s hard to get anywhere with a hostile audience. When an audience thinks that you have contempt for them, they’re not likely to put much effort into listening to you. They’re actually likely to actively avoid listening to you. Presentations go best when you can get a significant percentage of your audience on your side as soon as possible.

One way to do this is to show explicit respect for your audience as soon as possible. It’s very helpful to find a point of genuine connection, and to name it explicitly. It doesn’t go without saying — especially if you’re addressing an audience that is used to people like you showing contempt for them.

For instance, if you’re teaching educators, it’s often worth acknowledging that their job is hard. If you’re teaching marginalized people, it’s often worth acknowledging marginalization. If you’re teaching a group of people who have an attitude or accomplishments you respect, it’s often worth saying what they are explicitly. Showing this kind of respect tends to make for a much more productive conversation.

Short version: If you’re giving a presentation to a group, it’s very helpful to show explicit respect for the group in your introductory remarks.

ASL is a language

American Sign Language and other signed languages are languages. It’s important to respect them as languages.

ASL is not English. It is a completely different language. Similarly, signed languages aren’t all the same. British Sign Language is completely different from ASL.

Signs are not universal, any more than spoken words are universal. The meaning of a sign isn’t always obvious just by watching; many signs are completely arbitrary.

Sign is not pantomime, and it’s not ad hoc gesture. It’s also not like symbolic gestures that are sometimes made up to accompany kids songs either. It’s a language, with all the complexities of language. The difference is important, and it needs to be respected. 

In order to know what signs mean, you have to learn them. (Just like in order to know what spoken words mean, you have to learn them.)

ASL is not just gestures, any more than spoken languages are just sounds. ASL has grammar, vocabulary, and culture. It’s important to respect this and not erase it.  

Meaningful echolalia

Some people communicate mostly in memorized phrases or allusions to stories and events.

It’s actually pretty normal to communicate in phrases and allusions. I think most people communicate that way at least some of the time. For instance, a lot of people make Shakespeare references in situations that have little or nothing to do with literature. A lot of prose and interpersonal communication happens that way.

This is interpreted very differently for some people than others. People without disabilities who mostly communicate in literal language are taken much more seriously when they make allusions and quotes.

When a nondisabled person says “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, it’s assumed that they’re communicating and that what they say is meaningful. They are usually understood. This is the case even if there are no ladies present and they’re obviously not talking about a lady.

Similarly, when a nondisabled person says something like “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”, this is understood as meaning something even if they obviously do not have a kingdom and are known to hate horses.

When someone with a disability communicates in exactly the same way, their communication is often written off as meaningless. It’s often seen as sensory seeking, or stimming, or a persversation, and having no communicative content whatsoever. This kind of communication is often ignored, and also often seen as a problem behavior to be extinguished by a behavior plan.

This is in part because there’s a widespread belief that autistic people are all hyper-literal and only understand literal language. That’s true of *some* autistic people. But there are also autistic people who have the opposite problem. There are people who find it nearly impossible to use literal language to communicate, but who can readily make references and use literary phrases. (This is true for other kinds of cognitive disabilities as well; it’s not unique to autism.)

People who can only communicate in references deserve to have their communication taken seriously. So do people who find references much easier than literal languages. Everyone else is allowed to use references to communicate; people with disabilities have the right to do so as well.

Here’s an example of a situation in which communication is often misinterpreted. Imagine a girl named Sarah:

  • Sarah doesn’t say very many words reliably. She can usually say a few things like mom, food, want, home, and SpongeBob.
  • Sarah watches SpongeBob a lot
  • She wants you and other people in her life to watch it with her
  • She says a lot of phrases from SpongeBob
  • (Eg: “I’m ready!”, “One eternity later”, “SpongeBob, you and I both know you’re just using me as a distraction so you don’t have to write your essay”, “Why is it whenever I’m having fun it’s wrong?”, “I’m ugly and I’m proud!”)
  • Sometimes, the assumption is made that her repetitive phrases are preventing her from developing standard language
  • Or they might think that TV is preventing her from developing standard language and that her access to TV is limited
  • Or they might think that she’s perseverating on SpongeBob in a way that’s preventing learning
  • When maybe what’s going on is that SpongeBob is *teaching* her language and communicative concepts, and she’s trying to use them to communicate
  • If so, she should probably watch more TV, not less
  • And it’s really important for people in her life to listen to her
  • And understand the references she’s making and what they mean to her
  • (Watching the shows with her is probably an important part of that; showing her other shows might be too)
  • If you want someone to communicate, you have to listen to them, even when their communication is unusual

A lot of this post about listening to people whose speech is unusual applies in this situation too.

Short version: Repeated phrases are often meaningful. Some people with disabilities communicate mostly in memorized phrases and references and allusions to stories and other things. Nondisabled people are taken seriously when they communicate this way. Disabled people who communicate in references should be taken just as seriously. (Even when they don’t communicate in literal language very often or at all).

Thoughts on symbol support and picture support

People with certain kinds of disabilities often need more than words in order to be able to communicate. One thing that can be helpful is the use of symbols or pictures.

Using symbols can expand and support someone’s expressive vocabulary. (For instance, picture symbols on a communication device can enable someone to use words they couldn’t use by typing or speaking).

Symbols can also expand and support someone’s receptive vocabulary. For instance, symbols can be used to illustrate materials, or to explain something to someone. They can also be used in things like powerpoint presentations in various ways.

Symbol support can do a lot of other things that make communication more possible for people with a wide range of disabilities. It’s not just about literacy; literacy-related things are just the easiest to explain.

Something I’ve been realizing matters is that everyone who uses symbols to communicate is a symbol support user. Even people who normally communicate in words; even people who only use symbols to communicate when they are talking to people with disabilities or listening to people with disabilities.

It’s important to remember that communication in symbols is happening on both sides of the interaction.

If someone is communicating with you by showing you symbols, then you are using symbols for receptive communication.

If you are using symbols to explain something to someone, then you are using symbols for expressive communication.

It’s important to keep this in mind.

If you’re using symbols, the symbols are part of the communication. Even if every symbol is attached to one word and only one word. The symbols don’t just tell people what the words are. They also have content, and it’s important to pay attention to what you’re saying with the symbols. They might not mean the same thing to the person you’re talking to that they mean to you. Particularly if they understand picture-concepts more readily than they understand word-concepts.

For example:

Sometimes people might select symbols on communication devices based on what the symbols mean rather than what the words they’re associated with them mean:

  • If someone is putting together phrases that don’t make obvious sense to you, they might mean something by it
  • It might *not* be stimming, random exploration, or that kind of thing
  • It might be intentional communication based on what the pictures mean to them
  • I think it is important to take that possibility seriously (even for someone who also speaks, or also uses words)
  • And *especially* important to take seriously if they’re indicating with body language that they want you to look at the screen)
  • (This is also true if someone is using PECS symbols in a way that doesn’t appear to make literal sense. It might be because the pictures mean something different to them than they mean to you)


  • If you’re using symbols to explain something to someone who needs symbols, the symbols matter
  • It’s not always enough to just pick words, then pick symbols that go with those words one-by-one
  • The content of the symbols can matter beyond literal word-by-word meaning
  • The way the symbols combine can also matter. (ie: the fact that a sentence makes sense in words and each symbol corresponds well with a word does *not* necessarily mean that the symbol-sentance makes sense)
  • The symbols also might not mean the same thing to the person you’re communicating with that they mean to you
  • If someone finds symbols easier to understand than words, they may derive more meaning from the symbols and your tone of voice and body language than they do from the words themselves
  • It’s important to pay attention to what you’re communicating with the symbols you choose as well as the words that you choose

Some considerations for symbol use:

  • Consistency between symbols matters. Symbols combine in ways that make more sense when there’s an underlying logic to the symbol system.
  • Symbols should not be childish or cutesy, even for young children.
  • Because nobody, not even young children, wants to be forced to communicate in cute ways.
  • And some really important topics (eg: abuse, boundaries, sexuality) are decidedly un-cute. People with disabilities need and deserve respectful communication about things that aren’t cute or shiny-happy.
  • Symbols should be comprehensible at a variety of sizes. (Eg: overly complex symbols don’t work well for small buttons on a communication device).
  • Symbols should be respectful, especially when they are symbols of people doing or thinking or being things (eg: protestors should look powerful rather than cute; adults should look like adults; symbols for “choice” should either be abstract or be age-neutral)
  • Symbols should be accurate. (eg: the symbol for anger should not be a smiling person; the symbol for diabetes should not be the same as the symbol for “no sugar”; wheelchair users should have the kind of wheelchairs that individuals own than hospital wheelchairs; the symbol for intellectual disability should not be the same as the symbol for the special olympics)
  • In all of these ways and other ways I’m not sure how to explain yet, I think that SymbolStix is the best existing symbol set.

Short version: Symbols can be really helpful for supporting communication and comprehension. If you’re using symbols to help someone else communicate or understand, it’s important to keep in mind that the symbols and the words both matter. Pay attention to what you’re communicating in symbols and what they’re communicating in symbols. Sometimes there are things going on beyond the literal meanings of the words that someone decided to associate with the symbols.

Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

Short version: Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.

AAC does not replace nonverbal communication

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s a mistake to ignore nonverbal communication in an attempt to force someone to use AAC. (The short version: it’s disrespectful, it undermines someone’s ability to communicate, and it prevents people from developing a valuable skill.)

One reason nonverbal communication is important for AAC users is that you always have your body with you. That is not necessarily the case for AAC devices.

AAC best practices say that someone should have them available constantly. In practice, people don’t. This is for several reasons. One is that it’s not practical to take a device to some places (for instance, most people are not willing to take a high tech device to the beach, and low tech devices are a lot more limiting.) Another reason is that sometimes people forget, or vastly underestimate how close a device needs to be in order to be immediately available. Or any number of reasons, some innocent and some horrifying, and many a mixture of both.

Also, people take devices away from AAC users. They shouldn’t, but they do. Sometimes it’s accidental; sometimes it’s on purpose. It’s never ok, but people do it a lot. If you’re teaching a nonverbal child to communicate, you need to keep this in mind when you’re considering what to teach them. You can’t assume that people will always treat them appropriately, and you can’t assume that they will always have their device. If they are capable of communicating with their body, it is an important skill for them.

Whatever else happens, someone always has their body with them. People can do a lot more if they can use their body to communicate. Communicating in body language can make it possible to communicate in a swimming pool. It can make it possible to communicate with dirty hands. It can make it possible for someone to indicate that their device isn’t within reach and that they need it. It can make it possible to communicate about pain in medical situations. It can make it possible to communicate when someone else doesn’t want you to, and has taken your device away. It can make friendship possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. And any number of other things, all of which are important.

And in order to be able to communicate with body language, people need opportunities to practice and develop this skill. If you ignore someone’s nonverbal communication to encourage AAC use, you’re making it harder for them to develop comprehensible body language. That’s not a good idea, because comprehensible body language is important. People won’t always have access to their device. They will always have their body.

Short version: Nonverbal communication is important for nonverbal people, but parents are often encouraged to pretend not to understand it in order to encourage AAC use. This makes it harder for people to develop body language that others can understand. One reason this is a problem is that people don’t always have access to their devices, but people *do* always have access to their bodies. Nonverbal people should have support in developing nonverbal communication, because it is an important skill.

AAC is not a cure

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s important to listen to the nonverbal communication of nonverbal people. Often, parents are encouraged to not listen or to pretend not to understand, so that kids will be forced to learn AAC and use words. I think this is a mistake, for any number of reasons. The first post focused on the general importance of listening.

Another problem with this advice is that ignoring nonverbal communication discourages people from developing their nonverbal communication skills. That’s a bad idea, because nonverbal communication is a very useful skill for nonverbal people. It should be encouraged, not discouraged.

It’s valuable for several different reasons (and I assume, for many reasons I don’t know about.)

One is that AAC is not a cure, and it doesn’t make nonspeaking people just like people who can talk. Nonverbal people who have communication devices are still nonverbal. Currently existing AAC devices can’t do everything that speech can do. For instance:

  • AAC devices mostly can’t do tone. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can’t go everywhere. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can be taken away much, much more easily than voices can.
  • AAC is usually slow. That makes interrupting hard-to-impossible. Voices can usually be used to interrupt.
  • AAC is usually fairly quiet. Voices can usually yell.
  • Symbol-based devices generally don’t have anywhere close to sufficient vocabulary for emotional or physical intimacy. Voices do.
  • Many AAC devices give others a lot of control over what someone can say. Voices are usually more flexible.

For a lot of these things, body language and movement can be a more effective way of communicating than using a speech device. For instance, putting up a hand to say “stop!” is a lot more likely to be understood quickly than using an AAC device to say the same thing.

Similarly, most symbol sets developed that touch on sexuality at all assume the main reason people need sexual vocabulary is to be able to report abuse. Most of them don’t have robust symbols for discussing sexuality and sexual desire — and most of them don’t have any symbols for emotional intimacy at all. Body language can communicate things that a system designed this way can’t.

Another reason AAC is not like speech is that people who are nonspeaking, are nonspeaking for reasons. And AAC does not make those reasons go away.

Some people are nonspeaking because words are unnatural, painful, and cognitively draining. People like that deserve to be able to communicate in ways that are natural and comfortable. And it’s important for people close to them to listen to their natural communication. Ignoring someone’s most natural communication it is a rejection of their personhood. It’s important not to do that to people.

It’s also dangerous, because someone who finds AAC cognitively difficult and draining is likely not going to be able to use it all the time. For some people, this can be especially true when it’s particularly important to communicate, or when they’re sick. If you’re responsible for someone and you only know how to listen when they use AAC, that’s dangerous. If there’s another way they communicate, it’s important to develop your ability to understand it. (Or, if you can’t, to find someone who can.)

Similarly, if someone has apraxia or other difficulties controlling their body well enough to point, their physical ability to use AAC is likely to vary. And it’s still important to listen to them when they aren’t able to use it in the ways they sometimes can.

Short version: Access to AAC is important. It’s not the only thing that’s important, and it’s not a cure. Nonverbal people who use AAC are still nonverbal. Body language and using one’s body to communicate are also important skills. (Not everyone can learn to do this. For people who can, it’s valuable.) It is not a good idea to discourage AAC users from using body language to communicate.

thoughts on dating while autistic

A reader asked:

Hi! I’m autistic, and I’ve never dated anyone, although I have been asked out before. Truthfully, I’m terrified of dating or being in a relationship, because I’m almost 18 and I’ve never even kissed anyone before, and I’m embarrassed!

I’m a pretty attractive girl and very good at hiding my autism, so people are interested in me at first, until I totally mess up flirting because of my social awkwardness.

Can you tell me what dating/relationships are like, so I know what to expect/how to act? thanks!

realsocialskills said:

I can’t answer this directly because dating and relationships are different for everyone. They aren’t about scripts; they’re about building something with another person that works for both of you. I don’t know what they will be like for you. That is something that you will figure out as you get more experience.

But I can tell you some related things:

It’s ok to be embarrassed. Figuring out dating is embarrassing for most people. That doesn’t mean that you can’t date or have relationships. It just means that you will be embarrassed sometimes.

Flirting is at least sort of embarrassing even when it’s working. Figuring out whether or not someone is interested in you is at least somewhat embarrassing for almost everyone. Flirting is a way to make the process of figuring it out more pleasant than embarrassing.

Flirting effectively is a bit like learning to play the violin — just like initial attempts to play the violin sound terrible, initial attempts to learn how to flirt tend to be acutely embarrassing. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It just means that there’s a learning curve.

Also — it’s not unusual to be 17 and not have kissed anyone yet. Sometimes the way people talk about teenagers can make it sound like everyone is dating and having sex, but it’s not true. Some people are, and some people aren’t. Both are ok. A lot of people your age haven’t kissed anyone. And the people who are kissing others also get embarrassed and unsure of themselves.

(It would also be ok even if it was unusual. It’s ok if some things are harder or take longer for you than they do for most people.)

Many of the skills involved in romantic relationships are the same skills involved in friendship. And one of the most important skills involved in friendship is figuring out how to tell whether you like someone, and whether they like you.

Figuring out whether you like someone can be hard for a lot of autistic people. Among other reasons, a lot of us are taught that we have to be friends with anyone who will tolerate our company. That’s not how dating works and it’s not how friendship works either.

If you don’t like someone, you shouldn’t date them. If you don’t like spending time with someone, you shouldn’t date them. If you’re hoping that they will change dramatically, you shouldn’t date them. It’s only a good idea to date someone if you like them and enjoy their company as they are now. You can’t build a good relationship with an imaginary person.

Similarly, it’s important to only date people who like you. People who are hoping that you will change, or who want you to act nonautistic all the time, are not people who like you.

You can’t become nonautistic to please people who find autism repellant, and you aren’t going to be able to hide autism from them forever. It always becomes noticeable sooner or later, because autism affects you and your experiences and impairments matter. You are who you are, and your disability is part of that. And that’s ok, because disabled people can date, and we can do it well.

The most important thing to know about dating and relationships is that, in good relationships, the people involved like and respect each other. Respecting and liking yourself is an important part of learning to build a mutually respectful relationship. Liking yourself helps you to like others; and to tell whether others like you. Respecting yourself helps you to learn to treat others respectfully; and to understand whether or not the ways others are treating you are ok.

From the way you phrased your ask, I think that you might be having a lot of trouble feeling ok about yourself as an autistic person. I think that it would help you a lot to work on understanding that it’s ok to be autistic, and that you can be a fabulous autistic human being.

It sounds to me that you think that you have to pass as non-autistic to be dateable. You don’t have to do that. Autism doesn’t prevent kissing and it doesn’t prevent love.

A lot of autistic people struggle to feel worthy of love and friendship. A lot of us feel repulsive a lot of the time. We’re often made to feel that our thoughts, feelings, interests, and body language are disgusting flaws. But they are not. We’re ok. Being autistic is ok.

We are beautiful. The way we look and the way we move and the way we think is beautiful. Autistic beauty is real, and there are people in the world who appreciate it.

We are often taught that, unless we learn to pretend that we’re normal, no one will ever like us. (That’s the basic message of the Social Thinking curriculum, for instance). We’re also often taught that we’re not allowed to make mistakes. A lot of us feel like every time we make a social mistake, it’s showing that we’re deeply flawed and hopelessly unworthy.

That makes dating really hard, because everyone makes acutely embarrassing social mistakes as they learn how to date. (And often even after they have a lot of experience.). It sounds to me like you might feel like you have to earn the right to date by never making any embarrassing mistakes. You don’t. If that was the standard, no one would ever be able to date. It’s ok to be fallible and embarrassed and unsure of things. You’re ok.

There are people who will appreciate your beauty. There are people who will find you attractive. There are people who will love you.

You can learn how to date, and you can do it as yourself.