Saturday 24 June 2023

"I don't like your tone"


A photo of a blonde woman staring angrily over her spectacles

Decades of life as an autistic person, living amongst hundreds of other lovely autistic people, has given me some insights.  One of these is how often many autistic people get told, "I don't like your tone" or "Why are you so angry" or "There's no need to be sarcastic", or similar. But, they weren't feeling anything negative at the time.  They had no intention of saying anything negative.  Somehow, many nonautistic people hear negativity/anger/sarcasm in autistic voice tones...or in our writing...when that's not what we meant. At all.

What's going on, eh?  Is this really common?

I did an informal Twitter poll.  Here's the results.

A poll result, described in the text

We had nearly 5,000 people taking part.  I asked them if they had ever been accused of being angry/aggressive /a bully/sarcastic, because of their voice tone, but they hadn't intended it to sound that way.   The vast majority said yes.  There was quite a discussion on the post also, with many saying it happens to them very often.  Some related disastrous consequences from some people mistaking their tone or style of writing for rudeness.

The thing is, autistic people communicate in a genuinely different way.  There's plenty of research on this.  For example: allows you to search through for a lot of it.  

Ours is often a very direct, clear style.  We often use shortened sentences, or go straight into a topic.

But it's more than that.  Our actual voice tone, if using mouth-words, can be very different.  We might sound pedantic, or angry, or dismissive, etc - but these are often features of how our vocal cords and mouths are producing language.  Autistic people have genuinely difficulties with 'motor co-ordination' (in other words, getting our muscles to work well to get a result), and voice tone can be one of the things that's affected.

It's so important that people know this.

So many autistic people find themselves in situations where those around us truly believe we're angry, nasty sorts, because they are 'misreading' a genuine difference in how we sound...or maybe how we write.  Some are blamed for brain events where they may produce a seeming display of anger ('meltdowns'). It happens after e.g. extreme sensory/social overload for some autistic people.  But, people often think it's a deliberate display of nastiness.  Some also have Tourette's Syndrome, and some within that group have vocal 'tics' that involve rather lively language.  Again, that's not a deliberate choice of words.

It's vital that society reflects carefully on what it thinks it knows about us, and how it treats us.  Check what we meant, before reaching a conclusion of nastiness, please.

As research shows, autistic people are honest individuals who often have a deep caring about others and the world around us, and a deep desire to see justice and fairness.  Relax about our alleged 'tone of voice', and you're better placed to get to know us as friends and colleagues.  If you're worried about 'tone', say so.  We're usually very concerned to have accidentally given people a cause to worry, and often pleased to be able to find a solution together.

Thank you for reading.