Want to better understand someone diagnosed with Asperger’s? Try communicating only through texting By Bob Sher, Ph.D.

The other day, I received this text from my 10th grade, typically developing son: “Practice late bus. At school. Usual pick up.” Boy, was I stumped. Was the bus late, or was he? Did practice go late, so he missed the bus? Was practice over, or still going on? Did “usual” refer to place, time, both, or neither? It occurred to me that this is a pretty similar experience for people who interact regularly with people diagnosed with Asperger’s or high functioning Autism.

            What texting has in common with a typical Aspie’s communication style is both obvious and subtle. The more apparent aspects include things like inattention or disregard for things like tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so forth. Texting is verbal communication stripped to its bare minimum (and emojis don’t really add much to this mix, and often make matters worse). There is little room for sarcasm, emphasis, or any emotion not explicitly stated. In some ways, this feels more efficient and direct when the thing to be communicated is simple and free of emotional content, but that leads me to the second, less obvious, type of similarity.

            Surely, there was a way for my son to tell me to come pick him up now in front of the main school building that would have been clearer (the most obvious being an actual phone conversation, but I digress). It just would have required him to spend a few additional seconds thinking about – planning – his choice of expression. It also would have asked him to use words like “and,” “is” and “the,” which  - I suppose – feels unnecessary and tedious. Because texting is (somewhat) more labor intensive than talking, we take shortcuts. When texting, we become impatient with adjectives, conjunctions, and all kinds of parts of speech we wouldn’t think of abandoning when talking to someone, especially if we are trying to let them know something of practical importance, like where and when to meet. Rereading my son’s text, it occurs to me that the punctuation could be re-arranged to give his text entirely different meaning. My phone automatically inserts a period if I hit the space button twice in a row (I bet yours does too), sometimes leading to further confusion.

            People on the spectrum often find the mechanics and rules of conversation to be tedious, baffling, arbitrary, and exhausting. They want you to know something, and are frustrated that they have to go through some intricate dance to get the information into your head, especially since no matter how many times someone tries to teach them the steps, they just can’t quite seem to get it right. So, they too become impatient, and resent being asked to rephrase or repeat something that was, in their mind, expressed with perfect clarity.

So, maybe the next time the person you live with or work with or teach is becoming irritated that you aren’t understanding them, imagine yourself trying to compose a particularly complicated and important text message to someone in a hurry, and you might have a glimpse of what they are going through.