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The Struggle of Miscommunication: How it Fuels Anxiety in Autistic Individuals

By Emma Hinze, Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett

Miscommunication can be a daily challenge for many of us, but for autistic individuals, it often takes on a whole new level of complexity. In a recent study by Robertson and colleagues (2018), participants shared their experiences, shedding light on how miscommunication exacerbates anxiety in this population.

One participant, Andrew, summed it up perfectly: “[Miscommunication] feeds into the anxiety… I know I don’t understand people, but they think they understand me, and they don’t.” This statement encapsulates the frustration and anxiety that can arise when communication doesn’t go as planned.

The Two-Way Street of Miscommunication

Miscommunication isn’t a one-sided issue; it’s a two-way street. Autistic individuals may struggle to convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that others can understand. At the same time, they may have difficulty comprehending the intentions and messages of others due to a lack of clarity. This double-edged sword of miscommunication can lead to a perpetual cycle of anxiety.

Expressing Themselves: Autistic individuals often find it challenging to express themselves in a way that non-autistic individuals easily grasp. The nuances of nonverbal communication, sarcasm, or implied meanings can be lost on them. This can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy, intensifying their anxiety.

Understanding Others: On the flip side, some autistic individuals experience difficulty in interpreting the intentions and emotions of others. Subtle cues that non-autistic individuals take for granted may go unnoticed by autistic individuals. This misinterpretation can lead to misunderstandings and heightened anxiety.

A Vicious Cycle: When miscommunication occurs, it can create a vicious cycle. Autistic individuals may become anxious about potential misunderstandings or conflicts, which, ironically, can further hinder their ability to communicate effectively. This cycle can have a profound impact on their daily lives and relationships.

The Need for Understanding and Patience

Understanding the challenges of miscommunication is crucial for fostering empathy and support for autistic individuals. Here are a few key takeaways:

  1. Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication. Autistic individuals may benefit from a safe space to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.
  2. Clarify Intentions: Non-autistic individuals can play a pivotal role by being patient and clarifying their intentions when miscommunication arises. This can help break the cycle of anxiety.
  3. Social Skills Training: Many autistic individuals find social skills training beneficial. These programs can provide tools and strategies for navigating social interactions. However, it’s crucial to emphasise that effective social skills training should not be a one-sided endeavour; it’s a two-way street.
  4. Promote Acceptance: Acceptance and understanding can go a long way in reducing anxiety. Autistic individuals often find comfort in environments where they are accepted for who they are.
  5. Build Empathy: Understanding the challenges faced by autistic individuals can foster empathy among non-autistic individuals. This empathy, in turn, leads to more patient and compassionate interactions.

Miscommunication is a shared experience, but it can have unique challenges for autistic individuals. By recognising the two-way nature of this issue and promoting empathy and support, we can help reduce the anxiety that often accompanies miscommunication in this population.

Where to from Here?

Michelle and Tony created a full-day online course, Anxiety and Autism, within which they draw on the latest research on the association of autism with anxiety, as well as their over 80 combined years of clinical experience in the area. They discuss the neurological underpinning of anxiety and autism and how life experiences can alter neural circuitry to lead to both acute and chronic experiences of anxiety. This understanding leads to how to support and accommodate anxious autistic individuals and how to modify conventional treatments for anxiety for an autistic person. The course was designed for parents, carers, professionals and autistic adults and covers anxiety across the lifespan.

Anxiety and Autism


Robertson, A. E., Stanfield, A. C., Watt, J., Barry, F., Day, M., Cormack, M., & Melville, C. (2018). The experience and impact of anxiety in autistic adults: a thematic analysis. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 46, 8–18.