Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Are you listening?

I very much appreciate all of the comments on my last couple of communication themed posts. It seems that a lot of us have similar issues with speech, which is not too surprising. Today, I will talk about a few of the things I have found to help. I am going to try to stick mostly to my own experience, though I may refer to other autistic people I know personally and what they have told me. This is not an attempt to speak for anyone else. If you can use this window into my mind to help you understand an autistic person in your life, you are more than welcome to do so.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that speech is not the same thing as language, and that communication is a much larger concept still. Listening is at least half of the work. When I am not speaking, I am still communicating; most of the time, I am using some form of language. If you do not try to see what I am already offering, why would you expect me to try harder to give more?

As I have mentioned before, writing is easy for me. I can tell you much more in an e-mail than I can in person. Telephone calls are the hardest method of communication. I would love to see some of the money collected in the name of autism awareness go toward purchasing keyboards for autistic people who don’t have access to them.

I carry a small notebook with me, primarily for drawing squares, but I have also used it to help get my words together. I appreciate people who do not roll their eyes when I write something down before saying it out loud.

Drawing squares is a great way for me to listen. I’ve encountered people who have let me know they see this as rude (for some reason they view it as flagrant inattention when it’s really quite the opposite!) Drawing during a conversation helps me to relax and I can focus on what the other person is saying if I am not forced to look at him/her or the surroundings. Other stims can be useful, too, but a visually oriented repetitive task works best for me. I am much more likely to talk if I am doing these things that help me listen.

I have always used metaphorical language to communicate, especially where emotion or feelings are involved. Sometimes this is in the form of stored scripts, other times it emerges along with the particular situation. This can be a problem for people who feel they are being expected to guess what I am talking about. For that reason, I use it far less than I did in the past, and this is always reserved for ongoing relationships and the necessity to communicate something for which I don’t have access to the proper words.

Often, the things I do to communicate are seen as pure silliness. Using gestures instead of words is one that nearly always evokes this response. For some reason, if a person can use speech most of the time, it is assumed that she should always use it. This is somewhat like asking a person who can speak fluent English and passable French to always and only speak in French. At work or school, we usually have to speak the dominant language. Accommodations in these areas might increase the productivity of autistic students and employees considerably. Certainly, with friends and family, we would like to be able to relax and communicate in the ways that come most naturally.

When someone allows me to use these techniques—writing, drawing, metaphor and gesture—without criticism, I feel valued and accepted. When another person actually participates in some of them with me, trust is more easily established. I recently passed a two hour car trip with a brother-in-law by saying sentences backward the whole way. It began quite spontaneously and relieved the tension of having to be in the car with another person. In this case, the playing field of conversation was leveled by each of us having to think as hard as the other before saying a sentence.

Beyond respecting these self-created accommodations, what can a person do to help make speech easier?

~Consider whether or not this is the best time for a conversation. First thing in the morning is never good for me. As soon as I walk in the door isn’t good. Pick a time when we are both relaxed and have some time to spare. I you know I didn’t get enough sleep last night or have had a bad day, save this conversation for later.

~Turn off the TV! This goes for stereos, too. I can’t process more than one voice at a time.

~Talk to me about things you know I am interested in. I don’t know how to "talk about the weather."

~If you are telling a long story, allow ample space for me to comment. I will always have trouble “breaking in” to a conversation, even on a day when my speech is fairly good. If you can pause once in awhile, but without expectation I will say anything, this is best.

~If you are asking questions, please ask only one at a time. Double barreled questions—Would you like to go to the store, and then to visit Kate?—can be very confusing, and can contribute to speech shutdown.

~Allow for opportunities to say “Me, too!” I have had times when I could not ask for something simple, like a glass of water. But I could agree that I wanted one also, if someone said it first.

~Don’t make a big deal about eye contact. The autistic person may hear more of what you are saying if you don’t insist on this or try to force it.

~Don’t jump to conclusions based on body language. I have often had people interpret my posture or facial expressions to mean something far from what I was thinking or feeling. If you know someone is autistic, be aware that that person’s face or body may be speaking a foreign language. Nothing kills a conversation faster for me than having someone tell me what I am thinking. Don’t assume.

~ Don’t take my silence personally. If you attribute ill will to my not speaking, this will only make talking more difficult. Nobody wants to work extra hard to please someone who has already decided she is hostile!

Other autistic people who read this may disagree with some points. We are all different. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.


  1. Thank you---am really interested in your noting how you use metaphoric language; I think my son does this: He'll talk about something concrete (like food or a place or person from the past), and there are a host of meanings behind it.

  2. My son also uses metaphoric language, less now that he has better pragmatic language, but this has always intrigued me. One of the best bits of advice I ever got from on OT was to consider that Pete could hear me better if he wasn't looking at me. This is very true, especially if we're talking about something lengthly.

    karen in ca

  3. I really like your post. I see a lot of what you write here to be very true for our daughter. I did not really think about the phone issue. She will usually refuse to talk on the phone and I know it is hard for her but I never thought about autistic people being offered typing equipment. That is an excellent idea.

  4. From my old web page:
    "All my school days, as far back as I remember, I doodled like this in my notebooks in order to listen and hear what the teacher was saying. At first it was in the margin of my book, then at some point I was asked to use a separate page in the back of my notebook to do this "if I must".[...]
    I still doodle to listen (my Aspergers son does too). [...]People sitting around me at conferences, workshops etc often ask me for them and I give them away."

    This cover of "A Guide to Asperger Syndrome" by Christopher Gillberg is one of my doodles.

  5. jypsy,

    That sounds a lot like the way I started keeping my "square books." My margin doodles became more detailed and elaborate and I didn't want to throw them away when I was done with the spiral notebooks. So I gave them a book of their own, a smaller one that I can take everywhere.

    I have that Gillberg; I had forgottent that was your drawing on the cover!

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  7. Bev, this is great! And much of it is so true of how my son communicates. He is learning to type now, which I think will help a lot in the future.

  8. the witch,

    Yes, I relate to all of that!Probably the single most frequent question I hear is "Are you serious?" People never know...I've been meaning to write about that for a while now.

    As far as hearing gibberish instead of words, yes, there is that also. And then sometimes the words reassemble themselves in humorous ways. I mean that I mis-hear things all the time and end up laughing because I think someone said "Damn, I'm a cone!" when they said "Hand me the phone." I know this must happen to everyone occasionally, but I'm talking about several times a day. And my hearing is fine, according to the tests.

  9. Yeah. Ditto like hell on a lot of that. On distractions and having my facial expressions misinterpreted especially.

    I've noticed that often, when I have heard a string of words as gibberish and say something like "Eh?", the speaker will re-phrase what he said -- and happen to leave out the very part I didn't "hear". Though the speaker probably thinks he's being helpful by re-phrasing a sentence in what he thinks is a more sensical way, it doubles my confusion because I now have *two* strings of gibberish to sort out, and I have to fill in the blanks left by each of them. I don't know if anyone else prefers this, but in my case I'd rather somebody first repeat their sentence word-for-word, and then if that doesn't work, start over again with different words and give me a little background on the context of the conversation.

    (I realize this might be a rather decadent demand, since I myself don't like being compelled to repeat word-for-word something I've said poorly.)

    I particularly have a hard time when folks make their language “passive” in order to make it sound more polite, or something. Not only is it condescending, it also quite literally changes the meaning. An example:

    I arrived at a doctor’s office I’d never been to before, for a general exam. (I was new in town, and just wanted to get established with a doctor.) I was late for the appointment, and I had a feeling that I was probably late enough that there wouldn’t be time for a complete exam, and that I might have to reschedule. The receptionist asked me, “Were you here for an exam?”

    This “were” she used, I imagine, was intended to imply my former status (“Yeah, sweetie, you *were* here for an exam – but you ain’t gonna get one now!”), and/or was just the result of habitual “gentle” language (i.e., I have a feeling she was also accustomed to saying stuff like “And how are we feeling today?” when she really meant “How are *you* feeling today?”).

    In any case, I interpreted the question literally. Since I had not been there for an exam previously, I told her no.

    It took me a few minutes to resolve the resulting bit of confusion, during which time I mootly tried to explain to her that I’d answered that way because of the word she had used, and during which time she evidently determined I was neurotic and lethally stupid. She then told me that I was probably late enough that there wouldn’t be time for a complete exam, and that I might have to reschedule. (I knew this.) She then said, after calling me up to the window again, “We might have to reschedule.”

    I said, “Okay,” and waited.

    The “might”, I figured, meant that she was going to call and find out, or something.

    But she was looking at me expectantly, as though she were waiting for *me* to say something.

    Finally her passiveness dawned on me, and I just flat-out asked her, “Do you really mean ‘might’?”

    Anyway, yeah. Then she thought I was stupider. There’s an example. I’m truncating my story ‘cause I just realized this comment is painfully long. Yeah. How’s that for guest blogging?

  10. a lot of times i see disability *awareness* trainings that i really question (they focus on how to "handle us" instead of who we are) but this kind of thing is so great.

    excluding the fact that it's an accommodation, it really helps people think about and reflect about how we communicate with people in general.

  11. Very interesting post Bev, you've written several things I will have to keep in mind.

    Evonne, how frustrating! That woman wasn't communicating very effectively. I have encountered other people in similar jobs who speak like that too, things like; 'are we seeing the dentist today?'

  12. Speach is not the sams as communication. My son does not speak, sign, write etc but he certainly can communicate!
    Why do people put so much emphasis on talking!

  13. Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.

    or, for those who don't know the metaphor... there's some excellent bridging of cultures going on here.

  14. dunno if your blog shows trackbacks, but my latest post was inspired by (and started out as a comment to) yours:

  15. aw, evonne, i cringed at your story, cuz that has happened to me so many times, almost verbatim. i always find it astounding that people who have no self-awareness can pass judgment on other people. I get that "you must be stupid" look quite a lot, so i simply don't say much anymore. don't let them get you down, though.

    bev, as always, your posts are extremely well-written. i wrote a post about this earlier this year; i mentioned some other workarounds i've found, and you mentioned some i didn't include. one of these days i'll be as cool as you. =)

  16. Hey, lastcrazyhorn here from

    I totally do the same thing as you do with squares, only I use circles. I also have an intense fear for phone calls; to the point that I get in trouble for failing to call people about important things.

    And if I'm having to answer something with a lot of components involved, either I forget the question halfway through my thought process, or I have to look away and hang out in my own world while I ponder/cognate. And then, if someone says something to me during that time, I lose all track of what I'm saying/thinking. ARGH.

  17. Hmmm... It is written that Jesus spake in parables (metaphoric language), mostly about his special interest. And tho deep down he was a pacifist, it's recorded that he did experience a meltdown in his young adulthood (the scourging at the temple) wherein he lashed out at everybody for turning a holy place into a loud messy and noisy bazar. He even went as far as to grab the ropes that held the curtains open and used them to lash out! Other than that, what is recorded depicts a very perseverational theme when he was around other people. Tho he is also reported to have sought extended periods of quiet solitude and reflection. He apparently also recognized many patterns regarding human nature and shared his insight regarding solutions-based meta-models charting the path for meta-constructs that are followed my many people more than 2,000 years later! Some were intimidated by his penetrating stare. Another thing is that it looks like abhorred hypocrisy and double-talk. People who say one thing but mean something else or act in a contradictory manner. He didn't seem to care much for small talk either. I don't recall ever reading about him saying anything remotely similar to: "So, hey, how's the weather? How 'bout them Corinthians?" Yet he would quickly dispel nasty rumours about Samaritans, etc. It is written he was quite politically incorrect. Eventually, he was persecuted and crucified for being different, disruptive to the established order and not playing by typical rules.

    I think I see a pattern here. 💡


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