How to or Can you argue with individuals who are NT when you have intellectual disabilities/ ASD?

I am writing this blog to address something that has been on my radar but has not truly bleeped until just recently.

I got into a discussion about debating/arguing in a community forum. A person determined that my leaning-in was aggressive unless it came with a specific facial indicator, especially when I have the facial expression that she viewed as “aggressive”. While my personal opinion about leaning-in meant only that we were about to really begin having an authentic conversation, it did not matter what my facial expression was. She stated that tone in a debate made her concerned. I stated that directing feelings based on words made me frustrated.

In a sea of individuals who are neurotypical (NT), I find it increasing more difficult to explain the differences in how I see debate/arguing or participation in debate/arguing and in the way people who are NT see it.

But is that right or wrong? Is it merely different?

I believe that requires a great deal more thought.

My challenge to you as a reader is this: I want you to consider if our understanding of how we can and should intact with one another in a community setting is only addressing the comfort of a specific set of individuals and will this damage our ability to create a culturally responsible way of dealing with all individuals in a shared space?

Let’s take a look at a few things that might be different between individuals with NT and individuals like myself:

Tracking the speaker: Tracking the speaker shows you are listening and paying attention.

As an individual with ASD, I find that I listen best when I am able to type or fiddle with an iPad when others are talking. Tracking the speaker often makes me tired and requires so much cognitive energy that I am unable to focus on the content of their side of the issue.

Additionally, tracking the speaker often makes it more difficult for me to watch my body language and tone (BLT). In understanding how individuals with NT relate to BLT, I normally try to make myself aware of what my BLT says. However, in the heat of a debate BLT becomes harder to manage. In that space, words and direct understanding of word meanings become even more important, which typically means that my gaze has become specific and my focus more dynamic since I am working through my own desire to keep the communication going (even if it’s verbally at a tone that is hard for an NT or emotionally sensitive individual). I do not mean that to say that individuals with ASD are not emotional, we are very emotional people. I mean that to say that these specific ideas slide off the plate when my focus has to move from the computer screen to the individual speaker.

Interruptions: Interruptions are rude and create tension.

As an individual with ASD, I interrupt to discuss the specific language being used or to clarify any misinterpretations that I can see forming when another person begins to discuss what I have addressed. I also see interruptions as an interesting part of the debate process – not that they are required all the times – but they are often valuable in the learning environment.

I have heard others say that it’s unfair to allow students to interrupt one another in class because it shuts others down. Some have even suggested writing down the question and coming back to it later. However, this goes back to tracking the speaker, in my mind. If I am writing, I am not tracking and therefore, I am not holding true to that other social norm. Also, it is also much more difficult to go back to the thought later on because once the person has completed the thought, they have branched into another topic – which places me in a particular situation – do I (for the sake of clarity) go back to the thought on paper or do I let the important thing slide to make it easier on the NT person who may not even realize that I see two or more different things happening in the sentence they have just stated??????

Others say they are thinking out loud and attempting to contribute more to the topic. It’s not always conscious but it is in an effort to foster continued dialogue.

Time and Length of Arguments: Making points quickly and directly.

In thinking about time and length of arguments, I have noticed that if an individual does not get to the point quickly or state the point succinctly; others around the person begin to show physical signs of frustration with the speaker. Those individuals roll their eyes, increase the intensity of their gaze, shake their heads or yawn, and or state in some way that the conversation should be ceased. I continually hear many NT individuals say that people are safe to share as it suits them, but I have not yet fully seen an NT group conform to allowing others to speak how they want, the way they want, and take the time they need to get to the point. I do not believe that these physical difficulties are NT related, as many individuals with ASD struggle with this issue. Some need to have the time to ferret out their thoughts before giving feedback. Others need to state specifically and quickly. This will require more study to understand.

Hidden emotional tags:

Often, when arguing with NT individuals, I discover that my tone of voice or the word descriptions I am using create drama and added stress. The individual I am in argument with then determines my feelings, intentions, cares, concerns, and or desires based on the words they have heard me use.

Conversations with a few ASD support groups have proven this to be a common frustration among members of the community. Many members of the community find that often NT individuals will begin classifying emotion or ascribing emotion to a strong opinion about one topic or another, which leads to further intense debating about something that is completely different than what the ASD individual had set out to say.  I find that I grow defensive when someone attributes an emotional tag to me that I did not request or feel, this in turn makes me more direct and probably more aggressive (I do not see this as a bad word) in my stance in the discussion.


As stated before, leaning-in was seen as aggressive based on facial expression. This was an interesting thought to me. Leaning in to hear people better or to show them I’m invested in what they are saying is important (especially if there is not a computer to serve as a baseline).

Obtaining Clarification: Those are not my words!

I have often heard individuals with NT state that they feel attacked when I begin discussing a situation that has occurred. This is done for someone like me in order to gain specific understanding about (1) why the situation occurred, (2) how that situation has informed my thinking, and (3) to determine IF that can or should be something that might change if those things are worked through completely. When an individual uses a statement that in doing such is attacking them, that moves right back to the idea of subscribing a feeling or thought process to my words. Thought processes and feelings that I do NOT feel or think and they are NOT things I have added to the discussion, which in turn becomes a misrepresentation of my voice. This is one I will need to speak to NT individuals to understand. I am not sure if I am too emotional to understand this or if I do not see the connection between one or the other, but it is a dilemma that I face in dealing with how an individual with ASD should debate or argue with an NT individual.

This is starkly different when I am arguing/debating with another person with ASD. In my communications with an individual with ASD, I have discovered that we can debate/argue for hours and we thrive. Passion is a stepping-stone to engaging in understanding. Often things like leaning-in are not noticed or not commented on unless the other individual does not understand or recognize the behavior. An example would be, I might lean in because I am trying to hear or I am interrupting to clarify word choice. In doing so, I might get too close. The other ASD individual might then pull back and site the behavior and then comment on what makes the behavior problematic for them. I explain my intention and we adjust. Either I move back or I continue to lean-in, but we continue with the conversation. That in a nutshell is starkly different. I have also realized that for people who truly know me – this is something we have learned to navigate for one another – even when we did not have the appropriate words for it.

Hero affirmations: You have really overcome enough to argue.

The final difficulty that I have encountered while debating/arguing with NT individuals is that I often (not always) run into the assumption that my particular perspective is blinded by that fact that I had the desire/ability to overcome my ASD and that I am somehow a different then other individual with this type of cognitive disability. First, it is impossible to overcome ASD. I might find tools – but I can’t rub this out with positive intention. Second, I am not any different than any individual who has faced any type of challenge. In stating that, to me, it indicates that you believe that my ASD is something that makes me completely crippled. I might have a disability but that does not cripple me and it does not make me unable to face a challenge (whether I fail or succeed).

Never once in a conversation with an individual with ASD do I encounter this type of statement while debating or arguing. There is never a presumption that the ASD makes me different nor is there the presumption that any person who is NT has or has not overcome a challenge, we just don’t seem to find it necessary to make that a precursor for an argument. I wonder if others with a disability of any sort can understand this point.

You are making an argument and you use your experience as a foundation to the topic. The experience is not ideal and it may not even be a huge triumph in your life. The person you are debating/arguing with then rebuts you argument with this type of comment, “since you have overcome, then you cannot speak for all disabled people” or they constantly need you to restate that you do NOT think you are speaking about all disabled people. On the reverse, that person might have just used their prior experience to address the topic at hand, without the need to qualify that they don’t speak for all NT individuals.

So where does this leave us in consideration of the original question? The truth is that I do not have an answer. In an effort to create a culturally responsive space for all people to argue/debate, it is important to understand the differences that occur in communication. What members of the ASD community often face is the subjugation of assimilation. This means that the majority of our working peers are NT so we are required to participate under NT rules. This is because we live in a majority NT world – is that fair – no! It is reality.

Cultural responsiveness should mean that we learn to understand that our way or doing something might not be the way another person does something. It also means that we open ourselves to the idea that people have the right to challenge what we think may be right or wrong. In looking at the various ways people argue for understanding – do we owe it to one another to hear others say, “That behavior means something different to me”.

These are just some thoughts I will need to evaluate in the years to come.


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