Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

a bit about autism for crisis line volunteers

on 2016 July 7

(This paper concerns crisis lines, such as suicide hotlines, rape crisis lines and so on. I’m volunteering for such a line now.)

Autistic people are not woven into the fabric of families and social groups like other people are; our way is to be independent instead of enmeshed – and this point is close to the very definition of autism. Unfortunately for us, that extreme independence can make supportive relationships out of reach, and even push us out of society to the point of being friendless or homeless. Thus, while autism accounts for only about 1% of the whole population, among callers to crisis lines the rate may be a lot higher. Crisis line staff can benefit from identifying autistic traits and some helpful ways to communicate.

Perhaps the easiest way to detect autistic tendencies in a call is when they seem unusually literal. If you ask “are you sad?” they may just say “yes” – only the literal answer to the question without accepting the implied invitation to say more. If you ask “May I ask you a couple questions?” and proceed to ask one question, then later in the call, they may still expect you to ask the second question (because they interpreted that you had exactly two questions). If you ask “How did you sleep?” they may interpret the question to be about the technique rather than about the quality of sleep, and they might answer literally: “I just got into bed and waited.” Or they might say they don’t understand the question, because they interpret the question to be literal and precise, when it might have actually been just a general way to keep the conversation going.

Autistic people have the same range of feelings and the same needs for love and connection and safety as everyone else, but our communication is different. Communication is interpreted more according to strict dictionary definitions of words, and the adage that 80% of communication is nonverbal may not be true for that kind of caller.

One way to be effective is to realize that your tone of voice may not communicate much, and their apparent tone can be misleading. If they are calmly stating “I am angry”, believe the words and not the misleading tone. An autistic caller may always use the same tone and not modulate it for different feelings as other people do. Try to find specific words to convey meaning and don’t assume they get much from your tone.

You can ask open-ended questions, but to communicate that your question is open ended, be literal and don’t rely on softening phrases or anything vague. If asking “What about your relationship?” elicits confusion, try saying “Describe the good and bad aspects of your relationship”. An autistic caller might understand “What are all of your feelings about that?” better than “How is that for you?” If asking “Were you ok after the fight?” results in a one-word answer, try requesting that they tell the whole story of recovering from the fight.

Autistic problems can be specific. If a caller says “I didn’t get to finish a Minecraft construction project before class”, you might wonder if Minecraft is a misplaced target or a symbol for some hidden, deeper problem. But there may be less focus on relationships and the seemingly trivial issue of Minecraft could be the literal problem. The person might be using a tool like that to help structure their thinking and memory, and someone prevented them from using it. Although the problems are diverse, one common thread in the problems reported by autistic people is the lack of agency (control over our time and environment). Our drive is to be independent, but when other people control our money, our belongings, or time, that can be the crisis.



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