Humans are a social species. We spend our entire lives in communication with one another. Words, touches, noises, gestures – all of these and more are ways we tell each other what we’re thinking and feeling, whether we have met before or not. Of all the life skills you will need, learning to communicate effectively is perhaps the most vital. With the internet and particularly with social media, the rules of interaction have become even more complex.
Sometimes it seems like people simply pop into the world knowing how to interact with others. They know when it’s appropriate to give a hug, laugh, or express disappointment; they know how to present their emotions (and when not to); they know how to respond to others. Perhaps these people don’t really exist, maybe it’s just our perceptions. But that, too, is part of communication – even those who are not top notch communicators know enough to present themselves as if they are.
As children, we are expected to make mistakes. We cry in public, say rude things, and even hit other people. It is expected that parents and other adults will correct us, over and over again, teaching us how to interact appropriately with others. But for some of us, this instruction is never enough. The world of communication is full of nuance and exceptions to the rules; it requires a working understanding of body language and verbal expression that is acquired over the course of a lifetime. Most of all, it requires an awareness of other people’s intentions – which, in turn, is governed by theory of mind, or the ability to understand perspectives that are not your own.
Given all these details, then, it is perhaps not surprising that miscommunication is so common. Whether it is waving back at someone who is waving to the person behind you or forgetting a comma that changes the meaning of a parking law, the slightest missed subtlety can have a wide range of consequences – from a moment’s embarrassment to escaping a parking ticket. These communication challenges happen to all of us from time to time, and are generally not a big deal.
Sometimes, however, communication struggles are so large as to render a person disabled in aspects of society. There are many ways this can occur – language barriers; being blind, deaf, and/or mute; illiteracy. These causes are relatively visible and can be accommodated. Communication complications can also be a result of neurological differences – including autism.
The term “invisible disability” refers to any disability that is not visible to observers. It can be the result of a disease, a learning difference, non-standard development, or medical conditions. Oftentimes, these disabilities are unnoticed or unrecognizable others. However, far from allowing these individuals to move through life more easily, this ability to “blend in” makes many tasks more difficult, because the need for support and accommodations is overlooked, and asking for that help is often perceived as requesting special treatment, as though the asker thinks they deserve something more or better.
Autism is an invisible disability that manifests differently in each person, but almost always has some negative impact on the ability to communicate with those who are more neurotypical. Theory of mind, nuance, flexible thinking, verbal expression, and articulation are often particularly challenging for those on the autism spectrum. Among the many characteristics common to people with autism, these communication complications in particular create a roadblock to appropriately expressing thoughts, ideas, and emotions. This in turn makes relationships difficult to initiate and maintain, impacting team projects, co-worker interactions, friendships, and overall ability to maintain social status.
Next time you encounter a situation where communication seems to be an issue, stop for a moment to appreciate what a complex task you are performing. You are sending dozens of visual and auditory signals to another person, who is trying to decipher those signals, put them together into a coherent message, and respond. If the listener doesn’t seem to be following along well, perhaps you can check yourself to improve the dynamic. Look for any mixed signals that you’re sending, and perhaps do away with subtleties in favor of clear communication – sans complications.