Autistic people and phones


Categories: Personal Autism

Hi! If you don’t normally follow my blog, someone probably forwarded you this link because you asked an autistic person to call you on the phone, or have some service or interaction for which your only provided contact information is a phone number.

My goal here is to explain why it is important, if you are ever going to serve autistic customers/clients/patients, to have a way for people to communicate with you in writing. This information isn’t really entirely specific to autism, but autistic people are the ones I most often see having problems with this.

I have not yet met an autistic person who likes phone calls. Ever. I have met only a handful of autistic people who are able to make phone calls as a matter of course. The spread of what I’ve seen is that about half are basically incapable of making phone calls, about a quarter can only make phone calls on good days, and maybe 5% if that can make phone calls without it being stressful. I’m on the edge of that 5%; I can chat with close friends and it’s not a big deal, but even weekly conference calls with familiar coworkers that I’ve had every week for four years straight are a source of stress for me. Give me two or three consecutive calls, and I am done for the day with anything that requires focus or effort.

And yet. When I email people, they email back with a phone number for me to call. Heck, one time when I contacted a local autism group, they gave me the phone number of the third party which handles their insurance verification. (I asked whether there was a way to do this without a phone call, and they offered to handle that for me, though.)

So it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand: Phone calls are not more convenient or congenial for everyone. The reason I emailed you to ask a question, rather than calling you, is that I prefer email. Please don’t respond to my email with an invitation to use the phone; if I’d wanted to use the phone, I would have. Please assume that I chose my medium of communication with consideration and intent, and respect my preference. Do this whether or not you know me to be autistic; there are lots of other reasons for which people might strongly prefer not to use the phone.

If you have some reason for which you must not use email (such as HIPAA), please explain that reason explicitly. That’s the difference between you being a jerk who’s ignoring my preferences and being a person who is restricted by regulatory agencies or governments. I can understand the existence of laws, but if I don’t know about the law, your behavior will seem arbitrary and rude.

Also, please let me know whether it’s possible to have a friend speak to you on my behalf. I might have friends who are more comfortable with phones.

Comments [archived]

From: Catsidhe
Date: 2012-03-14 16:15:51 -0500

When I started looking for help with getting a diagnosis, I ended up at the local Autism Society. After a long link-chasey through the website, I got dumped at a Contact Us page, which basically just had a couple of email addresses. I picked one and asked for help finding a doctor or clinic who could get me diagnosed, and what would be involved.

What I got was an 8 page PDF with names and phone numbers, and occasional email addresses. The notes only served to exclude me (only women, only children, only school visits, etc.) and it was just a big intimidating wall.

I tried emailing a few of them, and got no reply. Cold-emailing a stranger is almost as stressful as phoning them (not quite, but almost). Eventually a friend put me onto a particular clinic.

That clinic was nearby. Its website is clearly laid out and low on distraction. It gives the data I was seeking, and provided an explicit webform for contacting them (with a reply email to let me know they got the form). It’s almost like that clinic knew how to deal with Autists and Aspies.

I later found that that clinic had been on the PDF all the time, but there was no way I was going to find them that way.

So: to all Autism Societies: When someone is coming to you for help, giving them a long list of phone numbers and a hearty “good luck” is another way of telling them to go to hell in the most sadistic and ironic way possible.

From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2012-03-15 13:40:06 -0500

For people who aren’t autistic, there’s a class of problems where email is extremely inefficient. Those are problems which require back-and-forth conversation to solve. Tech support, for example. Or scheduling a meeting. What takes a few minutes on the phone can take several times as long over email, and is spread out over the course of several hours or days. When the email arrives, one must remember the context of the conversation, and after responding it can take several minutes to get back to the previous task.

Perhaps instant messaging is a good compromise.

I should add that many introverted people who aren’t autistic hate to call someone other than a close friend on the phone. My wife and I often avoid calling people; though it’s gotten easier over the years.

From: seebs
Date: 2012-03-15 15:15:13 -0500

There are certainly cases where things are inefficient through slower media, although often this is a side-effect of not thinking things out enough up front — admittedly, I suspect this is something that the autistics may tend to regard as much more natural to do. I tend to write much longer and more structured emails than many of the people I know, because I’m trying to fill in enough that there’s less need for back-and-forth.

But yes, sometimes it’s inefficient. That just highlights the fact that if someone who obviously knows you have a web site which lists your phone number chooses not to call, they probably have some reason for not calling…

And yes, IMs are delightful. My problem isn’t immediacy, it’s that translating to and from noises is hard.

From: Catsidhe
Date: 2012-03-15 19:43:21 -0500

Those methods are inefficient for Autists as well. If I’m going to diagnose someone’s computer fault, then there is no better way of doing it than either calling them or turning up at their desk. Doing it by email can be a deeply unsatisfying way of negotiating the problem and a solution.

And yet, … Just because I can, in theory, call someone (that is, that I have the physical capability); just because it has been required of me in my everyday job to call people, that doesn’t make it any easier. It can even make it harder to fight my instincts and dial the number.

My reaction to the thought of making a phone call is very similar to the thought of putting my hand into a box full of spiders. It’s never something I do without a struggle, and there are times when I am simply unable to force myself to do it at all. It’s not just calling some stranger to fix their PEBCAK error, I get the same reaction from even the thought of calling my mother, or grandmother.

And that’s before taking into account that my ability to make out what the person on the other end is saying drifts in and out.

Instant messaging works as a good compromise… when the other person has an IM client, and knows what to do with it. That applies to some friends, but not my family, and certainly not the random guy on the other end of this Remedy ticket.

That’s the thing: we know that it would be more efficient and effective to just pick up the damn phone. That doesn’t mean we necessarily have the ability to actually do that. You might as well point out to a paraplegic that it’s more efficient to stand up to reach high shelves. They know that, and that knowledge does them no good whatsoever.

From: Sparrow Rose Jones
Date: 2013-03-06 04:30:30 -0600

I’m one of those who can handle the telephone if I have scripts and the person on the other end doesn’t mess me up by saying something that wasn’t in my script. And even if they don’t mess me up, it’s difficult and stressful.

I’ve currently got my phone plugged in because we (a group of Autistics) sent out a press release and I was the only one able to handle the phone at all. Yesterday, I had just gotten to sleep (hypernychthemeral syndrome) when the phone rang with a reporter on the other end. We spoke for about ten minutes . . . and I couldn’t go back to sleep for 7 hours.

But I’m rambling. The reason I commented is to mention a very ludicrous example of the must-use-telephone rule.

I was having difficulties with the automated check-out at my grocery. I found the support e-mail and sent a message, explaining my problem and mentioning that I choose to use the automated check-out due to a COMMUNICATION DISABILITY (emphasis added just now.)

I got an email response. It had a phone number and no other way was offered to discuss my difficulty. That’s just . . . ridiculous.

Date: 2014-01-19 14:19:08 -0600

Hi there !

I wonder if I could get an advice. My daughter Annie is autistic ,we chat on the phone but a I have notice that it is difficult for her to concentrate so she is having a chat with me and also can hear her talking to herself and going through a events of the day. Would you think that an e-mail would be easier or not sure if she would like me not talking to her as we do every Sunday. Thank you Anna ( London )

From: Anemone
Date: 2014-08-11 06:47:03 -0500

This is great, but I look at the word “prefer” and know, from my own experience, that some people will say, yes, it’s a preference, but not an actual need, so we should just pull up our socks and use the phone instead.

I have gotten progressively more tired using the phone and have basically given up – I don’t have a cell or a home phone, and use a pay phone in emergencies. And the next time I have a doctor and can get medical documentation I may actually file a human rights complaint because of how hard it is to function when I have such a hard time using a phone and so many businesses and services require one. I call it “phone supremacy”.