Mental Health Training

Book Review: Is that Clear? Effective communication in a neurodiverse world, By Jane McNeice

Posted by on 3 Nov, 2021 in Mental Health |

Book Review: Is that Clear? Effective communication in a neurodiverse world, By Jane McNeice

According to the National Autistic Society and UK Adult Psychiatric Morbidity data, over 1 in 100 people are diagnosed as Autistic. This figure is likely to be a gross under-estimate of actual Autistic people given the number of non-diagnosed Autistic people. Females are particularly under-represented in the statistics for various reasons resulting in the thousands of ‘Lost Girls’, of which I am one. I was late diagnosed Autistic on 22nd June this year at the age of 45.

A recent online survey undertaken by renowned Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, of 750,000 people across the UK, found that 87,000 respondents met the cut-off point towards an Autism diagnosis. This suggests that the actual figure could be around 11% – approximately three children in every UK classroom and one adult in every 10!

These figures have implications for our workplaces, education, and our communities, not least because many Autistic people’s needs are going unmet, as more people do not know they are Autistic than do. Even those who are diagnosed may not feel their needs are being fully met.

Autism is a learning difference, a condition which includes the triad of impairment – social communication, social interaction, and lack of social imagination. It often comprises rigid thoughts and behaviours, challenges in social situations, communication problems, and sensory processing issues. For these and other reasons, it is essential that Allistic (non-Autistic) people can adjust their communication to ensure that it is inclusive for Autistics, rather than the other way round, which has often required Autistic people to constantly adapt themselves to fit in, and which can often contribute to poor mental health. The same considerations can be applied to anyone who does not communicate easily or understand communication in the way that the majority do. I would extend this further to say that even Autistic people, particularly those who feel the need to mask as neurotypical, might need to think about their communication if they want to support other Autistic people – I will expand below my rationale for including Autistics in my thinking here. We can all benefit from the knowledge that helps to create inclusive communication for everyone.

The great thing is that guidance has been created that can help us to communicate more inclusively. Zanne Gaynor, Kathryn Alevizos, and Joe Butler have put their minds together and created ‘Is that Clear? Effective communication in a neurodiverse world’, a thought-provoking book that provides lots of opportunities for reflection on our own communication style and how we can improve it to ensure our communication is inclusive for our communication partner.

The book addresses some key areas like the use of unnecessary words, for example: y’know…to be fair…to be honest. These phrases can be confusing, particularly for Autistic people and others who may take them literally or need to spend time processing these needless words before processing the meaningful part of the dialogue. Autistic people tend to have a more direct and honest communication style, sometimes perceived as rude for its directness. This is not the intention. As an Autistic person, I can honestly say that the last thing I ever want to do is upset anyone. Autistic people have high levels of affective empathy (the feeling part of empathy), so we feel your pain as if it is our own. We are most definitely not trying to hurt or offend.

The book also highlights how we can provide instructions in ways that is effective for those with Autism. This is valuable for managers, trainers, and others who provide instruction – all of us at some point!

The book gives some great working examples of how some sentences cause us to become confused or ‘get our wires crossed’. For example, the sentence “Sam’s a bit under the weather today”. I encourage you to think about that sentence for a second. Can you see the myriad of confusion that could be caused in someone whose brain works differently? As an Autistic person who thinks in pictures, the first thing I would do before listening to you further is picture that image, I’m already distracted. I then need to work on coming back to the present and the rest of your conversation. I’m still processing the picture.

The book addresses small talk, one of the most significant challenges I and many Autistic people experience, so it was great to see that it had been included. I make active use of scripting to conquer small talk, but I find it incredibly exhausting. So, as you might imagine networking, social gatherings and similar events can drain me. The scripting takes a lot of effort, the pre-rehearsed conversations, the extra processing, and the obsessive post-event analysis of any social faux pas drains me. That does not mean I cannot do it, I can. Like many Autistic women, I socially mask, but that too is exhausting and can leave me feeling like I have not been authentic with my communication partner. So instead, I will usually steer small talk into something more meaningful and authentic very quickly, and with this stuff I can talk for hours! A poor guy at a recent Chamber Patrons Dinner I attended was on the receiving end of such a steering. I have to say he was a most gracious communication partner. He helped me to feel at ease in an environment where I would otherwise struggle.

Another difficulty I experience as an Autistic person is phone calls, so it was great that the authors covered this area with some valuable action points for the reader, such as using text or email as an alternative. My own anxiety is palpable the moment my phone rings. My brain already starts processing, attempting to rehearse a script for which there is (as yet) no play. Autistic people need predictability – and at this point, I feel out of control and vulnerable. On some occasions, I have no alternative but to let the phone go to voicemail or check the number afterwards and call back if necessary. As someone who fastidiously adheres to rules, common in many Autistic people, getting scam calls from those pretending to be authorities such as HMRC puts me into a state of panic. My husband has had to reassure me on numerous occasions that certain calls are simply scams.

Autistic people are not the best at reading facial expressions. It is a common challenge, but nevertheless, my ability to communicate is more effective if I can see your face. I don’t read your face so much as I read your eyes. As an Autistic trainer/facilitator, I have found with the transition from all face-to-face training deliveries to 90% virtual online classrooms, I struggle with the fact I can no longer clearly see people’s eyes, especially if they wear spectacles. It does not stop me from doing my work, and hopefully doing it well, it just means I must work that bit harder and will be more tired from doing so afterwards.

The book concludes with some great tips and activities to help consolidate the learning. The book is a great read for anyone wanting to better communicate in a more inclusive way. The authors are commended for creating a book that is readable, user-friendly, with easily relatable examples throughout.

Reading the book, I learned that even as an Autistic person, I too communicate in ways that might exclude my tribe. One example is, at times, I speak much too fast. I often do this because I’m anxious, or time is against me when delivering a training course, but nevertheless, I too am not immune from communicating in a way that excludes, despite being Autistic myself. After reading the book, a personal action point is to slow down my speech, particularly when I’m delivering training. As an Autistic person who has learned to socially mask over the last 45 years, it is not a simple process of removing the mask (I have more than one mask, it’s more a case of them). My mask includes communicating like a neurotypical. By masking as a neurotypical, I cause myself greater difficulty, and so too my tribe, which is why part of my journey is also to learn to unmask as much as possible.

If you’d like to read ‘Is that Clear?’ you can order your copy here