Audience… It’s Complicated



A hospital? What is it?

Watching that scene from Airplane, it’s pretty clear to most folks that Elaine knows what a hospital is. When she asks, What is it? she means something like What’s the matter with the woman who needs to go to the hospital? Dr. Rumack assumes What is it? refers to what a hospital is… but of course she knows! That’s what makes this scene funny.

But generally, how can you be sure of what your audience knows and doesn’t know? This exchange between Rumack and Elaine is a funny example of when someone assumes another person doesn’t have knowledge about something they clearly do.

So when you’re having a conversation, just how do you figure out how much detail to go into? You might explain too much, like Dr. Rumack, and give information that your audience already knows. Or you might not explain enough and talk over their head.

Self-advocate Kirsten Lindsmith has a good post about the impact of this dilemma on her social interactions.

If I don’t stop to explain, I inevitably say something that my audience doesn’t understand, and I lose their interest, or worse, seem rude. But when I over-explain, I come off as annoying and condescending!

via The Little Professor is Compensating for Something: Theory of Mind and Pedantic Speech | The Artism Spectrum

Balance Explain & Skim

It’s important to explain your ideas to people who may not know—they don’t have all the same knowledge that you do.

Yet it’s also important to not go into too much detail—you can’t explain every single detail.

How do you do both? Strike a balance!


For more on the balance of explaining all details and skimming over information, see this previous post on audience.

A couple of quick examples to make things more concrete:

  • Let’s say you’re explaining your thoughts about a connection between the first amendment and the website reddit, to your teacher in her 50’s:
    • You probably don’t need to explain freedom of speech (as a teacher she probably knows this).
    • But you probably do need explain some background on reddit and how it works (she may not be familiar with this site that mostly younger people use).
  • But if you’re describing your experience of eating a cronut to a friend:
    • You probably do want to describe the cronut, how it’s like a donut, and how it’s like a croissant (he doesn’t know about your experience enjoying the treat).
    • But you likely don’t need to tell them what a donut is (chances are, he knows what that is).

But then again, it all depends on your audience—who you’re with, how you know them, and what you know about what they know.


Everyone—autistic or neurotypical—can “mess up” and occasionally explain too much, or too little. But we should recognize that it may be harder for autistic folks to interact fluidly, “live and in the moment,” at the speed that neurotypicals are used to.

Because of this, it’s important for neurotypicals to wait, explain, and clarify. Kristin said in the same post, “If I’m explaining something obvious, please tell me to stop.” There’s nothing wrong with giving kind, honest feedback.


In the end, it’s about finding a way in which neurotypicals and autistic folk can communicate comfortably. Part of that means autistic folk should feel comfortable advocating for themselves when there’s the possibility for misunderstanding.noun_4186

To do that, be OK telling a classmate, teacher, or coworker:

  • “I’m not sure how much detail to go into. Let me know if you need me to explain something more.”


  • “It’s hard for me to figure out how much you already know. Just tell me if I’m explaining too much.”

It’s complicated, but we can work together to avoid those “a hospital – what is it” moments.

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

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