Monday, July 23, 2007

We Interrupt This Program...

Excuse me, I have something to say. It’s about the difficulty I have in entering a conversation. This has always been a problem for me, and one which seems not to have gotten much better over time. This works differently for different autistic people; some of us may appear rude, constantly talking over others, changing topics abruptly or making “inappropriate” comments. In other cases the person may appear detached and disinterested in the conversation. I would usually fall into the second category.

But the reason for this may not be intuitively perceived by the neurotypical partner in conversation. What appears to be “spacing out” in my case is in part the result of my effort not to engage in the more actively “rude” behaviors of the first category.

Intellectually, I understand that typical people use their eyes and voice inflection to offer others a chance to speak, and there must also be some corresponding behavior a listener uses to indicate she would like to join in the conversation, though this escapes me entirely. What I mean here is that I think I know how to do this, but apparently I don’t since it rarely works for me. Most often, when I try to indicate that I would like a turn to speak, this isn’t noticed or acknowledged. After a number of failures, I tend to give up the attempts and sit quietly in what others may perceive as “my own world”. And truly, I may “zone out” at these times and enjoy the pattern in the floor tiles or Formica tabletop.

I have tried alternative approaches, such as raising my hand. For some reason, this seems to annoy most people. Perhaps it is seen as sarcasm or silliness. It isn’t intended that way.

Here is how I perceive a typical conversation with one other person:

The person is telling me a story. At the second sentence, I have a question, but he does not pause for it. I must choose between remembering the question to ask later and paying attention to the rest of the story.

If I hold onto the question, it may lead me far off topic as a free association about the details unfolds in my mind. The connection to the conversational partner is lost.

If I let the question go, then I listen as the story is continued.

At the third sentence, I would like to make a comment, and try to indicate this. But if my effort isn’t noticed, the decision between listening and remembering my comment is repeated. This can happen any number of times as the person continues to speak.

Finally, after maybe eight or nine sentences, my friend stops talking, and looks at me expectantly. Though I could repeat back word for word what he has said, and though I have had several thoughts by now which are relevant, I say nothing, because the proper time for the comment has passed, as he has moved swiftly from subtopic A and B all the way through H. Now, if I say what I had to say about B, he will certainly think I am not “getting the gist” and I haven’t yet thought of anything to say about G or H. So my choice is between saying something which will surely be perceived as odd, starting a sentence I may not be able to finish, or remaining quiet.

Now the person, if he doesn’t know me well is confused or perhaps offended by my silence. Possibly he thinks I am either rude or not too bright. In either case, he will probably not bother trying to talk to me again.

Or maybe I’ve succeeded this time. I have made a timely and relevant comment. Now I have a chance to expand on it, right? Well, maybe. Now there is the matter of “holding” the floor to be negotiated. Because equally difficult to entering the conversation is the problem of indicating that I am not ready to be interrupted yet. Invariably, I will pause at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or for too long, and this will be interpreted as a green light for someone else to speak. I have absolutely no choice in this matter. I cannot construct speech any faster than I do.

So, how do I tell someone I’m not finished speaking? Instinctively, I raise my hand to say “stop” or cover my ears to continue thinking. These are not gestures which are well received by many. If I am using my square drawing book, I might make a note in the margin and try to return to the topic later, if it still seems relevant. Most likely, I won’t though. I am tired by now. Conversation is exhausting. This is only one of the reasons.

Possibly, cards like these, to be placed on the table or worn on a lanyard would be helpful.


  1. Hey, what you just described is exactly my issue in "live" discussion. It's HARD! No solutions, either. Sorry.

  2. At Autreat they issue badges for green-approach me is ok, yellow-only if I know you and red-no one approach.

    These cards are a bit like that. Only for conversation.



  3. In a one-to-one conversation, you can indicate you desire to interrupt by leaning forward while maintaining (or initiating) eye contact and raising your hands slightly (two to three inches). To make this more obvious, try leaning back and keeping you hands low while listening. That way, you change in posture will be more apparent.

    Keeping your hands raised also indicates that you are not ready to give the floor. People will often raise one or both hands as high as face level when they have a thought but no words are coming out. In extreme cases, people will even raise one finger higher than their head to indicate this.

  4. I face the same problem. I have just discovered that 3 out of my 5 subjects at uni this semester involve group work. If anyone has any solutions, let me know.

    I find that if I really want to say something and can't work out how to break into the conversation, I will start rocking and moving so much that someone will notice and let me speak.

  5. Wow you explained this well. My daughter is naturally shy, so she has that to contend with as well.
    I am going to go crazy paying attention to how I do this now so I can explain it back.
    Off the top of my head, I think I make noises or nod my head when people talk...then when it gets to the point where I want to talk, I just make a little louder noise. Also, if I am talking and not done, I will make very subtle gestures. I would guess the trick would be not using the gestures if you are going to start going way off topic...we tell my daughter when she does that but I don't think anyone else would know to stop her.
    That is not explaining it well...I'll pay attention for a couple of days and come back or link from my blog.
    Good stuff!

  6. you just made me laugh, and i needed that. i just discovered your site today, and am enjoying it much. and am gonna continue reading after this comment. but this particular post made me think of... gods, almost every work-related meeting i've ever been in. my current job, i've been in probably 4 or 5 meetings so far where it's a huge, chaotic maelstrom of voices, rising, tones escalating, talking over one another, and even if i have something relevant to say, i sit, very quietly, in the corner, eyes down. usually i sketch random illustrations into my notepad, letting the conversation i can't follow go by, but if it's important that i interject, i usually, like you mentioned, raise my hand. feeling immediately like i'm back in grade school. i sit there, hand in the air, waiting patiently, some people stop, others go on and on, and my nice coworker usually will be the one to try to get everyone else to shut up, say "excuse me, x needs to say something." i then wait til absolutely everybody has become silent, then i say my peace. it's like stopping traffic in a busy intersection just to let one tiny person walk thru.

    even at 33 years old, i still don't quite mesh well. =) glad to see someone else is "weird" like me.

  7. I think your problems in conversation are rooted in a basic mistake: the presumption that the other person is interested in your questions, comments or anything else you have to say.
    Usually, this is not the case. People just need audience while enjoying the sound of their own voices.
    Some parts of Plato's dialog "The Republic" illustrate this well. The author says that discussion is the way to truth. But just see what kind of discussion he means! Not one where people express and defend different, conflicting opinions. This is argument, not discussion, and doesn't lead to truth. Discussion is when the principal talker ("Socrates") keeps talking and from time to time pauses just to hear from the other person things like, "Of course it is as you say", "You are so right!" etc.
    So I can give you tips how to earn a reputation of a great conversationist.
    Basic mode of behaviour during conversation: Even if you are not actually listening to the other person, create the impression of listening by periodically making (faking) eye contact and nodding. When he gives you a clear sign that it is your turn to speak, express admiration about what he has said. To show true interest, it is good to ask a question. If you habitually forget the beginnings of long speeches, base your question on what you remember from the end of the speech. For him, it doesn't matter at all in which part of his speech you are most interested.
    Accessory mode of behaviour: When you are speaking, pause frequently to let the other person interrupt you and take his turn to speak. Don't let yourself be annoyed that you haven't been allowed to make your point. He isn't interested in it anyway. Once interrupted, stick to the Basic Mode.

  8. This question of attention and reciprocity is extremely well described. I go through exactly the same thing. In casual or social conversation, it's certainly not the norm to raise one's hand, yet I have thought of that solution more than once, and have actually done it a few times. I am sure that people see it as silly, sarcastic, "trying to be cute" and/or odd.

    The trouble with holding the floor, for me, is that it can be so nerve-racking to feel the pressure of trying to be amusing, relevant, interesting or accurate, that my mind blanks out as it may during a test or a performance. Thus, as you say, social life is rarely relaxing.

    While I agree that Maya M.'s disillusioned, clear-eyed take on the problem is accurate, if we follow such advice and become yes-men, we virtually disappear.

  9. Most groups, especially, it seems, in the workplace, don't follow good participatory etiquette. It's like two kids swinging a jump rope and me trying to figure out when to jump in, and once I jump in how to keep jumping. That's prolly the best way I can describe it. Those who aim to monopolize the discussion will constantly change the speed at which the rope cycles so that you'll never get a word in edgewise. Then, finally when you blurt out and cut in out of frustration, oh you're the one that's being rude! 😂

  10. Also, by the time I finally get a chance to blurt in the conversation has shifted and that which I was going to say no longer seems relevant or overcome by events in the conversation.


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