The ability to use language is deeply embedded in the history of autism. When the general public pictures an autistic person, they generally think of someone who is nonverbal. Or, thanks to popular culture, someone who is 100% literal 100% of the time, or someone who has no concept of sarcasm. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people who experience one or more of these types of communication divergences, but to say that all autistic people experience all of these at the same time, or in the same way, is to have a very narrow view of an incredibly varied picture.
Communication is something your average person doesn’t think much about. They spend their days talking and writing and making subtle movements to their body, not even realizing that they’re doing it. And because they’re able to do all of this without thinking about it, they assume everyone else has the same experience. Which clearly is not the case. When you start communicating with autistic people, one thing becomes clear. There are lots of types of communication, and that everyone experiences them differently.
Let’s take a walk in my communication shoes. I tend to divide up my communication skills into categories. Which sounds complicated, but it’s not. (In case you were worrying.) Here’s the exhaustive list: verbal- the physical act of talking, nonverbal- facial expressions, and body language, autistic nonverbal- flapping, bouncing, spinning, social- being polite and active in a conversation. Ok, so maybe I lied; it is a little complicated. But here’s the thing, if I wasn’t able to break down communication like this, the weight of trying to figure things out on the fly would ruin me. Because the act of communication is a profound drain on my energy sources.
I didn’t really think much about communication until I was a teenager. Somehow I lucked out and most of the people who I interacted with didn’t really mind that I was socially awkward. It was nice. I didn’t really know about things like empathy or tone of voice, so I wasn’t trying to emulate it. Which meant I wasn’t exhausting myself every day. Ah, childhood. I can chalk some of this up to poor theory of mind. Most people develop this when they’re very young. They seem to have an innate knowledge that other people think and feel and experience things differently than they do. I don’t have this. The idea that other people weren’t thinking exactly what I was thinking never even occurred to me until I was a teenager. And even then, the concept felt very foreign. It was bafflingly uncomfortable, and it forced me to accept that things between me and others were different. It forced me to realize that I was different. I processed this the way I process everything; through observation and analysis. And the more information I absorbed, the more the sheer amount of content began to pull me down. I felt the need to use this information to change how I interacted with people, and not for good reasons.
I know now that there are some types of communication that are worth me investing in, but it wasn’t always like this. At first, when I was learning about communication, I felt incredibly guilty. I felt like I was letting people down by not conforming to a standard form of communication. I reasoned that by not communicating in a “normal” way, I was lessening their experiences with me. I thought that it was my duty to put all my energy into appearing like someone who was neurotypical, to ensure that other people would be more comfortable. I know now that that belief was unhelpful. I shouldn’t have to put all my energy into maintaining communication styles that aren’t natural for me. Now while making sure I’m polite is important (my autism isn’t an excuse for me to be mean), it isn’t my job to fake it 24/7. So what do I do now?
I’ve finally developed a system that works for me. It is at times crude, but effective. It reserves energy when needed, while still allowing me to communicate. My very logical brain has sorted communication skills into what I call programs. Sort of like a computer, communication skills are sorted into groups, with sort of loose guidelines for when I use them. My base programs are me naturally. They run intuitively, and I don’t even have to think about them. Its outputs are minimal. I’m often not very verbal, and when I do, my voice doesn’t modulate much. My only body language is stimming, and I don’t even try to fake body language. This is what I default to during a meltdown. It’s natural and low energy, but not very useful outside of the house. My politeness program is running most of the time. Being nice to others is important to me, and this program run in the background, and once I get it going, I don’t have to worry about it, unless a crisis occurs (in which case it drops, because I need its energy to deal with other things.) The upper-level programs are more complicated. They’re more situation oriented, and take a lot of planning and energy to keep going. Not only do I have to suppress most of my natural communication, but I also have to replace it with things that I don’t really understand. I know they’re appropriate, but I’m not usually sure why. And everyone does this, to an extent. If you’re going into a job interview, you’ll use your most impressive vocabulary, and refrain from cursing. The difference is, in your case, that your base communication skills are mostly socially acceptable. My base communication involves a lot of repeating words and sign language, and jumping and spinning and flapping, and not looking at someone when they’re talking to me. And I’m pretty comfortable with this now. As long as I’m being polite, I let the rest of my individual communication shine through. And this has proven my teenage-self wrong. The majority of people I interact with regularly don’t really care. And even if they think it’s a bit weird at first, they quickly accept that this is just how I interact with people. This makes me incredibly lucky, I know, but I hope that the more types of communication people see, the more open they’ll be to normalizing all types. Verbal speech, nonverbal communication, sign language, stimming, AACs, all of these bring people together and they let us share our experiences and our world. And how can that be a bad thing?