Tag Archives: language

Real-time interactions


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.


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.


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.


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.

“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.”