Problems with communication are universal among autistic people, but they can be expressed in very different ways. One thing that seems to be quite common is a temporary inability to speak – sometimes called selective mutism or being nonverbal. I don’t think this has ever happened to me in the simplest sense. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I now realise it sometimes does happen, but gets expressed in more subtle ways.
Sometimes I have trouble putting a certain thought into words. Probably as a result of my not-words-or-pictures thinking style. This is most likely to happen when I’m trying to talk about an emotion or something related, and when I’m trying to think as I go along (rather than explain something I’ve been thinking about before).
My response to this depends on a lot of different factors. I might be able to push through it, find a way to express myself with disjointed words and diagrams. I might just give up trying, and tell the other person that I can’t work out how to say it. Often I can ruminate on something for a while and eventually be able to write down the words, because there’s much less pressure than speaking.
This is a major aspect of shutdown – my way of recovering from an overloading experience. In this case, it isn’t finding the words themselves, it’s all the other aspects of conversation. The social stuff like body language and tone and thinking about the other person and figuring out the meaning of ambiguous questions… When I’m already low on energy it becomes very difficult and very unappealing for me to waste the effort on non-essential interactions.
Most of the time when I feel like this, I’ll just isolate myself while I’m shutting down so that I can recover. But if I’m unable to do that and people try to interact with me anyway, then I will be very withdrawn. I’ll probably be slow to react, and respond to questions very briefly. I’ll definitely make no effort to continue the conversation, and end up seeming irritable if people don’t leave me alone.
This is probably the least noticeable form of being ‘nonverbal’, but also probably the most significant to me. When I’m in a social situation, a lot of my behaviour becomes automatic. I suppress natural behaviour and change the way I act without even consciously realising it. The extent of this varies depending on the situation. If I’m with just my close family, then I act pretty naturally and consciously. If I’m in a big party full of people I don’t know, I’m barely controlling my actions.
This also includes speech. I say things quickly and automatically, and without actually meaning anything. I often have strange experiences where I hear myself answering a question and inside I’m thinking “that thing I just said is the exact opposite of my real opinion”. I also find myself trying to backtrack when someone is bothered by what I just said, but it’s very hard to explain! Most people don’t really understand that my mouth can just say words and they sound like they mean something but it has nothing to do with what my brain is really thinking about.
Internal – External
When I think about those last two types, I’m realising they are pretty much the same response internally. The only difference is what external context I’m in. They are both caused by being socially overloaded and make it hard for me to spend energy on processing social speech. If I can get myself into a fairly safe situation, I can voluntarily shutdown and stop trying to do the speech thing.
But if I’m in a social situation when I’m already low on energy, then I get stuck in “NT-passing-mode”. I still don’t have the energy to properly work out what to say or how to say it. But some part of my brain has this instinctive skill (probably learnt to try and stop myself seeming ‘rude’ in social situations) of making it look like I’m socialising normally. It only becomes obvious if you look very closely – you would realise I’m saying things I don’t mean or that don’t quite make sense. It’s like a robot that can put together words and phrases so that they sound plausible, as long as you don’t try to think too carefully about what they actually mean.