I have trouble with real-time interactions. By ‘real-time interactions’, I mean the kind of situation where people are responding to each other directly and immediately. That means things like: talking face-to-face, on Skype, on the phone, and (sometimes to a lesser extent) using text or instant messaging.
I have trouble with them because they are not well-suited to my communication style. I am slower to process the things other people have said, and need even more time to formulate my own responses. I prefer delayed interactions, like emails, because you are expected to make a slow and thoughtful response, rather than an immediate one.
My trouble with real-time interactions is not obvious though. If you were having a face-to-face conversation with me, you probably wouldn’t realise I have difficulty. In fact, you’d probably say that I was very articulate (people have described me that way before), and be surprised that I’m saying this.
The truth is that my mouth is a lot better at real-time interactions than I am. That means I’m good at automatically responding to communication, using words and phrases that really sound like they mean something. If someone says hello, I say hello back – I don’t think about it, it’s practically a reflex. Automatic speech like that is probably familiar to everyone to some extent.
But for me it can extend to much more seemingly-complicated speech. In an unplanned conversation, I often end up feeling like I’m just watching myself and wondering what on earth I’m talking about. I’ll find myself saying things which I don’t agree with, which don’t make sense, or which actively contradict things I’ve said before. And I say them because my brain is just mashing together elements of the context (like whatever the person before me just said) with an appropriate inflection and hoping that it sounds about right.
For whatever reason, my brain taught itself to make me look like I’m communicating whenever I am having trouble. Someone with a similar level of communication could have easily developed such that they just didn’t speak, instead of making non-communicative speech like I do. I don’t know why I do automatic speech and some people don’t, but I think there’s a lot less difference between us than there might seem.
I’d estimate that in an unplanned real-time interaction with a person I don’t know (I cope better with more familiar people), my apparent communication is about 20% accurate. That means that about 20% of the things I say are things I actually mean, and that only about 20% of things I want to get across actually do get across.
Imagine a person who could only speak about 20% as much as most NT people – that’s how effective my communication is some of the time. Don’t seem so articulate now, do I? In some ways, it’s handy to be able to ‘pass’ as NT in that kind of situation. It’s a lot easier to make it through a brief and inconsequential encounter if I can smooth things over with automatic ‘NT-speak’.
But in other ways, I sometimes imagine it would be better if I actually did only speak 20% as much in that kind of interaction. At least the things I did say would be accurate, so I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally lying or talking nonsense. It would also mean that my communication difficulties would be a lot more obvious to people, and so they would be more likely to believe me when I say I can’t cope with real-time conversations.
My usual solution is to try and make interactions as favourable to me as possible, to prevent automatic speech from kicking in at all. It’s worse if I’m in a busy or stressful situation, if there are a lot of people around, or if I’m talking about something that makes me nervous or uncomfortable.
The biggest single factor is that the interaction is unplanned or unexpected. I can handle scripted situations like buying something from a shop, because I can plan exactly what I need to say and I know what to expect. Some of my most memorable disastrous conversations have been answering unexpected phonecalls, or being abruptly taken aside for a ‘chat’ by someone. Most of these things are made worse in conversations with strangers, which are generally unavoidable.
But there are also situations when automatic speech happens with people I know, like family. Things like parties and gatherings, or difficult and uncomfortable topics can trip me into NT-mode even with people I really trust. I don’t know if it’s obvious from the outside, but it feels quite obvious from the inside. If you’ve known me at my most comfortable, then my NT-mode will be conspicuous, because I will seem much less autistic than usual! If my responses are as snappy and expressive as NTs’ usually are, it’s a good bet that I’m not in full control of what I’m saying.
The ideal way for other people to react to that would be to change the situation so it’s closer to my communication ideal, but that’s not always possible. If that fails, then my only advice to people interacting with me is: don’t take anything I say too seriously! I am very happy to be asked “Did you mean that?” if I say something that’s out of character or doesn’t make sense. It gives me a chance to actually process what I said, and a chance to take it back or correct it if I need to. I think it’s counter-intuitive for NT people, but anything I communicate in writing is always more reliably accurate than anything I communicate through speech.