Design a site like this with
Get started

Autism and Phone Calls

I’ve just had a quick conversation on Instagram with @actuallyautisticalien about phone calls, and I thought I’d jot down thoughts I’ve had for a while about this (I did write something similar a couple of years ago but have since lost the text).

I remember shortly after I started work in the 1990s going over to a colleague’s desk to ask about something. After a while he said “I don’t know. But Trevor might – let’s give him a call!”. So he picked up his phone, dialled the number, and within seconds was talking to Trevor about this thing.


No preparation, no pacing around, no making notes about the topic, no trips to the office toilet. He just called.

And, as far as I know, Trevor simply picked the phone up and said “Hello?” to an unknown caller. And he did so within the first couple of rings. This was 1993 or thereabouts and there were no “caller display” phones in our office and we weren’t all using mobiles then. So all Trevor knew, from the ringing pattern, was that it was an internal call.

I stood by my colleague’s desk frankly astonished at how simple it had been for him to make and complete the call.

Why is it so hard?

If I need to make a phone call, it’s very different. I need to prepare. I can’t bear the thought of being lost for words on the phone. I *have* learned in the decades since then that using humour can diffuse that tension. Saying “Well, I’m sure I was going to ask something but I’ve now forgotten what it was!” in a humorous way can give a feeling that you are both human and that’s OK. But it doesn’t always work, especially on a work call.

One of the hardest things for me is the unsettling and unwelcome sense of intimacy caused by having a stranger’s voice speaking into your ear from only a few centimetres away – a position ordinarily reserved for intimate loving relationships (and perhaps even then, not something that you are comfortable with).

Building on that, there’s another sense of intimacy that feels more constraining because you’re *trapped* in this exchange with another person. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it can be like a non-sexual version of the level of one-on-one intimacy in a sexual encounter. Nobody is going anywhere fast without getting dressed and saying goodbyes first! Stuck. Just you and them. Nobody else around to help the conversation along if there is awkwardness.

For me, sometimes my (low) sense of self esteem couldn’t square away this overwhelming intimacy with, say, a senior director at work.

Don’t call me!

And then, the horrors of somebody else calling me! If my phone rings, I instantly have injected into my life, without my consent, a new level of uncertainty. Even if it’s a modern mobile with caller display so I know who’s calling, I still don’t know what they want from me, what they want to tell me, what plans might need to be created or changed or cancelled, and whether it’s about getting a pineapple from the shop on the way out or to tell me that somebody close has had something terrible and life changing happen to them.

How do people cope with that level of uncertainty and open ended-ness, pick up their phone and say “Hiya!” in a breezy way that might well turn out to be inappropriate to the news they are about to receive?

Reasonable Adjustments

Receiving unexpected and unplanned phone calls was something I managed to get a “Reasonable Adjustment” for at work, i.e. that I was not to receive them. For reasons, see above.

But for the vast majority of people, as far as I know, it’s no big deal. And empathy for people for whom it, actually, is a big deal can be in short supply.

Whilst finishing up with work-related context, if you’re an employer or an employee who doesn’t mind phone calls, please consider the above if someone says that they are reluctant to make and receive voice calls. And, unless you want to be deliberately evil, please don’t do the “We need to talk, I’ll call you later” thing unless you want to torture someone with an afternoon of total cognitive paralysis. If that needs explaining, the uncertainty is then introduced and can’t be resolved until later, and we go into “waiting mode” and can’t do anything else until it is.

Why is the title *autism* and phone calls?

I should perhaps have titled this post “*My* autism and phone calls” because it is a personal perspective and not the result of some scientific research. However, I think it’s pretty common for autistic people to feel what I feel about phone calls.

Why though? Why is phone avoidance a thing in autism?

I think it is primarily down to how autistic people feel stress when there is uncertainty. It’s certainly a huge feature in my life and something that has driven me to self medication and a preference for routine.

But there is undoubtedly stuff around the way that human beings typically communicate and respect each other, an absence of body language and this disembodied voice in your ear, and a feeling that the level of intimacy isn’t appropriate to your social relationship.

Also, I know that I am most productive when “on task” and focussed, and that the state of focus takes a little while to establish. A phone call will break that focus and a dozen thoughts that I was weaving into a narrative or computer code will fall at my feet, broken and lost. So interruptions for me are disastrous for productivity and I can’t imagine how organisations that consist of people constantly interrupting each other get *anything* done! And I don’t want to be the source of any of that.


One Reply to “Autism and Phone Calls”

  1. I’ve ways struggled with phone calls, so it really shows how desperate I was to leave my previous job that I got a job in a call centre a few years ago. It was 1st line technical support, and I actually surprised myself by how well I handled it. I suspect this was because people were calling with a technical problem and all I had to do was solve it for them; there was a predetermined structure to the calls.

    I’m not in that role any more, and I do still get calls but nowhere near as many. It really throws me when a customer asks me a question that I not expecting or I’m not prepared for.

    Another thing that throws me is when I have a pre-planned call and the customer doesn’t answer and I have to leave a message. I usually have to hang up, then thing about my message, then call back to leave it. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: