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‘Anything but the phone!’: Communication mode preferences in the autism community

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

There was a lengthy thread on twitter recently about autistic-specific dislike of phones. One of the replies was researcher Felicity Sedgewick who provided a link to this (free to read) paper: ‘Anything but the phone!’: Communication mode preferences in the autism community'

The research explores different communication methods - face-to-face, phone call, letter, email, text message and online instant messaging, involved in different scenarios - accessing services, employment, education, research, family, friends and when seeking customer services, and rated each one.

"It is estimated that 70%–80% of autistic people experience mental health difficulties (Lever & Geurts, 2016), with anxiety being experienced by most autistic people (Croen et al., 2015). Anxiety is known to influence communication preferences for non-autistic people, with higher levels being associated with a preference to use text messages as opposed to phone calls (Reid & Reid, 2007). It therefore seems likely the levels of anxiety an autistic person experiences may further influence their communication mode preferences and may exacerbate any avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations."

"There is a clear message that mode of communication can be either enabling or disabling for autistic people. A reliance on phone calls can create barriers to access, yet the option to adopt written forms of communication can improve accessibility. For known connections, the preference for face-to-face communication is dependent upon how close and accepting the relationship is."

"Conclusion: Overall, our data highlighted the challenges around communicating with services and organisations when these rely on phone call–based methods. There is a clear preference for written communication in many scenarios, as this provides structure, increases thinking time and reduces both sensory issues and anxiety. This work also highlights the ways in which autistic people and their networks adapt to support them, and that it is possible for autistic people to interact successfully and positively when the situation supports them to do so."

I found the research is quite interesting and I recommend taking a look. There are certainly implications for our group as people will have different preferences and some may wish to participate in only the aspects of the group that suit their personal preferences and not get too far out of their comfort zones.

There may be people who will join just to discuss issues in the forum or chat with other members online but don't necessarily wish to meet in person. And as noted, if individuals would like to get together in person or attend activities but don't wish to interact online, they can email with their interests and I will maintain a mailing list and notify them when an appropriate meeting or event is scheduled.

I expect there are some autistic people who do use the phone as their communication method of choice so I'm hoping there will be another member of the group who won't mind being responsible for making and receiving phone calls for us.

For me, I would say my experience is in line with the research. I don't like to use the phone. If I can't avoid it, I prepare by writing down everything I'm going to say and trying to imagine what the responses will be. I also make notes while I'm on the call as I usually get so anxious I have no idea what was said. And when the call doesn't go as I expected, I'm really lost and overwhelmed and liable to agree with anything just to get off the phone, executive function problems I guess.

Meeting people in person is another experience I find stressful, especially if I don't know the people well. For example, I don't have my own doctor, so if I go to a clinic I end up seeing different doctors. I usually spend a lot of time prior to the appointment writing down everything I want the doctor to know. Then if the doctor is not interested in that and just wants me to answer his questions, I have a hard time explaining my issue. But as was highlighted in the research, when communicating with someone close to me I would most like to be in person.

Additionally, I have social anxiety so for me communicating with strangers by any method is not in my comfort zone...sometimes I wish people could just read my mind although that probably wouldn't be socially correct :) But I try to find and use the communication methods that cause the least stress and I hope everyone will be able to find a way to connect that they don't find too stressful as well.

Anyway, as above, I highly recommend you take a look at the research. Please add your comments below.

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