Thursday, December 19, 2013

Talking is Hard

When I was a toddler, I wasn’t supposed to be autistic.  And so a speech-language pathologist told my parents that if they simply stopped responding to my made-up gesture language, I would start talking.
What followed was many years of me getting berated for being too shy, of everyone assuming I was just afraid to speak, and not that it was actually too hard. 
(Before very long, I was afraid to speak, though, because I was persistently misunderstood when I did.)
For a very long time, I could not reliably use spoken language to make myself understood or get my needs met.  Either because—though I could technically speak, with difficulty—I couldn’t say what I needed to, or I couldn’t get anyone to believe me when I could.
To make a long story short, I eventually found theater, and there learned the practicality of scripting—and in debate, the knack of saying things like you just expect people to believe them—and talking got a lot easier.  But never truly easy.
Communicating in spoken language always feels like playing with fire.  I wrote once in a journal that it felt like I was always speaking English as a second language, except that I didn’t really have a native language.
Talking is almost always an unnatural way to communicate for me.  It doesn’t seem to be a strictly physical issue, like oral motor apraxia, for the most part, but feels like it has more to do with difficulty in starting and stopping, and something about my sense of timing and rhythm, of momentum and inertia.  The strain of doing it too much feels very similar to that of having to multitask too much for too long.
Speaking and conversation involves some of the most complex mental gymnastics I do on a daily basis.  I’m relatively good at it because I’ve forced myself into a lot of practice under difficult circumstances over the years, not because it’s natural or easy.  It isn’t.
It’s been especially hard the past couple of weeks.  I was working on a project during which my communication abilities got pushed to their outer limits, in multiple ways, for an extended period of time.  The energy drain has taken a huge hit on my speech abilities.
It might have been a short dip—if the stress is relatively short-term and not persistent, I can recover with a single decent night’s sleep—but I just kept getting badly stressed without a chance to recover over the course of several weeks…so it’s going to be a longer dip.  It’s been a couple of weeks now, and just starting to really feel better.
I can only get away with talking as much as I do because most of the speech I have to use in the course of a typical work day is at least partially scripted, which alleviates some of the stress of real-time translation involved in using spontaneous speech.
It helps to rest it and take long breaks whenever I can.  I come home from work and don’t talk if I can help it.  I take non-speaking days to give myself a break.  On my days off, I go somewhere to read, where I won’t have to talk to anyone beyond ordering coffee.  I listen to as little human speech as possible—sometimes I don’t even turn on the radio in the morning like usual.  I put off phone calls.  If I watch TV, I use the closed captions so I can watch more than listen.  Letting myself think in pictures, patterns, and loops.  Leisurely pleasure reading.  Doing something with my hands that requires very little verbal thought.  Getting as much sleep and downtime as possible.  Staying away from multi-tasking, doing one thing at a time and letting myself sink deeply into that task…not switching back and forth between tabs in my mental browser window, so to speak.
There are times when intense practice can help to strengthen and reinforce speech abilities, but there are also times when backing off and resting is necessary to preserve those abilities.  Like any other physical or intellectual exercise, it can get easier as it becomes habitual, but it can also be pushed beyond a reasonable limit.
It isn’t distressing or uncomfortable, in and of itself, to not be able to talk.  Unless someone’s pressuring or forcing me, refusing or unable to understand my best efforts, or I’m in a situation where I don’t have any choice but to push through that boundary and keep doing it even though I know I’ve hit my limit. 
That hurts…literally hurts.  I get home sore all over, with and my ears ringing and a piercing tension headache.  I’m sick and exhausted for days afterward.
But just to be able to not speak—It’s restful.  It’s comfortable.  It’s a relief.  It’s something I need, and there’s nothing wrong with that.


  1. Yay for the verbal days off! I get fewer chances now than I used to when I could do it maybe three days at a time and I think this is really taking a toll. Now I have many more more problems in the middle of when it is inconvenient. So I recommend doing this strategy as a preventive measure instead of just recuperative for anyone who can relate. Thank you *so* much for writing this excellent piece, Chavisory!!

  2. This is soooooooo close to my own experience with verbal speech! Thanks for writing this post.

  3. Since I was always ABLE to speak, my parents just told me that everything I said was an excuse, that I was worthless (and lazy and a constant humiliation.) At that time in my life, I was really only able to parrot what I heard; I couldn't properly process many things that I heard... everything seemed like "Rutabaga"... few words had any real meaning to me. I was constantly disruptive in class... I could not function in a classic school at any capacity (excepts tests... I could ace tests easily). I have severe dyscalculia and only received about a half hour of help (on homework) from my parents in my entire life. When school councilors stepped in, my parents explained I was just lying for attention (I WAS trying to find SOMEONE who would understand that SOMETHING was wrong.) They grounded me for weeks and even months if I dared keep telling people my "bullshit, made-up stories." They just told me that I was one of those bad eggs and was completely unappreciative of ALL they did for me (I was never once allowed to see a psychologist or anyone who might diagnose ANY kind of condition... I just had to accept that I was a bad person who did bad things because... that's what bad people like me do.) I was told daily that "I was so smart, I COULD do anything... but I won't" or how lucky I was that my father was such a wonderful man, as he didn't HAVE to take care of me... I should have ended up in a state home (I was 7 when that was first thrown in my face; around the same time my step-mother sat me down to explain all the reasons why my biological mother didn't love me or care if I lived or died.) I was told several times a day how much of a burden I was; how my existence meant they had to work SO MUCH HARDER (I guess they wouldn't have had ANY bills had I not been there.) I used to get lost when they made me start walking to and from school; more than once (when I was 8) I wandered until I could find someplace that looked familiar or until someone saw a crying lost child and helped me find my way home. Sometimes I didn't get home until 9 or 10 at night. Each time, I was grounded and told to stop lying... they never once called the police... or anyone. They made sure I paid dearly for being so willfully malicious (as they put it nearly every time.) My step-mother had twins (1 neural typical and one with CP and Autism.) They made big shows of how they were worth the effort, but I simple never would be. I was compared to a 45 year old living with and off his parents by the time I was 12. When I left at age 17, they took my pictures down and pretended that they only had 2 children, instead of 3. I have never really been allowed to come near their home again as I have been classified as a psycho and a danger (they told ALL KINDS of stories to the family so that no one would offer ANY help.) There's more, but you get the point. However, my point is this... Just because we can speak doesn't mean we are properly processing what was being said (I didn't realize I had ever been mistreated until I was almost 30... I walked around repeating how horrific a person I was for well over a decade... it was all I knew.) I prefer to have no more that an hour of talk time a day, as I still feel like speaking is pointless. I can better express myself by typing.

  4. Great post, thank you! Im an Autism mom, and my daughter likes to talk, but she enjoys lots of scripts finds it easier to communicate in one or two words than longer sentences, etc (at least right now at not-quite-4). She also find answering questions so difficult, bless her heart. I really try not to push. Its such a fine line between trying to help equip your child so they can communicate their needs to others, and to not push them into having to talk more than they want to. Appreciate the insight, thanks!

  5. Such an interesting and honest article. Being in our culture ( America ) has a great deal to do with the verbal expectations. We compete with so much noise, talk over each other are always expected to state our opinion. On our travel in Africa it is the opposite. Each speaks softly and one at a time. There is no use for idle and constant chatter. Actions have been understood between people of many languages that cannot communicate verbally. It's very refreshing

  6. "But just to be able to not speak—It’s restful. It’s comfortable. It’s a relief. It’s something I need, and there’s nothing wrong with that." although I'm neurotypical, i can relate so much to this. No one could ever process the possibility of speaking being tiring, so thank you for showing me I'm not alone. i found speechless days to be such a great recharge, and felt the energy flowing back again in me, like magic!