Tag Archives: communication

Big news and important conversations

I have trouble with important conversations. I’m sure everyone does, really. That’s why they’re important after all: because they’re difficult but have to happen anyway. But I think the trouble I have is sometimes different to other people.

Recently, I got some exciting news – a knitting magazine commissioned me to design a pattern. When I shared the news with my family, I’m pretty sure I did it wrong! I mean, I didn’t upset or offend them or anything. But when I told my brother, he exclaimed that I didn’t tell him as soon as he came home and instead waited until a bit later. And my mum said “You never tell us anything!” because the news was surprising.

It was just a regular example of autistic-NT mistranslation. I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and I still can’t figure out what would have been different for them to not have reacted in those ways.

How are you supposed to make news less surprising? Should I have eased into the conversation by saying “So… I’ve been knitting a lot lately…”? The main point is still pretty much one sentence-worth of information, so I don’t see how you could do it in a less abrupt way.

And it’s really hard to know when is the right time to initiate a conversation. Should I have blurted it out the moment my brother walked through the door? Surely not! I thought that I was waiting an appropriate time so as not to seem self-centred and to let him settle in back at home before bringing up something major.

I’m not really bothered by this. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that it’s hard for me to communicate with people, and sometimes it goes wrong and sometimes I’m not always sure how or why it went wrong. I just find it interesting. I guess this is an area where I’m missing out on the innate rules that other people seem to have. Rules like:

  • How to correctly judge the importance of different topics.
  • How to talk about topics of different levels of importance.
  • Which levels of importance are required information for which levels of relationship.

This is yet another reason that I generally prefer text-based communication. It’s so much easier to introduce a new topic via, e.g. email or text. It’s perfectly natural to add a new point whenever you think of it. You don’t have to worry about choosing the correct time and situation for the other person to talk about it, and worry that they might be busy or stressed or distracted. They get to make that decision, because the interaction is delayed and so they can choose the right time to work on their response. It seems so much simpler that way. In a face-to-face conversation, both people are trying to carefully think about both people at once. That’s twice as many people to stress about!

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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.