Behaviour is Communication

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[Image description: A young girl yelling]

Imagine that you were Laos, China, Columbia, or Brazil, where almost no English is spoken. If somebody had robbed you, how would you tell somebody you had been the victim of a crime? What communication would you use? Without a Google Translate, you would need to use your body language and behaviour.

But what if that body language, which we had used to attempt to communicate that you had been a victim of crime, in turn was interpreted as hostile? What if you were taken away by police and detained because that body language was so offensive it was making everybody else uncomfortable?

Many autistics do not communicate in traditional ways, and do not interpret communication in traditional ways. They are English-speakers in a country where English is seldom spoken or understood. How then, can they communicate to the world when something was making them feel uncomfortable, afraid, anxious, disturbed, neglected, abused, or powerless?

It is easy to understand why many autistics make the conscious or unconscious choice to communicate bad feelings with bad behaviour. Good behaviour is not seen and not regarded. Bad behaviour draws attention. It says, “pay attention to me, I need somebody to listen to me”. People don’t look at somebody smiling, with neutral body language, obeying rules and social norms, and see somebody who feels that they are in danger.

What happens, instead of being regarded and listened to, is that bad behaviour is punished. A person who is doing their best to communicate that they are in distress is put in further distress through punishment for their behaviour. This leads many autistic people to learn to not bother with communicating when they are uncomfortable, abused, or violated, because they expect that they will be punished for bothering neurotypical people with their needs.

Autism acceptance means to see the communication in an autistic person’s behaviour. It means to see the trashed home, the desks and chairs in a classroom being flipped over, the screaming and the destructive behaviour and to see that things are not okay in the autistic person’s world. It means it is time to de-escalate the conflict and then listen to what the autistic person is trying to say.

But for as long as autistic behaviour has been studied, the focus has been on “behavioural management”. The focus was on how uncomfortable autistic behaviour was making our neurotypical counterparts. The intention of autism therapy was to make autistic behaviour more acceptable to the senses of neurotypicals.

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