Category Archives: Language

Real-time interactions

Real-time

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.

Automatic speech

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.

Bad odds

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.

Solutions

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.

Precise language

When I had my formal assessment, the report said I used very precise language. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I’m still not totally sure  understand it. But I had a small realisation recently when I was trying to communicate with someone.

I emailed my distance-learning tutor with a question about something I was working on. When I got a reply, he seemed to be answering a completely different question to the one I asked! By default,  I assumed that was my problem and my fault. But when I talked to my friend, they suggested it might be the opposite.

Rather than a sign that I’m bad at communicating with people, it could be a sign that my communication is more precise. So much so, that other people don’t respond with the precision I expect. It seemed like my tutor had given the email a cursory glance and just replied to the question he assumed I was asking. Which would probably work with a neurotypical student – someone who used vague enough language that the message could be picked up from a cursory glance!

I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, here. I could assume that every student that ever emails him gets a disappointing response to the wrong questions. But that seems unlikely somehow – surely he would have noticed if that was the case. So the next logical conclusion is that something is different in the communication with me, compared to with other students.

Which is where the precise language part comes in. I guess I learnt to communicate while learning that other people didn’t seem to pick up on my own hidden meanings – because I was surrounded by NTs who had their own unspoken language and didn’t speak mine. So, I had to learn to make my words completely unambiguous, to prevent that from happening.

This might be part of the reason I’m so good at explaining things to other people. I’m an expert at making words express exactly what I want them to. But it also means I get frustrated when other people can’t do the same in return. I have had countless infuriating text-message conversations with friends, where I have had to resort to listing my points with  numbers, and demanding they respond to them each individually! I’m sure it’s equally irritating for them, but I don’t know how else to make the conversation work. Clearly it’s not possible for me to communicate in NT language (I have certainly tried). So I just have to hope that other people will try to ‘meet me part way’ and do a bit of the translating themselves.

Choices

Recently I’ve been thinking about my academic future. I started a distance-learning degree in October, and I quite quickly decided to switch from part-time to full-time. Which means deciding which course/s to add to my workload, because the degree is totally open – so every course is optional.

The course I’m already doing is in science. The main things I was torn between for my next course were maths and psychology. Maths has always been my best and favourite subject. But psychology is important to me because I want to learn about how people – and especially autistic people – work.

At first glance, it seems like maths should be the first choice. It’s been my strongest subject since before I can remember. Anyone who knew me as a kid would always say maths is what I “should” be doing. And I can understand that. It’s even what I think instinctively. But when I think about it a bit more carefully, that’s not the case.

Maths is really important to me. It’s pretty much the first language of my brain. When I reach for an analogy, I reach for mathematical concepts without even noticing. When I’m trying to find a way to understand something, I’m really finding a way to turn it into maths so that it can fit in my brain.

But that doesn’t actually mean that I should be studying maths, or that it’s necessarily my favourite or most important subject. A person who thinks in words does not assume that they want to study language. They use language to process whatever they do study. It’s the same for me, with maths. No matter what I learn or think about, I will be using maths constantly. So I don’t need to worry that, if I don’t study maths, I might lose one of my favourite subjects.

Whereas that is more likely to be the case with psychology. I think about autism a lot, but it’s the subject of my thoughts – not the language of my thoughts. Which means that if I do want to think about autism, I have to actively decide to.

So, I’ve decided on a psychology module. Part of the reason I’m posting this is so that I can read back over it if I start doubting my decision again. But I don’t think I will!

Communication

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.

Specific topics

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.

Overload

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.

“NT-passing-mode”

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.

Lying

Lying is one of the few autistic stereotypes that actually fits me quite accurately. I’ve always found it very difficult to lie, and I get really angry if other people do it. When I was younger, it was even a struggle for me to understand that other people were able to lie.

I think that part of my experience of lying is partly related to the way I interpret rules. When I was a kid, I was taught by the adults around me (like most kids are) that “lying is wrong”. Most people seemed to easily understand the implicit message about the situations where lying is acceptable (e.g. “if it would hurt someone’s feelings”, “if it’s an inappropriate topic”, “if you don’t want to talk about it with that person”). But I only learnt the rule as it was taught. Lying is wrong.

So I didn’t lie. And I assumed everyone else would never lie either. Realising that other people lied was like a betrayal –they were breaking the rule without even worrying about it. But knowing that other people lied wasn’t enough for me to do it myself. I couldn’t break the rule, even if other people were doing it. Whenever I had a fight with my ‘friends’ in primary school (which happened pretty often), the teachers would ask us what happened. I would tell the truth, and the other kids would lie, and I’d be the only one to get in trouble as a result. For some reason, even my honesty was less believable than someone else’s lie. (did someone say atypical communication?!)

Nowadays, I have taught myself to lie very occasionally. I can handle lying when it’s part of social scripts (things like answering “Fine, thanks” when someone asks how I am). I can tell small and fairly unimportant lies if it means I can get out of an uncomfortable situation or conversation (like saying I’ll be busy if I want to decline an invitation to something, or saying I have somewhere to get to when I want to leave). I can sometimes manage a lie when I want to avoid telling someone about something that is private or personal (like telling my friends I feel ill and need to go home, rather than admitting that I’m panicking).

I still find it extremely difficult. When someone asks a question, I don’t interpret it as “give me the information I want, or a lie that will make me feel better” – I interpret it as “give me the information I want, or an explanation for why you can’t”. I can sometimes get away without lying, by simply admitting I don’t want to say something – for example if my friends ask why I’m upset, I just answer “I don’t want to go into it”, or similar. That lets me stay within my interpretation of the question, by giving an explanation for not answering.

My rules of communication also make it really hard for me to deal with being lied to. If I ask someone a question, I don’t want them to lie to me rather than answering. If they can’t or don’t want to answer, I want them to simply explain that. I’d much rather someone said “I don’t know you well enough to talk about this with you”, rather than outright say something completely false just to get out of the conversation.

If I find out that someone has lied to me, I feel like my trust has been completely broken. It’s very difficult for me to recognise a lie at the time. So if I know someone lied to me, I have to assume than anything they ever say could now be a lie. Which makes it pretty hard to trust anything they say after that. I’m trying to work on teaching myself that when other people lie, they do it for a reason – even if I don’t understand the reason. But it’s pretty difficult. I tend to deal with it by simply surrounding myself with people who have the same rules for lying as I do, so I don’t have to feel like I’m constantly on guard around them. It works well enough for me.

Ways of thinking

There’s often a lot of talk about the way autistic people think. Anyone who’s heard of Temple Grandin has probably heard that she describes ‘thinking in pictures’ – her thoughts flick through her mind like photographs. Other autistic people say they think in words – with no visual element at all.

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I wasn’t sure whether I was a words or pictures thinker. I eventually decided that the reason I had trouble figuring it out was because I’m not a words or pictures thinker. I know that I don’t think in pictures, because I don’t visualise photo-real images of things. Not every thought has a visual element attached. I know I don’t think in words, because I have to translate my thoughts in order to communicate using words  – which is sometimes difficult to do.

I guess the best way to describe my thoughts would just be… concepts? My thoughts take the form of maths, logic, spatial relationships, sets, diagrams, graphs, and other non-verbal things. They aren’t visual in the sense of being perfectly accurate or precise images. The visual element (when it’s there) is just a way of representing the relationships between things.

This is why my thoughts are sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to translate. Certain types of concept are a lot easier to express in words. For example, we can easily say something like “there is more of this than of that”. Others are almost impossible to translate – at least not with any language I know (perhaps if I was fluent in advanced mathematical logic I would be able to express myself better!).

When I was first talking to my dad about autism and the inaccuracy of the linear spectrum, I ended up drawing endless graphs and diagrams to try and make my point. It took weeks before I was able to find the words to really explain myself, and even now I’m not sure I’ve quite said what I wanted to.

I often resort to using diagrams to express myself. Sometimes it works well enough to communicate my point to someone. Other times, just making the diagram concrete allows me to ‘read’ it and form a verbal description. And sometimes the thoughts are so abstract that I can’t find a way to visually represent them – it would require a four-dimensional graph or a moving animation or something else I can’t do with a pen and paper.

Functioning labels and non-linear spectra

In the last few weeks, I’ve talked to a lot of people about autism. Most of my family have heard about my diagnosis and everyone seems very interested. I’ve been doing a lot of explaining things to an ignorant but open-minded audience: the ideal students!

The one most common piece of misinformation I’ve encountered is the idea of a linear autistic spectrum. Things like “You’re obviously high-functioning”, or “I guess you’re fairly mild”. These are understandable things to say for people who know very little about autism. I can speak, I can do things independently, I’ve (more or less) managed to get through school, and I obviously wasn’t diagnosed as a kid. If autism was a linear spectrum, I would be placed at the ‘mild’ end. But… it’s simply not.

The main source of the problem is the fact that most people are not autistic. And so, most people who study or think about or talk about autism are not autistic. That means that most information about autism comes from the perspective of non-autistic people. That’s why lists of traits contain things like “inappropriate eye contact”. If you asked most autistic people, they’d say it’s neurotypical people’s eye contact that’s inappropriately intense and demanding!

The point of that example is just to show that autism from the inside is very different to what neurotypical people see from the outside. And that is still very true when it comes to the idea of a linear spectrum. Neurotypical people look at all autistic people and try to find ways to divide up and make sense of autism. But their interpretations are based on how autism looks from the outside.

It looks like there are some people who can speak most of the time, and some people who can almost never speak. Surely that factor is the most significant and relevant one – for a neurotypical person the ability to speak is incredibly important. But for autistic people, it’s not that simple. Speech is not the only way to communicate, and it’s often not the best way. I can speak well most of the time, but I can generally express myself far better in writing – and I know a lot of other autistic people feel the same way.

So am I really all that different from someone who can’t speak, if we both communicate better in writing anyway? Trying to put a major distinction between us does nothing for anyone involved.

The only real reason to try and divide up the autistic spectrum is to be able to support and understand everyone individually – which is perfectly reasonable. But dividing us up with a straight line from “speaks a lot” to “doesn’t speak much” is focusing way too much on something insignificant, and ignoring many other important factors.

What about the fact that I have no innate sense of direction? Or that I can’t eat foods with mixed textures? Or that I panic if I stray too far from home? Or that I can’t tell when I’m being bullied and manipulated? Or that I can’t sit still and pay attention at the same time? Or that I am unable to study in a class full of other people?

Why are all of those things considered so much less significant than the fact that I can usually use vocal words to communicate with other people pretty well? The answer is probably just the fact that vocal words are a bit more noticeable to outside observers. But just because something is more noticeable from the outside, it doesn’t mean it’s more significant on the inside.

“Why don’t you…?”

I find this kind of question unexpectedly difficult to deal with. “Why don’t you…?” isn’t the only type of question this applies to – it’s a whole set of questions that have the same effect on me. What they all have in common is a dissonance between a very specific literal meaning, and a very specific intended meaning.

With “why don’t you…?”, the dissonance is like this:

  • Literal meaning: “Please explain why you have not taken this action or why you aren’t going to take it.”
  • Intended meaning: “I am offering you a suggestion in case you haven’t considered it.”

When someone asks me a question like this, my brain glitches out because it can’t decide which meaning to respond to. One part of me knows that the person is just offering a suggestion, and all I have to do is acknowledge that suggestion with a “thank you”, or possibly a “no thanks”/”that won’t work” or similar. But another part gets caught up on the literal meaning. It’s a ‘why’ question, we have to answer ‘why’ questions with ‘because’ and explanation.

So then I freeze because I can’t find a way to reconcile those two possible ways to answer. I often begin to formulate an explanation (in response to the literal meaning), but then stop myself because the explanation will be extremely longwinded and detailed and I know that’s not what the other person wants. Then I have an attempt at responding to the intended meaning with some kind of vague acknowledgement.

Which usually results in a nonsensical conversation like this:

“Why don’t you try this suggestion?”
“Because I… no.”

Swearing

(This was originally written on 17th November 2013)

I almost never swear. I occasionally swear in writing, but verbally I only say ‘crap’ sometimes, ‘shit’ very rarely, and I may have never said the word ‘fuck’ out loud.

To me, they just aren’t really a part of my vocabulary. I’m pretty sure it originated from my rigid rule-following as a child (they told me not to swear, so I didn’t), and just stayed on from there. But I’m not actually bothered by other people swearing. I used to get annoyed because they were breaking a rule and not being punished – but now I’ve taught myself that that rule is meaningless, so I don’t get upset when other people do it anymore.

But I still don’t swear, just because I’ve never really bothered to train myself into it. It’s funny because other people perceive it as me being somehow ‘prudish’ about swearing. A couple of times people in a social group have said something about me being the innocent or delicate one, or trying to dare me to say a swearword as if I think it’s immoral or dirty. But actually, the reason I don’t is no different to the reason I don’t use the word ‘bonjour’ in my day-to-day life. I just never need to say it. It’s not part of my language. I have other ways to express the ideas people use it for. And to say a swearword out loud seems just as odd to me as saying ‘bonjour’. That’s the only real reason I don’t do it.

Puns

(This was originally written on 9th October 2013)

OK. I’m just gonna come out and say it. I don’t like puns.

I tried, I really tried. I used to assume that I must like puns just because everyone who is anything like me loves puns. Puns are like the default humour for geeks. But.

I don’t know, puns annoy me. They stress me out. I don’t like not understanding what they’re meant to say. It’s like the epitome of ambiguous meaning – there is no correct interpretation. I just feel vaguely uncomfortable and confused when I read/hear them. Then I have to go to the effort of trying to work out what the two (or more) meanings are, and then think really carefully about how those meanings relate and why that relationship makes the pun humorous… it’s not worth it. I don’t get any fun even when I do understand them, I just remain slightly confused and irritated.

I feel better now I’ve got that off my chest.