Communication and Social Barriers in autism

Colourful pawns on a board on dots with connecting lines.
Image by Geralt from Pixabay

Each autistic person is different. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and their own barriers to effective communication and social interaction. The key is to understand the different components that make up the autism of an individual, and how they interact to cause symptoms. This is required to support the individual and to ultimately become more inclusive. The number of different ways of being autistic is effectively infinite and it is therefore impossible to provide an exhaustive list. Here are some examples of common barriers:

Processing Issues

Processing issues are very common, but not universal in autism. The ones we come across most are slow processing and delayed processing. With delayed processing, the person will process what was said later. They tend to understand a lot after a few days or longer, but little at the time. With slow processing, what is not processed at the time will never be processed. This leads to the person missing what was said. Both can process only for literal meaning at the time and misunderstandings are to be expected. A common strategy for processing more is to process only key words and phrases. This works well when the topic is familiar, but fails when the topic is not familiar. Some people with processing issues try to change the topic of conversation to something they are familiar with.

Exposure Anxiety

Exposure anxiety can be a massive barrier to communication and social interaction. While most people love talking about themselves, those with exposure anxiety find it very difficult to talk about themselves. Exposing something about themselves triggers anxiety, sometimes in the form of an anxiety backlash. Their minds may go blank when you ask them direct questions about what you can do to help them. They may change the topic of conversation and talk about something ‘safe’. Extreme forms of exposure anxiety can lead to self-harming or attacking others when the person feels put on the spot.

Thinking styles

There are many different thinking styles, all of which can cause communication issues. For example, in teams where there is a majority of top down/global thinkers, the voices of those who think detail upwards are often not heard. This is often because each group does not know how to communicate effectively with the other, leading to much frustration in those who cannot get their voices heard. Similar problems can occur between those whose thinking is logical and those who struggle to think in a logical way. Or those who like to follow processes to a solution and those who problem solve in different ways.

So whilst everyone agrees that diversity of thinking is important to achieve good problem solving and decision making, the reality is that teams do not meet their potential because of unrecognised communication issues. This applies irrespective of whether or not there is someone with autism in the team. Although communication issues are often more acute with autism.


Autistic people often feel that they have to put a lot of effort into hiding their autism, particularly in the workplace in order to fit in and keep their job. Strategies used are generally exhausting and lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and anger. What they don’t realise is that much of this effort is not required and that much simpler strategies are generally perfectly adequate. This misconception arises by not realising that people who are not autistic are not a homogenous group and that there is wide variation in how everyone perceives and thinks about the world. There is no need to put so much effort into achieving some ideal of ‘neurotypical’ that does not actually exist.

Ironically, those diagnosed with autism are treated as a homogenous group by those with no understanding of autism, while those with autism consider those who don’t have autism to be a homogenous group. As long as someone is not in a toxic working environment, there should be very little need for masking. In a toxic working environment, most people are hiding their real selves and are stressed out!

Social Chit Chat

Social chit chat is about building relationships through social-emotional reciprocity. Social chit chat is about how it makes you feel, and much less about the actual conversation. Some autistic people are able to engage in social-emotional reciprocity, but others aren’t. Those who are able to engage in social-emotional reciprocity enjoy social chit chat although their contributions may appear someone stilted. Those who cannot engage in social-emotional reciprocity do not see the point in social chit chat and find it boring. These people build relationships through shared activities and interests. Lack of innate ability to engage in social-emotional reciprocity leading to lack of interest in social chit chat should not be misinterpreted as the person not being interested in people.


The best way to communicate with autistic people is:

Don’t make assumptions Be clear about what you mean to say with no hidden meaning Always check understanding Expect honest answers and don’t take them personally

Most, if not all, of these barriers are not complex and can be easily solved through a better mutual understanding of people’s strengths, weaknesses, thinking and communication styles. This applies both to autistic and non-autistic people.

Get in touch to learn more about our Integrative Cognitive Profiling Framework and how we can help you.