Ask LH: How Can I Argue With An Autistic Friend?

Ask LH: How Can I Argue With An Autistic Friend?

Hi Lifehacker, I have a friend with autism and they have a tendency to be very opinionated: they dismiss what they don’t know as “false facts” and aren’t interested in hearing alternative interpretations. It saddens me because then they won’t be able to know that they’re wrong.

I’d like my friend to lead a better life knowing more than what they themselves believe in; I can’t ignore it if they have inaccurate knowledge about something. I know how to talk to regular people, but I fear my inexperience with autism may be part of the issue. Any advice? Thanks, Forlorn Friend

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Dear FF,

In this case, the right thing to do is simple: stop being so obsessed with being “right”. Autism brings lots of social challenges. Our knowledge of the condition is still fragmentary and how it manifests varies enormously between individuals, so it’s almost impossible to give generic advice on the topic. But your desire to help your friend “lead a better life” comes across as wanting to prove yourself more knowledgeable. Under any circumstances, that’s simply not a friendly attitude.

You say you can’t ignore it when your friend is wrong. I’d ask a simple question: why not? Being able to agree to disagree — to recognise that there are often areas where it’s simply not worth continuing the dispute — is a skill you’ll need to use to deal with almost everyone at times. Start working on that now.

There isn’t a magic bullet that will enable you to always make your point and win an argument. Accept that, and enjoy time with your friend on the activities you both find enjoyable. That’s the true mark of friendship. (As ever, we’d welcome additional input from readers in the comments.)


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  • This did not answer the question whatsoever. He asked if there is a fair way to argue with autistic people. It is, in my opinion, able-ist to believe that autistic people are incapable of any argument. Note that it is a spectrum disorder.

    • Argh!
      We are all on the spectrum, to varying degrees. Also, autism has many faces with different personalities. For example, Aspergers (who are autistic) tend to be very bright and talk articulately. They also tend to focus on certain topics in great depth – and try to know all there is about those topics.
      So what does this have to do with arguing and always being right/not listening? NOTHING – ABSOLUTELY NOTHING… Because these characteristics are not necessarily autistic (ie. My Aspergers child is a great listener and accepts when he is wrong – despite being autistic).
      I’ve dealt with many other autistic kids too. I usually find the same truck works on most of them… Listening and asking questions, treating them with respect.

      Also, with working in engineering for many years, I can tell you that many engineers have autistic traits. No surprise – they’re often socially awkward, focused on a specific area of interest, clever, etc.
      So what might work? Challenge their understanding by asking questions rather than arguing directly.
      If you keep in mind that we are all on the spectrum, it may help you see autistic people as not all that different, maybe just a little more particular … Like engineers 🙂

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

    You cannot open a closed mind (usually)
    You can never transform an incurious mind into a curious one
    Decide whether it’s worth investing the energy to try and pry open the door
    A closed mind will live in ignorance, ignorance will bring pain and misfortune to everyone in its company

    Pick your battles but sometimes you must stand your ground
    If nobody stood their ground with logic and reason, we’d still be in the dark ages
    And if nobody does it right now when it’s needed most, we will return to the dark ages or worse

    Beliefs shatter when reality barges through it
    You cannot get them to reconsider their views just by words
    It is better to directly show them that one of their views is broken
    If they cannot recognise reality for what it is, then there’s no point trying

    At least your friend isn’t holding violent beliefs (I hope)
    Imagine trying to convince a jihadi to give up jihad!

    • What fortune cookie did you crawl out of? Are you assuming an auistic’s mind is always closed? Are you assuming the non-autistic are always right? Do you assume someone who is opinionated is incapable of change? You seem to have some very close-minded opinions on close-minded people.

      • In general, I find most people (autistic or not) are close minded and you have to approach them the same and tread lightly, even intelligent academics can be incredibly stubborn and narrow minded

        >Are you assuming an auistic’s mind is always closed?
        >Are you assuming the non-autistic are always right?
        >Do you assume someone who is opinionated is incapable of change?
        Nowhere did I allude to any of that

        Just because they have a cognitive deficit (or religious bent) doesn’t mean we should concede to or tolerate their views if they are demonstrably wrong

        The older you get, the more you realise this entire world is run by the mentally ill

    • @ancientsage

      When you say “their beliefs”, what is their? Are you putting a box around all autistic people? Is there something in particular you know that you’re not explaining? I hear this style of argument all too often… Us and them eh?
      Repeat after me “we are ALL on the spectrum”

      • By ‘they’ I mean close minded people in all forms
        Take the first paragraph for instance

        >Hi Lifehacker, I have a friend with autism and they have a tendency to be very opinionated: they dismiss what they don’t know as “false facts” and aren’t interested in hearing alternative interpretations. It saddens me because then they won’t be able to know that they’re wrong.

        The problematic behavior is close mindedness, and it’s very common in non-autistic people
        You’d probably have to be more gentle with autistics, but you have to know how difficult it is to open a closed mind and consider whether you should bother going the extra mile

  • Wow. What even is this. Somebody asks for help and you effectively call him an asshole.

    Apparently the true mark of friendship is letting your ‘friends’ believe whatever the hell they want, even if its wrong.

    How about if its dangerous?

    I was in a relationship with someone. She physically abused herself. Had destructive fits of rage. She also insisted she didn’t need help. I guess I wasn’t really her friend though, because I insisted that she was wrong, that she was a danger to herself, to her son, and to other people. She dumped me over it. Turned out no one else knew what was going on with her, not even her family.

    Anyone who is happy to sit and watch a ‘friend’ delude themselves is no friend at all.

    I once knew a guy who thought speeding in his car was ok, and would talk about it to anyone who would listen. His friends and I would all tell him that it was dangerous, that he shouldn’t do it. But I guess we weren’t really his friends then, because we didn’t ‘agree to disagree’?

    Here is MY advice: You’re a good person for wanting to help your friend. Be patient, do your best. Ask him where he gets his ‘facts’ and provide similarly sourced material from other viewpoints. Be understanding. Do what you can, but remember that in the end it isn’t your responsibility, its his, regardless of his ‘condition’. You have to make a judgement call on what battles are worth it, and which aren’t. Sometimes in the end allowing a tiny ray of light to shine in is worth losing everything else.

  • Auties can come across as very opinionated and/or bossy. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not, but it just seems that way. They often think they are being helpful and get confused when you are annoyed as them for pointing out your errors. As I often tell my aspie son: “Give me a chance to get it wrong before you tell me how to do it right.”

    Vigorous debate with an autie can actually be great fun, and certainly sharpen your argumentative skills. You never know, you might find in the end that they were right and you were wrong on the topic in the first place.

    Whenever possible, use logic and documented facts. It would be fine to say, “You’ve given me something to think about, I’m gonna go a way and research that,” and get back to them the next day or the next week. It was Jim Barksdale, while running Netscape, who said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

    Another good approach is to ask them why they have that opinion. If you understand the basis of the opinion you can better see how valid it is and argue more effectively.

    For those things that are more opinion then fact based, often the best you can get to is to get them to acknowledge that is the case, agree that there can be more than one valid viewpoint, or at least agree to disagree.

    Pick you battles. Discuss the important things, don’t sweat the less important (kind of like you probably do with your neurotypical friends.)

    Social situations are a high stress environment for auties compared to us enties (neurotypicals). As with most of us, they don’t like looking foolish, and they realise there’s a whole aspect of communication going on that they have a lot of difficulty interpreting. There’s all these signals of facial expression, tone and body language that mostly passes them by, and that they don’t exhibit the same way. Things that are black and white are comforting to them, they know where they stand in a sea of all these messy social interactions.

    So also pick your timing as well as your battles. Don’t argue with them with a bunch of onlookers. Provide a safe environment to foster discussion, not a social situation where they have to fear they are going to look like an idiot yet again. Auties have all the emotions enties do, it’s just not always as visible.

    • “You never know, you might find in the end that they were right and you were wrong on the topic in the first place.”

      From personal experience I can say that, frustratingly, this is probably quite likely.

  • Pot meet kettle. An obsessive need to try and correct people is probably symptomatic of a disorder (who know? possibly autism) even if expressed as some kind of grand, generous, altruistic gesture.
    The term ‘regular people’ is offensive. As for the guy in the comments above talking about “auties”, i don’t know what’s gone wrong there. In any event, there’s some worrying signs of stigma here.
    Short of taking things back to first principles and discussing theories of what can be known and to what extent, people are going to have different conclusions. I really hope that the person in question is actually autistic and this isn’t some kind of projection (along the lines of s/he disgrees -> must have disorder).

    • lol autie is just shorter to write and say than autism
      hope you don’t lose sleep worrying more about imaginary undertones

      Can we just classify being easily offended as a psychological disorder called political correctness

    • Hi Constantly.

      With regard to “auties”: My peer group has quite a few people diagnosed with autism to varying degrees, or parents of one or more children with autism (I am such a parent.) “Autie” and “aspie” are common slang terms for people who are autistic (or asperger[1]), falling into the range of Autistic Spectrum of Disorders (ASD). “Entie” is short for neurotypical[2], which itself is common slang used by people who are ASD and those of us who love them to refer to people who are not autistic.

      There is no malice or slight intended in their usage. While any term that refers to a subset of people can be used pejoratively, I do not believe this slang is considered as such generally, and certainly not in my experience. Often parents use these terms with affection. As always, context is key.

      I hope that clears up any “signs of stigma” that you may have read into my post. People with autism are not less, just different. If it were not for people with autistic traits, we’d all still be living in caves[3]. They are essential.

      [1] The distinction between Autistic and Asperger (basically, high-functioning Autism) is getting increasingly blurred, particularly since it was removed from the DSM as a separate diagnosis last year[4].




      • okay, It just seemed a little like a casual construction of us vs an external them (a lot of people are somewhat on the spectrum, i’m told). It probably was – perhaps not unkindly and consistent with the original question i guess.
        Over the years, a number of people have suggested that I’m somewhere on the spectrum (you take one computing class). The attention has been generally negative and even when tempered with affection tends to be a little insulting (for instance, the strange frequency of conversations people attempt to have with me about main character from ‘the bridge’) and dehumanising (the whole reduction to a disorder thing).

        • Hi Constantly,

          I understand where you’re coming from here. One thing I am very deliberate about is not “accusing” people of being ASD. I only refer to people I know that have been formally diagnosed and self-identify as being on the spectrum as aspie or autie. And even then, only with people I’m friendly and comfortable with. To do otherwise is pretty rude, IMO. It also does a disservice to us all, no matter where on the spectrum you are or are not.

          As I heard it explained by Tony Attwood[1] in a seminar, there are something like 100 criteria that are measured, and you have to meet 80 of them to formally be considered autistic. Most neurotypicals average about 20. Then there are those among us that meet 30, or 40, or 70 but don’t quite cross the 80 threshold. That’s one of the reasons why it is called a spectrum. (Apparently cats meet about 50 criterion, but he may have been joking.)

          I suspect personally I am somewhere around 40 myself. And that’s not a bad thing. If it’s any consolation, I write software for a living. 🙂


    • You’ve managed to both suggest that the person asking the question has a disorder, and suggest that they might be projecting a disorder onto the subject of the question.

      Pot meet kettle indeed.

      • Point taken (i’ll punish myself thoroughly later), but hypocrisy is only a criticism of my position to the extent to which it is of the individual in question’s initial position.
        The projection point was something of an afterthought – admittedly unfortunate in hindsight (i did kindof screw myself on that one). But, it just occurred after the rest that the whole thing rested on the assumption of the autism of the person in question (stereotypes abound here). A number of the commenters took it at word that the person was autistic and was in the wrong.
        And as much as my position was circular, (and thus i am equally guilty) , you’d concur the friend was exhibiting the behaviour he stated was an irritating symptom of autism. y/n

  • There are a few things I want to clarify here (the asker here).
    Well, first thing is, it doesn’t always happen, there are cases when I’m wrong, I accept it, but when my friend is wrong, they simply don’t.
    Second is this is when I’ve already provided sufficient evidences, sources as well, yet my friend still wouldn’t accept the information. That’s the problem there! My apology if I caused any misunderstanding, but believe me, I do not want to prove that I have superior knowledge in anyway, and I know that I only know what I know and I always thrive to learn more, I would accept it when I’m proven wrong, I’d consider it if someone says I’m wrong as well.

    But like I said, the problem is when even though there is sufficient information, I even spent time on Google just to let my friend know that “X does not harm you, it benefits your health” or “Y isn’t an acceptable behavior, you can get hurt or fine with that!” or “Z is actually a harmful habit, you should try to minimize it.”
    What should I do? Should I just sit there, ignoring it and when my friend gets harmed or hurt, I’d start thinking of what to do? I just can’t.

    • Ultimately, you can’t make someone think something (whether they have a valid opinion or not). I guess the task is to frame the information in a compelling way, without being aggressive or trying to bludgeon the other person into the opinion (or be seen to). Putting anyone of the defensive is a good way to get them to defend a position more extreme than they actually hold. I tend to work at reframing things (as opposed to reaching an impasse and just repeating things in INCREASINGLY LOUD VOICES AND/OR FONTS) and approaching the problem gradually while catering to the individual personal biases (what they know as metaphors, proof of concepts etc). People don’t argue well and a lot of the difference is communication and earlier order assumptions, that often aren’t even inputs to the argument.
      Certain types of argument may represent a problem (Autism does reflect a fundamentally different experience, that is often a barrier to easy empathy, i think). If the position in question makes reference to something that an autistic person might not have any faculty for, then it may be simply impossible to make the argument you need to make. Empathy is required, but the basic kind (“putting yourself in the other person’s shoes”) is flawed when dealing with actual difference.
      You’re always going to know people who you care about who disagree with you, and short of arguing with them until the end of time, you can only do so much.
      I apologize if this seems simplistic.

    • Hi Guest.

      Thanks for expanding on the situation. It does sound like a tough one.

      I think the best you can do at that point is keep asking why. Why are you discounting this piece of evidence? Why do you think this isn’t a harmful habit for you even though this shows it appears to be for the overwhelming majority of people? That sort of thing, perhaps. That can help both of you understand the motivations behind intractable opinions.

      Also, going back to my first post, make sure it is in as safe a space as possible. (The paragraph talking about social situations being high stress, and reasons behind strong motivations not to lose face.)

      I’ve also found with my son that while I may not visibly change his mind on the spot, I’ve given him food for thought and a week, or two, or a month later history has been revised and he has always held the opinion I advocated (you have to try really hard not to be smug when that happens.) So take heart there that it may not be falling entirely on deaf ears.

      And yeah, sometimes you’re never gonna change their mind no matter what. Just like with stubborn people and strongly held opinions of people of all persuasions.

      • Hi Colemak,
        I see, I guess the only way would be to keep trying, I’ll try to do my best no matter how long it takes while avoid falling into the same pattern.
        Thank you, thank you very much

  • I turned off the drier because my mildly autistic flat-mate’s clothes were clearly dry (you can smell when dry clothes are just cooking).
    He walked in and said “but I put it on for 90 minutes.” “I know, I said, but the clothes were dry”.
    For that moment, the fact that the desired outcome had been achieved was lost on him.

    I think we all do that sometimes.

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