There is much written on autism and social engagement. This is a question I’m often asked at training sessions: “Why does an Autistic child who can speak not initiate conversation or engage in conversation often?” There are a few answers to this question. But we must also ask ourselves “what is social engagement? ”

Firstly, words are not our first language. We communicate on different levels because of our sensory relationship with the world. We can pick up on people’s energy and sense how you are feeling so sometimes we don’t have the need to ask. We already know.

Secondly, talking can be exhausting for some of us. Many Autistics talk about having a “social hangover” after socialising. This can mean that we need rest or need time to recover. That can mean that we don’t engage in speech for a while after a social event. Going to school is a social event. After school many Autistic kids just need to spend time recovering from the exhaustion of translating their way of communicating and translating what non-autistic teachers and peers mean.

A third reason, which I think is central to our way of being, is that we find connection in sharing space with someone. Sharing space can be just as enjoyable without exchanging words. As humans we use language to connect but we also share spaces to connect.

Some of my happiest moments as a kid and teen were just sharing space with my Dad in his car when he dropped me to school. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk to each other, we just enjoyed the space we shared.

This is social engagement. A Dad holds his little girl's hand.

Since March we’ve seen people isolated because of Covid restrictions. If human connection was only about sharing words then why are people craving human contact? Because sharing space with other people is a way of connecting. We can talk to each other on the phone, we can zoom or face time. We can visit our family and talk to them through the window but it doesn’t feel the same because we are missing that sharing of space.

When my mother passed away a few years ago I spent her last week by her side. There was no speech. There was no conversation. But there was connection. We do not always need words to connect.

As humans we feel that connection when we share space with someone. As Autistics we are hyper aware of our environment and that includes the sense of connection we feel when we share space or spend time with someone. We are sensitive beings so that naturally impacts how we sense connection that others may not even be aware of.

This sense of connection seems to be ignored by professionals who do not understand it. There are lots of techniques and therapies to train Autistic children to engage with others but unfortunately they fail to recognise that we are actually already fully engaged. They just misread all the signs. Imagine what it feels like to feel perfectly engaged with someone through sharing space only to have that constantly interrupted to teach you how to engage on a much more superficial level.

We are sensory beings just like every other human. But we are highly sensitive so we can feel and sense connection where others may not. When we only focus on deficits and disorders then we miss out on our wonderful way of existing.

Next time you hear someone talking about autism and social engagement it might be good to ask them why they think social engagement is just speaking to others.

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