How Asperger’s Taught Me to Hate the Phone

What is it about Asperger’s that makes talking on the phone so anxiety-inducing?

When someone says “I’ll call you” my first reaction is what can I do to make that not happen? This is especially true of social calls, the kind that many women think are a pleasant way to connect with a friend. Business calls are slightly less stressful because they have a goal and I can formulate a script ahead of time that will get me to that goal. Assuming the call goes mostly to script and is short, I can power through it.

But why should something as simple as phone call require “powering through” like it’s the social equivalent of an Ironman triathlon?


The phone should be an ideal means of communication for someone who isn’t good at reading body language or making eye contact. All you get over the phone is a voice, right? Communication distilled to its essence: words.

It turns out this isn’t exactly true. Unlike written communication, which is truly nonverbal, phone conversation relies heavily on prosody (the rhythm, stress or intonation of speech). Prosody often conveys the emotional content of language or signals the presence of irony, sarcasm, emphasis or contrast.

Suddenly this one aspect of speech looks pretty important, doesn’t it?

If you can’t interpret prosody, you don’t get certain types of humor, you miss the subtle emotional shifts in the conversation, you fail to recognize which details are being emphasized. That’s just on the listening end. If your own speaking voice lacks prosody–a common trait with Asperger’s–your conversation partner will probably feel ill at ease too.

This explains a lot about why my phone conversations are often punctuated by:

“No, you go ahead.”

and . . .

“What were you going to say?”

and the much loved:

“Are you still there?”

I have a tendency to pause for too long before my turn to speak, which makes the other person anxious. He or she will start speaking again, often right as I start to reply to the previous comment or question. This results in a lot of false starts, interruptions and awkward, “no you go first” encouragement.

The Delicate Balance Between Knowing My Limits and Limiting Myself

If I know that these ill-timed pauses are the problem, why don’t I do something about it?

Good question.

Sometimes I miss the little cues, like a change in intonation, that indicate the other person has finished their turn and it’s my turn to talk. Sometimes I’m using that long pause to collect my thoughts or compose a reply. If the conversation is particularly unstructured, I may start to drift off and lose track of it altogether. Unexpected questions can leave me tongue-tied. In the worst case, I might have no idea what the other person said–at times words sound more like noise than language.

When I first saw the question “do you dislike talking on the phone” on an Asperger’s Syndrome screening questionnaire, I was mystified (and more than a little relieved). Did Asperger’s cause people to dislike the phone? What a strange and specific condition this is, I thought to myself.

After much reading and thought, I’ve realized that Asperger’s itself doesn’t make me dislike the phone. Plenty of people with AS don’t mind the phone at all. What makes me uncomfortable (with all but a few people who I know well) is the cumulative effect of a lifetime of stumbling encounters.

I’m realizing that much of the anxiety I have surrounding social communication has formed in this way. I struggle with processing some aspect of communicating, the negative experiences pile up, and in time I find myself avoiding situations to avoid what I’m certain will be more negative experiences.

Intellectually, I know that I’m creating negative feedback loops, but emotionally I find myself on the defensive, wanting to protect the comfortable bubble I’ve created. I teeter back and forth between seeing the importance in knowing my limits and questioning whether those limits are too . . . limiting.

At some point, I know I’ll have to face this conundrum in a more organized way but I also know that I’m still learning what my limits are and how they protect me and that’s enough for now.

31 thoughts on “How Asperger’s Taught Me to Hate the Phone”

  1. Another phone-phobic autistic-spectrum person here!

    For me, everything you mention is an issue…but there’s something more *in addition* to all that. My auditory processing is inconsistent enough that I often use lip-reading to support what I’m hearing… which, of course, is something that I can’t do on the phone. And the situation is only made worse by the frequency cutoff of the phone, which cuts off many of the frequencies that I regularly use to distinguish speech.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! I can relate to the auditory processing issue. I have a processing delay when I’m stressed or unfocused, but it seems less bad on the phone. Maybe because I try to make phone calls in a quiet.

  2. I’m actually very good at talking on the phone to the extent that I have done call centre work, but I still hate it for social use. In some ways it’s easier than face to face communication because I’m face-blind and have real difficulty in seeing facial expressions.

    1. Interesting that you’ve done call centre work. I’d be curious to know if you have a “work phone” persona that you used, since you don’t like social calls.

      I’m okay most of the time with the phone for work (though a few weeks ago a complete stranger actually said “you don’t sound like a very nice person” in the middle of our conversation). 😦

  3. Didn’t know other people had problems on the phone. Made me think about whether I do. Turns out I do. Never get the cues that the conversation has ended… keep talking. Don’t know how to end a conversation, always let the other person do that which has lead to me being late, not putting me first. Then I’ve learnt not to say too much to survive the phone call, which leads to people calling me because I’m a “great listener”.

    1. It’s reassuring to hear that so many others have issues with the phone, isn’t it? I’ve been called a great listener too and like you said, it’s more out of self-defense than by choice.

  4. The phone and I have never gotten along well; recently i had to do several interviews for a school project, and I did two of the interviews over the phone. I did okay, I think, but before each interview I got a sick feeling in my stomach, so much so I almost didn’t do them. The four face to face interviews were hard too; thinking back I believe it was from me reading their body language wrong, well, that and the stress.
    Never knowing when to speak is a problem for me as well because I’m never sure whether they’re done speaking or not. That and I do not know how to sustain a conversation; I usually just listen to what they’re saying, then get ready to say good bye. And then they ask how I’m doing, and the question just freezes my brain because I’m not sure how to answer – I want to be interesting, like they are, but I don’t think what I’m doing is interesting to them so I stumble and stutter through a short response and end up feeling awkward and can’t wait for the conversation to end.
    I really like texting though (my family just recently got a plan that has texting on it), although I have trouble with being a little to stiff and proper in my sentences – the symbols are my hero, because I can put a smiley face to ensure they don’t think I’m mad or something. But yeah, I love texting; I can think out my response, double check it so that it’s correct, then send it and wait for their response. Texting and email. I love them.

    1. Yes, to all of this. When I know that I have to make a phone call that’s going to be stressful, I spend hours feeling like I’m trapped in a long dark tunnel. It’s a horrible feeling. And I know that I should just get it over with, but I’m a champion procrastinator when it comes to phone calls.

      I like texting and IM an email and any sort of text-based exchange, although even IM can be a little fast-paced and intimidating at times.

    2. YES! Texting, internet chat, and email=relief! I have never felt comfortable with long phone conversations, and I have to really tie myself down, so to speak, even with people I adore. It just drives me batty. For me the biggest part of it is the auditory portion. This has gotten worse with age, even though I have hearing aids for my partial deafness. I finally just gave up, and now I try to keep any calls as short as possible. (Aspies dislike small talk, don’t we!)

      1. I can only imagine who much more complicated a hearing aid makes phone conversations, on top of the usually aspie complications! My dad wears hearing aids and he’s definitely not a fan of the telephone.

  5. This is such an interesting topic. It’s so good to hear it from your point of view. I’m not on the spectrum, but I’m surrounded by lots of family members who are. My husband, two of my three adult children, two of five grandchildren, my brother, nephew, aunt, granddad, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, late brother-in-law. To a lesser degree, a sister. They all have very different telephone styles and feelings about talking on the phone.

    I’ve known hubby since we were teenagers, and right from the beginning he’s HATED talking on the phone. He didn’t have an explanation, just knew he didn’t like it. ‘State your business, say goodbye.’ He has his ‘business personna’ that he uses on the phone at work.

    My late Aunt Barb.. such a dear woman! Never married, never had kids.. worked for the government in the Archives dept all her life.. perfect job for her! She was never officially diagnosed, but after living with and raising people on the Asperger Scale, I recognized it in her. Her phone style was to keep on talking.. non-stop.. in her monotone voice that sounded as if everything was a conspiracy! To end the call, you’d just have to find a space to say it was time to go, it was lovely talking with her, etc. And it really was nice listening to her.. she was lovely and funny and a little naive.

    The two most uncomfortable people to talk to on the phone are my brother and my mother-in-law. Before we knew about Aspergers in the family.. I always thought to myself, “why is it so difficult to talk to them on the phone??? It seems like they’re off by a beat. They’re missing a beat, or something.” It was as if the thing you said took an extra long time to go through the phone wires .. maybe took a detour to Albuquerque first! .. then finally arrived at their ears. So now I know the reason for that, thanks to you! They just need a second or two to process what was said.

    Most interesting to me is my twin daughters. One on the scale and one not. So much to say! But, I will say that the Aspy was so lucky to go through school with her sister having her back, protecting her from bullies, and helping and teaching her socially. Aspy daughter is fine on the phone!

    1. I have a business phone persona too. It’s a bit like acting, but it works most of the time.

      Being off by a beat is the perfect description and I’m sure that’s how people perceive my phone interaction. Especially on nonscripted, non-business calls, which make me so uncomfortable. I’m glad this post helped you understand more about what’s happening on the other end of the line with your family members. 🙂

  6. I hate phones too, and yet I now find myself on the phone a lot for my job. For the first six months it totally wrung me out. Now I’m getting used to it — the whole “business phone persona” acting business, as you mentioned in the comments, does help a lot. Still — I know I’m missing things, and people often say they worry because they can’t “get” my reactions very easily in how I respond. I still try to send email whenever possible … even to family! Fortunately, my boss uses Skype chat and knows I feel more comfortable there, so we often chat back and forth this way via typing. That does help a lot.

  7. Thanks for this article – really interesting. I’ve always hated talking on the phone, but I had put it down to bad experiences when I was young, which doesn’t make much sense now that I think about it. It’s a little worse for me in that my speech has always been difficult for people to understand. Since on the phone I can’t see their face, I can go on and on without realising the other person hasn’t understood what I’ve said, and it’s frustrating and disheartening to have to repeat it.

    It’s interesting that you say you don’t mind work calls, but hate social calls; I’m the opposite. With close friends, at least, I can enjoy talking to them on the phone, especially when I don’t get to talk to them often. If I have to make a call for work though, it can be quite scary – I often put it off, or try to avoid it. I had a temp job over the summer, where they ran out of work for me to do and asked me to help with calling customers to update the customer database. I was furious, because the job was not supposed to involve talking to customers at all, and yet they suddenly asked me to spend the rest of my contract doing it all day! Naturally I wasn’t very effective in getting through the list of customers to call – before calling each customer I’d read their details again and again to put off picking up the phone, and when I finally did I’d be relieved in the many cases where I couldn’t get through. Then between calls I’d be looking for something else to do – write something down, get a drink of water, check my emails, get a piece of fruit, anything to delay the next call! I think the worst part was that when you dial the number, you can never be sure who will answer or what mood they’ll be in, or anything. Even when you’re saying the same thing to each person, you can get such a variety of responses – anything from them snapping at you to go away because they don’t have time to take your call, to them asking you how the weather is and making other random conversation. I guess the good thing about that was that I quickly learned not to take it personally, which is a realisation I can extend to life in general – people’s reactions to me aren’t always entirely due to what I’ve said or done, a lot has to do with what’s going on in them that I can’t see.

    1. I can see how having speech that is sometimes difficult to understand would especially complicated work phone calls. 😦

      I guess the good thing about that was that I quickly learned not to take it personally, which is a realisation I can extend to life in general – people’s reactions to me aren’t always entirely due to what I’ve said or done, a lot has to do with what’s going on in them that I can’t see.

      This is so true and something that I should try harder to remember when things go poorly. It’s really impossible to know why someone reacts in a certain way unless we’ve really done something obviously offensive.

  8. How did I never comment on this?

    I do phoning with my friends, but then it’s usually pre-scheduled, me initiatiating, or because it’s an emergency, in which case all protocols are out the window anyway. If I am not sure who will pick up the phone, I get horribly nervous, because I need to mentally prepare for the person.
    But I am still okayish with social calls.
    Work or otherwise serious ones not so much.
    Ian actually does a lot of the official phone calls (setting up appointments, stuff like that) for me because the mere idea can send me into a meltdown if I am sufficiently stressed.

    Just yesterday, my cell phone rang shortly past midnight with a blocked number – and I nearly had a panic attack over it.

    1. This is a pretty old post. I think there are a lot of people who have probably never seen it.

      Ironically, I spent at least an hour on the phone today trying to straighten out various snafus with postage and printers in such. Fortunately, the tech support people seem to be used to people who have no idea what they’re doing and were all very kind and patient. 🙂

      A cell phone ringing past midnight with a blocked number would definitely send my heart racing too. I hope it was a wrong number or something similarly innocuous.

  9. I have always been stressed by talking on the phone. I remember being none and flat out refusing to do so. (A trend which continued until about 14 when my friends and I all got cell phones.)

    Now, I am comfortable talking on the phone if it’s a social thing, but if a phone call is “official” in any way (requiring me to follow politeness scripts, engage in planning, make decisions, deal with numbers/dates/time, etc) then I freeze and start getting confused and panicky.

    If there’s information that needs to be sorted, I always ask for it to be texted or emailed to me rather than relayed over phone. I’ve asked my partner to field phone calls from my mum before so I can avoid having to schedule things by phone.

    1. Official calls are so nerve-wracking. And I’m differntiating from work calls here, because I do work calls repeatedly and have a script, whereas official calls tend to be much less frequent and harder to script.

      Your strategies for making calls less stressful are great. Getting information sent in text format is a huge help.

    2. As for planning: I don’t like being required to make decisions on the spot. Perhaps a good alternative would be to ask for the information to write down, and then call them back.

      As for dates and times: I notice that neurotypicals tend to think in terms of days of the week rather than days of the month. For example, if I am speaking to a neurotypical on Tuesday the 11th day of the month, and he says he wants to meet with me “next Friday”, I will ask “do you mean the 14th or the 21st?” by way of clarification. I will also look for — or, if one is not available, construct — a calendar on which I can point to dates. I know that constructing a calendar might mark me as having Asperger’s, but I’d rather do that than miss an appointment.

      As for numbers: I do not understand why some neurotypicals insist on using a fast cadence for phone numbers. When I say numbers over the phone, I speak slowly and/or insert pauses so that the person on the other end can get it right. I will also repeat certain information to make sure they get it right. “Sixty-five Main Street, that’s six– five– Main– Street” because over a bad connection, 65 can sound like e.g. 55. But apparently neurotypicals don’t do this, or seldom do this.

      tl;dr: Keep a notepad and a calendar within reach of your phone. Ask the person on the other end to please speak more slowly. If they try to pressure you into making a decision on the spot, ask for their phone number so you can call them back.

  10. My granddaughter has aspbergers and never answers the phone when I ring her. I thought it was because she had fallen out with me so it was so helpful to read all the views from other aspies .thank you.

  11. Like the previous lady my granddaughter never calls me and I too thought it was because she had fallen out with me. Thank you for all your posts, I now realise not to take it personally. I think most people don’t understand exactly how difficult having aspbergers can be and think you are just being anti social by not keeping in contact with loved ones so it is great that you are helping us to see it from your perspective

  12. Thank you for sharing your struggles in this article, I thought I was the onlyone avoiding the phone and hating those “I’ll call you back / call me back” phrases. Its important for me to find an explanation for that.

    As for those awkward pauses before answering I’ve noticed that I rarely think in words or phrases and rather think in ideas that are very clear in my mind. I believe that makes my analysis process much easier for almost any situation since I don’t have to deal with the structural form of speech but then that makes it really complicated for me to translate ideas into words, since I rarely think in words. That explains almost all of my akward pauses, I’m trying to arrange things so that they seem understandable for others.

    That also led to me almost failing my driver’s license exam, since the lady tought that I was on drugs because I could not manage to respond at a ‘normal’ pace. Or the fact that my university thesis was highlighted as one the best written documents in years while having one of the poorest dissertations, at the same time.

    1. Sometimes I get angry and wish the tables were turned. For example, I might wish that a café worker had to add up my bill, including sales tax, in her head. “Who’s disabled now, huh?!”
      Of course, in real life that kind of figuring is farmed out to electronics. I would pay pretty much anything to farm my social bullshit out to electronics.

  13. I can’t remember exactly when I started hating talking on the phone. Sometime in my 20s I think. In high school I was on the phone with my friends all the time. My father would joke about having the phone surgically removed from my ear. Now the only person I really like talking on the phone with is my mom. And my aunt. Not my friends. I like to spend time with them in person, not on the phone.

    I don’t mind business calls at all. If I have a matter of business to take care of that’s easy, even if my opening line is a bit jumbled or awkward ’cause I don’t know exactly where to start. But I find my footing fairly quickly and painlessly. It’s the social interaction that for some reason is just not fun for me over the phone, to the point that it is a bit of a phobia. Being off a beat is the perfect way to describe it.

    A major pet peeve? When I’m at a relative’s house (normally on a holiday) and another relative calls, and they chat a while, and say to the person on the line “oh, hey, there’s someone here who wants to say ‘hi’ to you!” and shoves the phone in my face. No, I do not want to say hi to anyone. That phone call is yours, not mine. Keep it. My parents now know not to do that, if for no other reason because it will hurt the feelings of the person on the line and create an awkward situation.

    1. Wow! That is so ME! You said it exactly right:
      “No, I do not want to say hi to anyone. That phone call is yours, not mine. Keep it.”

  14. Thank you for your post. I’m glad I am not the only one in this case. For me, it is what is going on in the background on the other end. Sound is amplified on a phone, even with the volume turned down. I only talk to one person on the phone. I can tolerate her voice and she never has anything loud going on in the background. If kids start to play outside, she closes the patio door. That is why she is my friend and someone I talk to on the phone. Everybody else-TEXT.

  15. This is interesting. I also have Asperger’s, but for me it’s almost the opposite of what you described here. I’m fine calling close friends and relatives, but I panic when calling businesses. And for me the reason is that it’s TOO similar to talking in person.

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