“What if you were told the way you experience the world is wrong? What if they told you the way you move is wrong? What if they told you the way you talk and think and write is wrong? What if you could never say no? What if this was called… ‘therapy’?” -Ischemgeek
Growing Up “Wrong”: A Different Reality
Imagine that as long as you could remember, you were told to change the way you moved, spoke, felt, even played. Imagine that you were treated, deliberately or inadvertently, as something to be fixed, not someone to be taught. Imagine that people talked to you, about you, or about people like you, as “lesser.” Imagine you had to go to therapy from an early age, while the other children around you did not. Imagine you were told, “why can’t you be more like the other kids?”
(Michael Jellinek estimates that by age ten, children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages than peers at school alone. Although I am unaware of research on the subject, I suspect children with ASD experience something similar — or even worse).
Furthermore, after enough rejection from peers and correction by adults that makes them feel “lesser,” children with disabilities can’t help but learn to expect negative experiences from social interactions, and perhaps avoid or fight them to protect their fragile developing sense of self.
The nightmare of growing up “all wrong” is daily reality for every neurodivergent adult I’ve met. As research is starting to confirm, this way of living is traumatizing. (The overlap between trauma and autism is a growing area of research which deserves a post of its own. Briefly, people with ASD suffer higher rates of trauma and PTSD than neurotypicals, and have less social support in dealing with it). It’s no wonder that people on the autism spectrum suffer far more anxiety and depression than the general population . It’s not uncommon in studies for the majority to have clinical anxiety or depression. [1, 3]
That burden of trauma and mental illness leads to intense negative emotions and emotional reactions, which a child must learn to regulate. That places extra burden on an already underdeveloped brain system for self-regulation and executive functioning.
Lessons that teach young people to constantly monitor their own eye contact, body movements, and speech leads to self consciousness, which makes *all* humans stilted and awkward.
Try this experiment: Walk across the room while thinking about how you’re doing it. Where do you place your feet? Do your toes point outward enough? How long and smooth is your stride? Do you walk in a straight line?
Is it easier or harder to walk this way than when you simply walked without thinking?
Have someone watch you stride while conscious of every footfall. How do they perceive your walking?
To give away the punchline: most likely, like athletes under pressure, you will “choke” and walk awkwardly, and the other person will perceive it.
Paradoxically, the intense self consciousness we push on children with social and communication disabilities can hobble them in the same way. In fact, I believe it usually handicaps them.
How, then, can children learn, and how can we teach them, to make friends and leave positive impressions on other people?
First, understand that children with disabilities, especially ASD, grow up with this daily reality. Make the effort to imagine what that might be like for them. Understand that they must overcome this social disadvantage, which their neurotypical peers don’t face. That change of perspective, alone, shines through, and can make people with disabilities feel more understood and valued.
People with disabilities who have undergone testing and therapy themselves have a natural advantage, because they know firsthand what it feels like to be the client “on the other side of the desk.” The rest of us can benefit from listening to them — paying attention to both their words and their affect. Imagination and empathy can also go a long way.
In short, the ideal teacher should make students feel like people with interests and strengths, not broken things to be fixed.
Although that sounds obvious, most adults with ASD or ADHD I’ve met would nod in recognition of ischemgeek’s quotation at the beginning of this post — meaning, we have a long way to go.
It’s easy to say you love and believe in students or clients. It’s harder to teach them to navigate the world without communicating that the way they perceive, think, feel, speak, or move is intrinsically wrong.
Still, it can be done. Furthermore, the most important skills don’t require lived experience. Anyone can learn them.
Understand the Double Empathy Problem
Living with a brother on the autism spectrum, I learned that much of social communication is based on assuming shared knowledge, expectations, perceptions, and responses. However, these can vary drastically. I saw my brother & non-autistic people misunderstand each other because each perceived the world differently, & behaved differently than the other expected.
Autistic adults call this mutual misunderstanding the “double empathy problem.”  This framing of autism is increasingly being used and confirmed in psychology research. [For example, 6].
Despite the apparent size of the double empathy divide, it can be bridged. However, doing so poses a challenge. It requires knowledge of both autistic and neurotypical minds, and the ability to explain one to the other.
Unfortunately, that knowledge is hard to come by. My autistic adult friends grew up knowing they were different, but having to guess how. Parents and teachers couldn’t understand or explain their differences, either. So these autistic friends reached adulthood lacking the tools to bridge the double empathy gap.
When the autistic community gave them language to understand themselves and explain themselves to others, it transformed their lives.
What if autistic people could be taught these vital communication skills as children?
Bridge the Double Empathy Gap
The ideal teacher would have qualities that enable them to bridge the double empathy gap. Whether neurotypical, autistic, or neurodivergent in some other way, they should have years of experience translating between their own, neurotypical, and autistic communication styles. They should learn the strengths and weaknesses of each form of communication, when misunderstandings tend to happen, and how to repair them.
The ideal teacher is a translator. They would teach clients the language and expectations of the neurotypical world. Meanwhile, they would help families understand the everyday reality of clients.
Know What to Teach, and Why
The key to teaching skills without devaluing a student is to know the difference between looking normal and actually functioning.
In fact, sometimes the effort to look normal actually makes a person with disabilities function less well, or burn out.
Maxwell Sparrow (formerly Sparrow Rose Jones), author of No You Don’t, explains:
“The monumental effort I put forth every day to try (and fail) to look like everybody else is sapping my talents and potential. All my energy, all my intelligence goes into looking normal. There’s nothing left over to do a good job at something. When the most important thing is for me to look and sound like everybody else around me, all I have the personal resources for is showing up. That’s all you can get out of me. And that’s not even enough for a job at McDonalds. …McDonalds fired me after two weeks.”
Know that etiquette and social skills vary based on age, culture, and other factors
A good teacher should also:
- Recognize that their own country’s mainstream cultural attitudes towards eye contact and small talk aren’t universal. Nor are they comfortable for many people with disabilities. Thus, they would teach these norms with humility.
- Learn as much as they can about how people of their student’s age and cultural background actually socialize — not how we think they do, or wish they did. (One can start and learn much from naturalistic observation of children at the playground or in school aftercare programs. Additionally, a world of research exists. Sociology, developmental and social psychology, anthropology, group dynamics, and more investigate how children and adults interact).
Know Your Students
What are your students’ strengths and interests? People learn best what they love. Yet, we can forget this, too focused on long lists of skills on which students need to catch up.
People also light up when they can share what they love with someone else. For people with autism and communication disabilities, the change can be profound.
Winter-Messiers describes how children’s communication transforms when they talk about their passionate interests (SIA stands for “special interest area”):
“As we interviewed participants and later listened to audiotapes, we noticed distinct speech patterns that changed when participants shifted from any topic to talking about their SIA. Their affect and animation expanded, and some participants who had shown flat affects in the pre-interview conversation began to show significantly more enthusiasm and emotion when asked about their SIA. In some participants, we noted that their intelligibility increased markedly, and the sophistication of their vocabulary, word order, and syntax improved considerably. Responses also increased in complexity…Our team also observed improvement in body language — particularly an increase in eye contact and expressive gestures that accompanied speech.”
So, teachers should know each student’s strengths and interests. Next, consider how to leverage them. That can take some creativity, especially when students in a group share no interests and do not easily stop talking about their own to hear more about their peers’. Drawing connections between each other’s interests could make a difference.
Women with ASD sometimes develop a special interest in human psychology, which can lead them to bond over their peers’ interests as well as their own. Teachers should recognize and encourage such curiosity about other people. It’s not only a coping skill, but also a strength.
If you can take away one thing from this post, make it this: too many people grow up feeling their very way of being is wrong. Do everything you can to act as a teacher, translator, and bridger of gaps, not a repairperson. Make every effort to show people with social and communication disabilities you value them, just as they are.
 Over 50% had social anxiety disorder in: Maddox, B.B., and White, S.W (2015). Comorbid Social Anxiety Disorder in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45, 3949–3960. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2531-5 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-015-2531-5
 A review/meta-analysis found higher rates of lifetime anxiety and depression among people with ASD than in the general population, although fewer than half were affected: Hollocks, M., Lerh, J., Magiati, I., Meiser-Stedman, R., & Brugha, T. (2019). Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 49(4), 559–572. doi:10.1017/S0033291718002283. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/anxiety-and-depression-in-adults-with-autism-spectrum-disorder-a-systematic-review-and-metaanalysis/CDC4FF29C3DC504768E375EE65019E0C
 A review found that for people with ASD as a group, the overall prevalence rates for anxiety disorders was between 42% and 79%: Kent, Rachel & Simonoff, Emily (2017). Chapter 2: Prevalence of Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorders. In Anxiety in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence-Based Assessment and Treatment, pp. 5–32
 Allely, C.S. & Faccini, L. (2020). The importance of considering trauma in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder : considerations and clinical recommendations. University of Salford. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JFP-11-2019-0049. URL: This version is available at: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/52966/
5) Damien Milton formally defines the “double empathy problem”: Milton, Damien E.M. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem.’ Disability & Society 27:6, 883–887. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008. PDF available here.
6) A study testing the “double empathy problem” finds that just as neurotypical people convey information effectively to neurotypical peers, autistic people transfer information effectively to autistic peers: Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism, 24(7), 1704–1712.
7) Jones, Sparrow Rose (2013). No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind. Unstrange Publications (self-published).
8) Winter-Messiers, M. A. (2007). From tarantulas to toilet brushes: Understanding the special interest areas of children and youth with Asperger syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 140–152.