Autism is a wonderfully complex thing. The word incorporates a spectrum of differences, abilities and disabilities so broad that if asked “what is autism”, I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s a difference in perspective so vast that you have to break down the whole other reality to build a new picture, right from the bottom up.
In amongst the stinking miasma of misinformation, oversimplification and stereotype surrounding autism, non-autistic experts have grasped a few grains of truth. One is that many autistics genuinely struggle with verbal (spoken and written) communication. In my opinion the experts understate this problem, particularly with Asperger syndrome. Despite being articulate on a number of unusual topics, words in general do not come easily to me.
Coupled with an inability to multi-task, struggling to put concepts into words presents some very real and complex problems. When dealing with human interactions, realistically, I have three options available to me. I can communicate a message using clear and direct words. I can speak in indirect words, engaging in small talk and surface emotional processing. Or I can mirror the body language that is expected of me in a social situation, and which also does not come naturally.
In practise, I never mirror body language. This is because I will always need to use words at some point to interact, and so am never in the situation where neither communication nor indirect words need to take place. I know some of the theory around body language, but it was never really worth learning as when it comes down to it, I cannot apply that knowledge in real time.
I do speak in indirect words. This is because I recognise the importance of others’ feelings. In its most mercenary form, putting effort into making people feel comfortable makes them more likely to approach me for help, with offers of inclusion or of information – all of which are things I like and want to encourage. But further than that, I don’t want people to be uncomfortable around me. I genuinely care about fulfilling others’ emotional needs.
Speaking indirectly comes at a cost. Think of it in terms of learning a language. Normally when you learn a foreign language, the first stage is passive: the listening. That doesn’t mean you can’t say words. When babies learn to talk, they start by echoing a few words. But everybody understands that the actual words used are meaningless. (In autism this manifests in a behaviour called echolalia. This can be extremely subtle and difficult to detect, and I use it probably more than I realise. But that’s a whole other post!)
Learning to say words – starting with those that are easiest to articulate – comes before the stage where those words are used for communication. To communicate, you have to know the meaning. You learn the meaning much more gradually, by hearing how others use words, and in what contexts. You have to understand how that language is used before you can start to use it.
Autistics like me notoriously have problems understanding normal language. The problem manifests around things like implication and context, and is often described in terms of the autistic person taking things too literally. Sometimes this is characterised as a “delay” in “language skills”. I don’t know whether this is true – I probably won’t know until I am old enough to have waited out the delay – but what I do know is that to us, language comes differently. We use the same words, but in a very different way. And when you don’t phrase things clearly and unambiguously, we don’t always understand what you are saying.
When you consider this fact, it makes a lot of sense that autistic people actually cannot use words in an indirect way reliably to communicate a message. If we can’t interpret indirect language reliably as it was meant (although many of us do get better at this over our lifetimes), then how could we possibly use it?
Think about it another way: as a code. Non-autistic people don’t use words according to their literal meaning. Instead, they communicate in code. First, they translate their literal meaning into some different words. It looks like evasion to me, because I don’t understand it, but it has a clear meaning to them. When another non-autistic person hears the code, they have the right key to translate it back into meaning. I don’t have the key – so I have to ask for clarification. Then when I make my own indirect messages, with words that I hope will help others feel comfortable, I don’t do the translation right, and the recipient might not get the message. It can take several trial-and-error attempts for the message to get through.
A lot of the time, this is OK. With technical communications, for example, I’ve learned it’s worth following up conversations in writing anyway. In that format people seem a lot more comfortable being direct, so we can make sure the information has been correctly exchanged. At other times, delay can be a frustrating but necessary price to pay for maintaining good working relationships. But there are also times, when the personal or professional cost of miscommunication is high, when my scattergun approach of using random indirect words is incapable of meeting the immediate need.
And therein lies the rub. Because if I communicate efficiently, using the only reliable tools I have available to me, this is not socially acceptable.
It would be easy for me at this point to rant and rave about the social expectations of a majority non-autistic society and how they must be deliberately marginalising me for my differences. But it’s more complicated than that. I know that in tricky situations, where the concepts are nuanced and hard to articulate, I will appear at best blunt, and at worse outright offensive. The effort it takes me to put those concepts into words – any words – is phenomenal. So when the words come out of me there is no flexibility to soften the message. It would be a lie to say I have no control over my vocal tone, but it’s certainly not automatic – I have to concentrate on phrasing a line. When the message is that complex, my tone is all over the place. It’s rude; it’s arrogant; it’s aggressive; it’s any random word that triggers some past contextual experience in the mind of my conversation partner. No matter that in terms of intention, it means less than nothing. That tone is literally whatever default my vocal cords settle on when my whole attention is focused on the words. But what it says to my companion makes the conversation, for them, a genuinely unpleasant experience.
Reconciling my care for others’ feelings with the occasional genuine need for urgent communication is something I struggle with. Until very recently, I have always erred on the side of caution. Better to delay, and make sure the recipient is happy, than to force the message through and risk alienation. But sometimes the risk has to be taken. When the need is pressing; when, for whatever reason, my increasingly elaborate and creative attempts to use indirect methods are not getting through. When the message can’t be crafted fully in an email, but requires reciprocal interaction; discussion; negotiation. When lack of understanding on the part of that other person could have real, long term effects on my future and wellbeing.
I am learning to take the risk. It has been a painful start. I hope very much that things will get better from here.