Imagine trying to hold a conversation in the middle of a concert. The fans are screaming, the music is blaring, and you are pouring every last bit of effort into trying to make sense of the jumbled mess of words barely making it to your ears from a foot away. You aren’t worried about eye contact or if you seem a bit distant as you strain to catch every syllable. This scenario isn’t that much different from someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder trying to hold a conversation in a moderately busy space. It isn’t that we can’t hear someone speaking or necessarily understand the words being said to us, but we are trying to filter every bit of sensory information around us through our brains all at the same time as the conversation. Small talk may be just casual chatting between friends or coworkers for neurotypical people but for those of us on the spectrum small talk even with people we know can be a major event.
When I was younger my mother would bring me with her to the store or to run errands. She would run into someone she knew, but each time I was introduced I wouldn’t be able to make eye contact or speak. My mother thought I was shy, and it isn’t terribly outlandish to think that I might one day grow out of this bashful, shy phase. The problem was I never did. I still struggle with casual conversation, but now as an adult I understand why. When I was little I used to think everyone experienced the world in the way that I did– noises too loud, smells too pungent, lights too bright and flashy, and everything was too itchy or prickly or tight, but I learned as I began to question what made me different that I experience the world and process things very differently than a neurotypical person. I recently read Dr. Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. I realized as I read it that I have always processed things visually by creating images and pictures in my head or watching things play out like a movie in order to “rewind” the conversation. If I see instructions or numbers or patterns written down I can take a screenshot of them and recall them as I need them. The problem is most people give verbal instructions or speak over the phone, and there is no hard copy to see or remember. The words get in and maybe they even get processed, but they are easily discarded because they seem unimportant to my visual brain. Anyone that has ever worked on an important document on their computer knows to occasionally click the save button because if the computer crashes there is a good chance the whole document will be lost. Writing down important information is the equivalent of hitting the save button in my brain.
People might assume I am not interested in what they have to say, or I am too concerned with what I am doing to pay much attention to them. I don’t mean to come across as rude or aloof, but I don’t always know when people might be trying to get my attention. I am usually processing no less than a dozen things at a time whether they are sensory related, processing current tasks, or rehashing old conversations to understand what I could do differently to avoid being awkward. It is sort of like having an audio book playing on loud in my head all the time, but instead of a compelling novel it is my own brain processing “out loud” scolding me for saying something inappropriate or doing something wrong.
One example of trying to process sensory information at the expense of my social abilities is talking on phone. The phone rings. I repeat my scripted greeting in my head before I answer, but I stumble over it because the caller I.D. announces in a strange robotic voice who is calling. I finally answer. The lady on the other end begins speaking, and I keep up for a while until suddenly a dog begins barking in the background. My brain immediately identifies the noise and makes a note. Several seconds go by as my brain has done this processing and in that time any words that have been said are completely missed. I don’t consciously choose to suddenly ignore the person I am trying to hold a conversation with, but my brain can’t filter out the other noises happening all around me, and they demand my attention. If I try to tune out the other background noise, I usually end up tuning everything out even the things I am trying to hear. These ears have two settings: extra loud and mute.
Sometimes I get distracted by the person who is doing the speaking. It could be the pitch of their voice, the way they smell, or how much they use social elements I don’t understand like non-verbal cues or sarcasm. I spend too much time trying to stop noticing the smell or the weird way a word is said and miss the meaning completely. It is like being so focused on the details that you miss the big obvious picture entirely. My wife is a perfect example. She can talk remarkably fast and uses very clean annunciated English but on a good day I can only understand every third word. She has to constantly slow herself down or repeat herself to accommodate for my delay in processing. My brain plays a never ending game of fill-in-the-blanks during a conversation to cope for the missing words. Imagine you are trying to get instructions on how to make a grilled cheese sandwich but you only had every other word of the recipe.
Turn stove. Butter bread in pan. Add cheese. Second piece, butter up. Three minutes flip. Cook additional minutes. Enjoy.
The basic point is still there, but it is vague, sporadic, and confusing if you have never heard anything like it before.
On other occasions though something will stand out as funny or interesting, and the opposite will happen. My brain will suddenly hyper focus on the words and the way they are spoken. I have to repeat them again sometimes twice–testing the words and inflections like a fine wine rolling them around on my tongue like I can taste them. Those words and phrases get repeated back later during conversations as they seem appropriate. For example, I watched the movie “The Accountant” with Ben Affleck a few months ago. One of the characters, a woman with Autism ironically, used a computer to communicate and would type the phrase “heavy sigh” to express her disgust with Ben’s character. I liked how it sounded and how it was used. I then echoed it in my own speech afterward whenever I felt it was applicable. If I dropped my phone—heavy sigh. If I forgot to get something at the store—heavy sigh. If I got stuck in rush hour traffic—heavy sigh. It wasn’t the action, however. I would simply say “heavy sigh” out loud in the same way I had heard it spoken in the movie. It can be quotes from movies, T.V., people I find interesting, or just new words I learn. My communication is mostly things I heard before or scripted beforehand in a brainstorming session in the shower or on the way to work in the car. It doesn’t make it any less real or thoughtful; it just makes it different.
Communication has always been unique for me. I had a speech delay, but my parents knew before I could talk that I was watching and taking in everything. They could see my eyes trying to see everything and hearing everything and were rightfully terrified that when I did start to talk that I wouldn’t stop. Even when I finally did start speaking it was almost all echoed. I could make the words and say things out loud, but I didn’t understand what they meant most of the time or I would say the first thing to pop into my head even if it wasn’t correct. I fell back on saying “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know” as a response 90% of the time. I struggled the most to communicate how I was feeling because in order to effectively express how you feel you have to be able to know and understand how you are feeling. My parents were concerned with my well-being, but I couldn’t explain how I was feeling any better than someone could explain a color to someone who has been colorblind since birth. There were times and there are still times when I get so upset or frustrated that I become non-verbal. It isn’t like I forget how to speak technically. It is more like my brain suddenly can’t process words because it is too overwhelmed by everything I am feeling and sensing or if there are words bouncing around in my head there is a disconnect between my brain and getting them to come out of my mouth. I have learned to “use my words,” but it has been a constant practice with a steep learning curve. It is by far the most frustrating and debilitating part of having Asperger’s Syndrome in my opinion, but I am slowly getting better at it by forcing myself to keep talking and not giving up because I have a meltdown trying to express myself. I joined an Adults with Asperger’s support group both in person and online, and I have been forcing myself out of my comfort zone to interact with people in order to familiarize myself with how it feels to communicate (the good parts and the bad). It isn’t impossible to learn to become comfortable speaking, but it does require twice the effort because communication doesn’t come naturally to me.