Communication has many different, often conflicting meanings.
It can mean the imparting or exchanging of information. It can be a means of sending or receiving information. These can be combined to form a more complex definition, the act of conveying intended meaning to another entity through the use of mutually understood signs and semiotic (relating to signs and symbols) rules. It’s this combined definition where the problems begin between neurotypicals and autistic people – the mutual and agreed upon understanding of signs / symbols.
“It’s this combined definition where the problems begin between neurotypicals and autistic people – the mutual and agreed upon understanding of signs / symbols.”
You see, you (the neurotypical) and I (the nonverbal autistic person) likely don’t “speak” the same language. My typing this information, your reading this article, is a form of communication. But, because you don’t “speak” my language, I must use your signs / symbols to communicate with you. This verbal / vocal form of communication wasn’t always possible for me as I didn’t start life knowing your “language.” I had to learn. That process took a lot of time.
According to Klemfuss (Klemfuss, et al, 2012), Language provides a medium for describing the contents of our conscious experience. We use it to share our perceptual experiences, thoughts, and intentions with other individuals. The idea that language guides our cognition was clearly articulated by Whorf (1942) who proposed that an individual’s conceptual knowledge was shaped by their language. There is clear evidence demonstrating that language directs thought (Ervin-Tripp, 1967), influences concepts of time and space (e.g., Boroditsky, 2001), and affects memory (e.g., Loftus and Palmer, 1974).
This issue certainly isn’t new, Albert Pike in his 1871 magnum opus, the Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, wrote in introducing the third section, “to understand literally the symbols and allegories of Oriental books as to ante-historical matters, is willfully to close our eyes against the Light. To translate the symbols into the trivial and commonplace, is the blundering of mediocrity.” Pike clearly understood that moving from the symbolic world of our brain’s processing of the entirety of our experience into the world of the English language would cause problems in communicating substantial subjects.
Given the definition of language, and the link to cognition and the theatre of our minds, you may have heard the term “non-verbal” and wondered, “what does that actually mean?” You may have also heard the term “non-vocal,” and wondered how can someone who can vocalize words and concepts be “non-verbal?”
“Making the attempt at “verbal” communication requires a lot of energy. It takes a lot of focus. It’s physically exhausting.”
Based upon my research, and that of others, the majority of the autistic population is “non-verbal.” What that means is complex, but boils down to the fact that we don’t think and process in “words” but in multi-dimensional semiotics. What you and I consider to be the “verbal” world is like a 50cl shot glass. How we autistics think, our multi-dimensional semiotics, is like a 150l barrel. When a “non-verbal” person is asked a question, the answer occupies the entirety of a specific 150 litre space, then other potentially related 150 litre barrels of prior-knowledge and related information are assembled and the probability of the appropriate barrel, or the correct response, is calculated. Usually, it’s found that a single barrel isn’t the appropriate choice, thus the contents of multiple 150 liter barrels are sorted, then combined appropriately. Some information is lost in the process (spills), requiring a reassembly. Then, the attempt is made to answer – effectively attempting to empty 150 litres into a 50cl shot glass without spilling a drop. It doesn’t work very well.
Now imagine actually physically manipulating full barrels of beer. How exhausting would it be to move multiple barrels around in a short amount of time? So it is to us with verbal conversation. Making the attempt at “verbal” communication requires a lot of energy. It takes a lot of focus. It’s physically exhausting. As a personal example, it’s why I generally take a week to recover after teaching a 40 hour training session – I’m quite literally drained.
“On average, autistic people are better at the written than the vocal. We can take our time. We can assemble our thoughts.”
Back to the issue of “verbal” vs. “vocal.” “Verbal” is not necessarily “vocal.” Words can be spoken. Words can also be written. On average, autistic people are better at the written than the vocal. We can take our time. We can assemble our thoughts. Thanks to modern word processing, we can revise and edit in a non-linear fashion that isn’t necessarily possible with a pen/paper or a typewriter. This effort has already undergone several revisions at this point, and it isn’t even complete.
Confounding the verbal communication problem is language. Modern English, as a language, is quite frankly – horrible. It is a mashup of several old languages, most of which we’ve never learned – like Latin, German, and Middle-English. It’s confusing. A ‘fat chance’ and a ‘slim chance’ are the same thing. Why do we have noses that run and feet that smell? In another example, the word ‘good’ has many meanings. If a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.
Whorf (1942) notes, “the term ‘space,’ for instance, does not and cannot mean the same thing to a psychologist as to a physicist. Even if psychologists should firmly resolve to use ‘space’ only with the physicist’s meaning, they could not do so, any more than Englishmen could use in English the word ‘sentiment’ in the meanings which the similarly spelled but functionally different French utterance ‘le sentiment’ has in its native French.”
“It’s confusing. A ‘fat chance’ and a ‘slim chance’ are the same thing. Why do we have noses that run and feet that smell?”
The many problems with English inform my decision to conduct much of my technical research in German, an entirely more precise language. When writing translations of technical manuals from Chinese / Japanese, the English versions are often catastrophic failures given the complexity of English. But, in German, words tend to mean just one thing. When a complex word doesn’t quite exist, several simpler words can be combined. The word “mate” has many different connotations in English – from the sexual / romantic to the mechanical. A roommate can be platonic companion sharing costs or a potential romantic partner who has moved in. In German, wohngemeinschaft first encapsulates the association – relationship to the location by combining two concepts – wohn (living) and gemeinschaft (community). Zimmer (room) kamerade (companion) isn’t really a phrase you would see in everyday German. You would have location / situation – wohngemeinschaft – then relationship – for example, die Verlobte (fiancé, or more precisely, bride-elect) – or the person who is at the location.
Then there are words that can mean just about anything in any context. Some famous and funny examples can be found on YouTube – Rob Schneider’s many meanings of “Dude” or Bernie Mac’s many meanings of “Motherf****” will make you laugh.
Back to communication.
Many parents seek help for their non-vocal autistic children. Speech delay is a common thing for autistics. It takes a long time to learn how to “drive” our amazingly complex and unrestricted quantum field generators. Parents expect to hear “mama” and “dada” within the first year after the child is born. When that doesn’t happen, then begin to panic and seek professional help.
By way of explanation, consider your garden. When you buy a fruit tree at the nursery, the grower will usually tell you how long it will take for the tree to start bearing fruit. Very few trees will fruit in the first season after planting. Many trees require specific pollinators (other varieties of the same kind of tree + bees / insects) be placed in close proximity, or they will never bear fruit. You accept this, put in the work, and wait patiently for years for the first signs of fruit.
BUT, no one gave you the owners-manual for your autistic child / family member / friend / colleague / spouse. No one told you how long it would take for that amazing individual to learn how to manage language. No one told you how long it would take, if ever, for your child to vocalize coherently in your chosen language. So, you panic. In your panic, you seek out the quickest / easiest path to what you think will be success. This path is populated by charlatans and other nefarious / evil people who prey upon your hopes / fears and relieve you of your coin.
“In my life, the first attempts at vocal communication came in the form of echolalia. I heard, stored, and sorted words and phrases that seemed useful… The medical world sees echolalia as a problem / disorder to be cured. Language pathologists exist to help people with problems with language. But, for neurodivergent people, it’s not a “problem” or a “disorder” as such. It’s a mode of communication.”
In my life, the first attempts at vocal communication came in the form of echolalia. I heard, stored, and sorted words and phrases that seemed useful. These came from my primary sources of communication – the radio, TV, and my family. Most of these sources were divorced of context – I had no idea of which words were appropriate to which situations. My immediate family were well-skilled in foul-mouthed sarcasm. Not the most appropriate sources for my echolalia. Trial and error were used to test out my new skill – resulting mostly in error.
The medical world sees echolalia as a problem / disorder to be cured. Language pathologists exist to help people with problems with language. But, for neurodivergent people, it’s not a “problem” or a “disorder” as such. It’s a mode of communication. Many autistic people do not do well with language pathologists because echolalia, for us, isn’t a disorder – it’s a different order. The pathologists attempts to “correct” often cause more problems than they solve. Parents get frustrated at their seemingly wasted money. As you will see, time, patience, and love tend to help more than vigorous therapies.
The years between birth and puberty can be a very frustrating time for parents and autistic children. Imagine having a new roommate who doesn’t speak your language and comes from a completely different culture. How do you get along? How do you set rules? How do you set anything? How do you communicate? Eventually, you each learn a bit of the other’s culture and preferred mode of communication. You figure it out as you go along, together, respectfully. The same holds true when autistics (children) and non-autistics (parents) meet.
For me, echolalia meant that I was pretty good at mimicry. In my multi-ethnic / multi-lingual melting pot of city and sschools, I now had a menu of phrases in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and Armenian. I worked hard at soundingcorrect in each language / dialect. Sometimes, the languages got confused in delivery – to the endless delight of my peers.
But, I found that I could use this style to amuse my classmates – adding accents and flair when reading aloud in class. I could switch from my “BBC presenter voice” to my “Mexican warehouseman voice” with amazing agility. (I continued this when reading aloud to my kids. They were just as amused 😉 )
On the other side, when my brain is quite overwhelmed, vocal communication was / is impossible. Pops, clicks, and other sounds (combined with blank / panicked stares) substitute for words. This is the same today, near 50, as it was when I was young. When I was young, it just seemed weird to my peers / friends.
“On the other side, when my brain is quite overwhelmed, vocal communication was / is impossible. Pops, clicks, and other sounds (combined with blank / panicked stares) substitute for words.”
In spite of my traumatic past, I did have an interest in dating. But, in part due to the nature of my quantum field generator, I had a great deal of trouble focusing on a single person in the way that they would envision these relationships should work. I didn’t quite understand the concept of exclusivity or the differences between platonic / romantic partners. Probably as a result of my past, I tended to see everyone on the same plane (friend / foe – and no other). A classic example of this failure in processing was my first experience with the Sadie Hawkins Dance.
I love to dance. I love to feel the energy and rhythms. I love to move, sway, flow, … My empathic nature absorbs the energy in the room. I can dance for hours, non-stop – and I usually have no desire to stop. Thus, on the first occasion where I would be able to attend a Sadie Hawkins Dance (where the girls ask the boys), I completely blundered. You see, I wanted to go. This is an important starting point – I love to dance and I wanted to go. The school was only a block away, so I could easily walk there on my own. I was asked first by a girl a year my junior, but whom I had known since before I was a toddler. Of course I said yes. I liked her, she was nice to me, and I love to dance. What could possibly go wrong? Then, another girl asked me. Again, we were friends and had a few classes together. “Would you like to go to Sadie Hawkins?” was her request. My answer, of course was “yes.” She, I’m sure now, was implying that her request was to the exclusion of all others. I was simply responding directly to the query. A third girl asked the same question. I gave the same response. To my surprise, and to the shock of the three girls, we all arrived at the dance at about the same time. I had no words to describe what was happening or to help any of them feel any better about my confusion or error. I certainly was no Casanova. To them, I was the biggest jerk in the world. For me, not quite understanding how to escape the situation and also help them to not be mad, frustration led to depression and anger – and retreat from a social life.
I think a lot of what I went through in episodes like these can inform the larger conversation about today’s youth and the trouble they’re having at school. Why do they lash out? Why are they angry / raging / violent? Why have they retreated from the social world?
Thus, that my college relationships didn’t work out is no surprise. Being so far from “home” didn’t help either. I was on my own, much too soon for someone of my limited communication / social capabilities. A few rather catastrophic sensory overloads / meltdowns lead to the rapid demise of each and every relationship I was in – platonic / romantic. One meltdown was so spectacularly overwhelming, leading a shutdown that saw me hospitalized for over a month to recover.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I gained the ability to work in the world of the vocal / verbal and express myself extemporaneously / improvisationally.
When speaking with parents about their kids verbal / vocal ‘deficiencies,’ this information tends to devastate them.
“Isn’t there a cure?”
“Doesn’t therapy help?”
“What about medication?”
The answers to all of these types of questions are (1) everyone is different, (2) everyone develops on their own schedule, (3) communication is happening – let’s focus on getting you all on the same page, “speaking” the same language.
The truth about the length of time necessary to develop these abilities can be seen in the results of my research – the optimal time for autistic people to successfully enroll and remain enrolled to the completion of their college degree is between the ages of 45-64. These results speak to the truth of the autistic experience – not to the expectations of their neurotypical family members / parents / care givers.
Autistic people choose to communicate in ways most comfortable to them.
This is why you’ll find so many of them / us making friends on social media platforms. In this forum, we can take our time with language and attempt to “get it right.” My Baby Boomer friends rail at Millennials with their heads in their devices. “Why can’t they put the phone down and talk to people?” Perhaps, the person on the device is communicating in the best / most efficient way that they know how. I know that to be the case for me – preferring the “written” word (BTW – it’s taken almost 3 hours to compose, revise, revise, revise, and revise this article in it’s current form).
I hope that you don’t mind this winding, somewhat rambling article on communication. Equally, I hope that you aren’t bothered by my injecting some rather frank personal experiences / details. If you’ve ever been in one of my classes, this article may seem familiar in style. I regularly use my own life and experiences as a setting for the lessons I present. After all, I’ve found tens of thousands of ways not to do things – why not use them to inform the next generation and help them avoid all the mistakes? 😉
Thanks for reading today. Have a great day.