Alex Lowery speaks about autism

Why are social rules complicated for a person with autism?

Written on 12th Oct 2015 by Alex Lowery

It is well known that the world can be a very complicated place for a person with autism. It can be especially complicated when it comes to picking up social cues, body language, tone of voice and general social rules that neurotypicals take for granted. In this article, I am going to be focusing on the social rules, and why they are so complicated for a person with autism.


I am autistic, and like many other people with autism, I frequently find that I have a hard time understanding social rules. They are just extremely complicated and hard to follow. People seem to speak in this code language where they have to say certain things and are not allowed to say other things.

I feel the reason why those of us with autism find social rules complicated is because we see things very black and white. We have a very literal take on the world, which can often mean that we see things in a very logical and ordered way, and for this reason social rules are extremely hard for autistic people to understand. A lot of people have this code language that they use which isn’t very black and white at all. People will tend to say one thing, but really mean another. If you meet a friend somewhere and they ask, ‘would you like me to buy you a drink?’ What they likely mean is they want to sit with you and then they’ll buy themselves a drink and you will buy yourself your own drink. Somebody may tell you can call round to their house anytime you like when they don’t really want you to ever call round their house. They just say that because (I guess) it’s the done thing to say. Somebody might ask you a question, but only accept one answer. For  example, they might be wearing a hat, ask you what you think of the hat and if you say you don’t like it, they’ll get offended, so are unwilling to accept the truth as the answer. Basically…. Neurotypicals seem to have this code were they say a certain thing which really has a completely different meaning from what they’re actually saying, and all the fellow neurotypicals all understand this code.

Neurotypicals also seem to have a certain way of telling jokes, using sarcasm and irony as well as using everyday expressions. When I try to be sarcastic, or joke or even use an expression, people sometimes take me literally, and say it doesn’t sound natural coming from me. I know of a man who’s always telling jokes about people getting old, and he manages to make everyone laugh when he does it because he is so funny. Whenever I’ve tried to tell jokes about people getting old,  it seems to come out wrong. The truth is that context and tone of voice in social situations isn’t black and white either. It’s extremely complicated. Neurotypicals just seem to be able to pick up social cues from a young age. It’s not something they even need to be taught in school. They just seem to grow up picking it up. People with autism think very literally and black and white, so to them social rules have to be learned, and it’s not easy to learn them. I’ve learned set social rules, but I still make mistakes socially, because social rules are ever so complicated and different rules can apply and vary in different situations.

People with autism also tend to only focus on one thing and miss the big picture so this can also be a reason why social rules are so complicated because it tends not to be the prime focus of the autistic mind. However, I do think the main reason why social rules are complicated is because they’re not black and white and people with autism do think very black and white.

Even for autistic people who have studied facial expressions so that they know what bored or sad looks like can still really struggle. They may develop social anxiety because they feel overloaded trying to remember all the different expressions. They may become so focussed on looking for signs of boredom that they begin to think people always find them boring. They may feel exhausted after a small amount of interaction because this is so exhausting and takes up a lot of thinking. If the person on the spectrum also has sensory issues as well it may lead to feeling sick and panicky.

Socialising can be stressful in such a complicated world.

Socialising can be stressful in such a complicated world.



I hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave me comments.

2 thoughts on “Why are social rules complicated for a person with autism?

  1. Steph says:

    Hi Alex , I think this is a really good artical. It makes me think that perhaps if neurotypical people were as honest as those with autisim, the world would be a simpler place. It made me realise what a complicated social “game ” we play. Your example of if some one asks you if you like their hat, if you don’t and you give an honest reply they become offended……. Surely the person shouldn’t ask that question if they are not confident enough to hear a persons honest opinion?
    Likewise call round anytime , does not literally mean call round anytime , why aren’t we more specific?

    I look after a young boy who has aspergers , we were looking through some old photos and there was one from when he was about 4 at pre school, he was grimacing at the camera , I commented that he didn’t look very happy in the picture , to which he replied I was smiling. I followed his reply with oh ok usually you give a big smile when you have your photo taken, to which he said when this photo was taken no one had taught me how to smile . It really brought home to me the social cues that we take for granted.

    I really enjoy your posts on Facebook so keep on posting them

  2. Sharon says:

    For too long I did want to be neurotypical. From my perceived view,
    everything came easy to them, or seemed to. Now? I think: “Why would I want to be the kind of person who follows the in-crowd, mocks anyone who is different and takes everything for granted?” Well, they do (or seem to). Show me someone who has had it
    easy all their lives and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t learned much. These types believe they’re invincible,
    that nothing bad will ever happen to them. Are they in for disappointment.
    Words and actions inevitably have consequences. I don’t see autism as a gift, but it’s not the travesty some assume it to be. For me it’s something put there to test me, something I have learned to live with. No other choice, really. This attitude seems to have made me tough out of necessity. Tough is a word one doctor used about me.
    Maybe so, but again, what other choice is there? I have to be, to survive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Organisations Alex has worked with

  • Autism Cymru
  • Chester University
  • Glyndwr University
  • National Autistic Society
  • St John's Ambulance
  • Welsh Government

Stay updated!

Enter your details below to sign up to Alex's email newsletter

© 2019 Alex Lowery - All rights reserved

Website by Cloud 10