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!
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Be a good listener…
People who support individuals with ASD often address listening skills. There are some good things that come out of this work. Autistic folk often have difficulty engaging in back-and-forth conversations in a way that’s expected by their neurotypical conversational partners.
But it’s important for the presumably neurotypical teachers to note that we (NTs) are not perfect social beings who autistic people should use as role models for communication.
Neurotypicals need help listening
Occasionally there is information that becomes popular online that aims to help people improve their social interactions. One such piece is a recent BuzzFeed article, 17 Tips to ACTUALLY Listen When Someone Else is Talking. It includes such tips as:
3. Actually pay full attention to what the other person is saying.
8. When the other person is talking, listen for a key word or phrase, and then use it as a springboard to dive into your next comment or question.
These are good tips! It can require some effort to give our friend or colleague our full attention, particularly with buzzing pinging devices in our pockets and on our wrists. And people do appreciate it when someone remembers and refers back to something they’ve talked about.
At first glance, it might seem that this is an article written for people on the autism spectrum. But it’s not! It’s very telling that it is written for the general public. The intended audience of the piece is not folks with diagnosed communication challenges—it’s “everyone.”
And that’s the point to remember: all people have communication challenges. When providing support and instruction to people with ASD, let’s not make the mistake to think that there is one “right” way to communicate, and that it’s our way. “Our way” is riddled with problems: for one, there is a huge number of people who don’t really listen to each other.
It’s all about balance
I hope that the Balance Challenges on this blog can be supportive for autistic people, but neurotypical allies could also benefit from thinking about them with respect to their own social decision making.
And whatever work we do to support individuals with autism, let’s give some thought to striking a balance between “our way” and “their way” of communicating.
For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.