Unresponsiveness is considered to be a sign of autism. Parents are told it’s a “red flag” if a 1-year-old baby doesn’t respond to their name. Researchers have even looked at differences in neural pathways that could cause autistic children to pay less attention to speech.
One thing that strikes me is that unresponsiveness is defined by the non-autistic observer’s perception, not by what it actually feels like to the autistic person.
I can’t speak for every autistic person under the sun, because we’re all unique. But I can share some reasons why I might seem “unresponsive” to other people. And perhaps, if you have an autistic loved one who seems unresponsive at times, this guide can help you relate a little better and keep in mind that it’s probably not as bad as you might think.
So now I’ll share some reasons why other people might perceive me as unresponsive.
- Because I’m lost in thought.
- Because I’m overwhelmed.
- Because I didn’t realize you wanted a response.
Again, these aren’t all the potential reasons, but they’re the major ones I can think of that might affect how people perceive me.
I’m lost in thought.
Autistic hyperfocus can be a powerful thing. It’s possible to “zone out” and stare into space while daydreaming, and to become so hyperfocused that the rest of the world fades away.
I had an in-person friend during my first year of college, and she said she wanted to drive us to the beach. We made arrangements and she said she would text me in the morning.
So I got up in the morning, finished packing my bag, put my cell phone on my desk, and opened up a textbook to work on my reading while I waited for her to call or text.
But I never heard a ringtone.
Imagine my surprise when I later discovered that she had later tried to reach me, more than once!
(We did still get to go to the beach.)
I briefly had an incredibly smart occupational therapist who told me why this happened. When I’m in hyperfocus, she said, my hearing shuts off. I can’t hear a thing. So I get to switch between hearing too much and hearing nothing at all.
(Oh, how I wish I could turn it on and off at a whim. I’d be hitting that off button all the time.)
I don’t fully understand it, because that conversation was 5 years ago and Google refused to help me when I tried to look it up. But apparently it’s a sensory processing disorder thing.
Nowadays, when my parents see me typing on my laptop, they tend to make sure that I’ve looked up to see them before they start talking. This way, they know I’m aware of their presence and that I can hear them.
If you love an autistic person, here is how to approach them in hyperfocus:
- Say their name.
- Wait for them to look up. They may not make eye contact, but a glance in your direction is enough confirmation that they’re aware of you.
- Gently wave a hand in their field of vision if they still don’t notice. (Though in some cases of ADHD, you might have to be more assertive.)
- Once they’ve looked at you, start talking normally.
- Ask “Can you repeat back what I told you?” if you aren’t sure they caught everything. Then you can check for gaps in their knowledge.
If you’re autistic and you want to improve communication with loved ones:
- Say “Sometimes I get so focused that I don’t realize people are talking to me. It helps if you say my name and wait for me to look up. Then you can be sure I can hear you. Wave a hand near my face if I’m really oblivious.”
- If they approach you while you’re hyperfocusing and you don’t immediately notice, say “Sorry, I was so focused that I didn’t notice you right away. Could you repeat that?”
Of course, hyperfocus isn’t the only reason that I (or other autistics) might appear unresponsive.
Many autistic people have sensory differences. In my case, most of my senses are hyper-sensitive. Ordinary situations can be overwhelming or even painful to me.
When my mom grabs me and puts her arm around me when I’m eating, my first response is to freeze.
When my mom puts her face up close to me with her noisy chewing mouth full of swishing spit and her hot breath carrying the overpowering odor of tea in my face, I turn my face away.
Non-autistic people may interpret this as inattention or personal rejection, but I’m just trying to manage sensory input. I want to listen to you, not swim in an overpowering miasma of sounds and details and smells.
Here there be dragons, enormous beings that shake the earth with each step, full of rough and sharp textures, their breath capable of horrendous things, with hoards that rattle and shake loudly enough to make you scream in fear. And these dragons are called humans.
If you lived in a den of dragons, you might turn or hide away too sometimes.
So, yeah. Personal space, noise management, and calm environments—autistics need these. An “unresponsive” autistic person may simply be too overwhelmed to interact.
I didn’t realize you wanted me to respond.
Non-autistics confuse me. Our brains just aren’t quite compatible. I have a hard time figuring out what’s going on with the non-autistics around me.
This translates to behavior like:
- Guessing what phrases will make people happy and saying those words (and even researching what phrases work best)
- Over- or under-explaining things because I don’t know how much explanation is needed
- Not knowing what other people are thinking or what they want
- Not knowing if other people can tell what I’m thinking
So, yeah, I make missteps. And one potential misstep is “thinking it’s obvious that I heard them, when they aren’t sure.”
It’s pretty easy for my parents to deal with this, seeing as I’m 23 and much more intellectually sophisticated than your average 5-year-old. They can ask questions like “Did you hear me?” “Did you understand?” or “Is that a yes?” And when they ask, I know that this means I need to give a direct response in order to clarify.
Younger kids might need more explicit instructions, like “Please tell me yes or no” or “Please repeat back what I said so I know that you understood everything.” If speech is hard, they could be prompted to do thumbs up/thumbs down or nod/shake the head.
It’s something that, I would venture to guess, becomes less and less of a confusion problem with age and as two people get to know and understand each other better.
Other thoughts on “unresponsiveness”
I can tell you how my brain works, but I can’t speak for others. There may be reasons not listed here regarding why someone doesn’t visibly respond.
- Maybe they are hard of hearing or visually impaired.
- Maybe their response is different than what a non-autistic person expects. (For example, it may be a completely nonverbal response, and it may not come with eye contact.)
- Maybe their communication gets ignored by adults because it’s seen as inconvenient.
I think that, in the case of “unresponsiveness,” the best thing for a loved one to do is to try to empathize with the autistic person. Try to imagine the world through their perspective. Look for clues and attempts at communication. If all else fails, bring an autistic adult to your house and ask for their opinion.
Even when people perceive me as “unresponsive,” I’m still here. I just might need a little help to connect.