Tag Archives: communication deficit

The One Where I Talk About Why Talking is Hard

Today, I’m interrupting the sensory processing series to do something a little different. Okay, a lot different. I had originally planned to make a video blog about sensory diet to run today. What happened instead was a video about why talking is hard.

About 45 minutes into a very frustrating attempt at speaking on video, I gave up. I was ready to walk away from the process when The Scientist asked me to describe what I was feeling. Mostly I was feeling frustrated and angry with myself, but I eventually got past that and managed to talk a little about why I have so much difficulty speaking in this type of situation.

The short answer: The thinking and speaking parts of my brain seem to compete for resources, making it harder for me to organize my thoughts when I speak versus when I write. When I see how much I repeat myself in this video, I cringe, because if I were writing these thoughts out, I would use 1/3 as many words and probably be able to convey twice as much content.

If nothing else, I think you might find the contrast between my written communication and spoken communication interesting.  Continue reading The One Where I Talk About Why Talking is Hard

(Not) a Little Slow

There is a moment I dread in conversations with strangers: the moment when that stranger–that person I’ve been talking to for a minute or two or five–decides I’m “a little slow.”

It doesn’t happen with every stranger, but it happens often enough that I can pinpoint the moment a conversation turns. To start, we’re both on our best interacting-with-a-stranger behavior, a bit wary, a bit too friendly, whatever. Then I slip. I miss some key bit of information, ask the other person to repeat something one too many times, stutter, backtrack, repeat myself, interrupt  again, lose the thread of the conversation, take a joke literally, perseverate. There are a lot of ways it could play out.

The response–the one that makes my skin heat up and my heart race and the blood in my ears pound–is subtle but sudden.

A note of condescension slips into the other person’s voice. I  may suck at reading body language, but I’m pretty good at gauging voice tone. Maybe they start speaking more slowly or repeating themselves. They downgrade their vocabulary to smaller words. They repeatedly ask questions like, “are you following me?” and “does that make sense?” They get pedantic, having decided I require some sort of instruction.

In short, they’ve decided I’m a little slow on the uptake.

At the first sign of this shift, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been categorized by this person who knows next to nothing about me and is forming an opinion based on my spotty verbal skills, tallying them up with my inconsistent eye contact and my incongruent body language and all the other ways my body says “not like you.”

Am I Slow?

Literally speaking, I guess I am.  My verbal processing–both receptive and expressive–is impaired to the point that I often need more time than the average person to understand or respond to someone.

I have all sorts of communication glitches. I struggle with verbal instructions. If there’s background noise or other distractions, my auditory processing lags to the point that it can take a few seconds to process speech from noise into words. My verbal responses default to scripts–sometimes not even the right scripts–or become minimal when the conversation takes an unexpected turn, moves too fast or is too unstructured.

There is a significant disconnect between my verbal skills and my intelligence or literacy or whatever you want to call it.

In short, I look better on paper. If I was a shelter pup, there would be a note in my file that said, “Does not show well.”

Generally, this isn’t a problem for me. I’ve engineered my work life so that I first “meet” people via email or some other text-based correspondence. By the time we talk on the phone or meet in person, the other person has (hopefully) formed an opinion of me that will withstand some verbal glitching.

I’ve gravitated toward text-based medium in general, spending my days working primarily with the written word. Still, I have to do things like go to the doctor, contact the super in my building for repairs, and navigate the university records office to correct my transcript–all situations in which I’ve encountered the dreaded conversation shift. Situations in which I went from feeling like I was on equal footing with another adult to feeling patronized, belittled or ignored.

And here’s the thing: I am an adult. Whether I speak eloquently and fluently or not, I’m still an adult. My ability to communicate verbally has no impact on my ability to understand the way a ground fault interrupter works or what the risk factors for breast cancer are or how to read my college transcript. I don’t need to have these things explained to me like I’m a child.

What do I need, you might be thinking? My wishlist:

  1. Treat me like a competent adult.

  2. Be patient. I might need a little extra time to compose my answer or to process what you’ve said.

  3. If I ask for clarification, try explaining in a different way. If I didn’t understand the way you explained the first time, an exact repetition probably won’t help.

  4. Assume that if I don’t understand something, I’ll say so.

  5. Don’t rely on my body language or other typical cues for feedback about whether I understand what you’re saying. Unless you’re also autistic or know me very well, you probably can’t read my body language any better than I can read yours.

  6. Give me time to write down key information if I need to.

  7. Don’t oversimplify your language or speak unusually slowly or loudly.

  8. If you’re giving me verbal instructions, break them down into specific steps and explain one step at a time.

  9. If I keep repeating a question or statement, I need a stronger acknowledgement that you’ve heard and understood me.

  10. Treat me like a competent adult.

Some of the stuff on that list comes under the heading of accommodations. These are things I have to ask for because they are outside the norm and others may not know that I find them helpful.

But some of it–like #1 and #7–those should be the bare minimum we can expect when interacting with other adults, regardless of how typically or atypically we present.

The Case of the Missing Words

I’ve mentioned my “missing word problem” here before. You may have noticed it in reading the blog or my comment replies–my tendency to skip over a small but necessary word when I write. This is more than a simple problem with typos, which I can easily catch and fix when proofreading.

The mystery of the missing words had proved intractable enough that I’d given up on solving it.

Until now, that is! I’m reading “The Mind’s Eye” by Oliver Sacks and right there in Chapter 2 is a potential answer: aphasia.

Aphasia is a disruption in expressive or receptive language. It can be as severe as a complete loss of understanding of language, including the inability to speak or think in words. (Aphasia usually affects all forms of language, not just speech.) “Global aphasia” often results from a brain tumor, stroke, traumatic brain injury or degenerative brain disease.

However, milder forms of aphasia are characterized by:

  • difficulty in finding words (especially nouns, in particular proper nouns)
  • a tendency to use an incorrect word without a change in sentence structure

In discussing notable case histories of aphasia, Sacks mentions the English writer Samuel Johnson, who experienced aphasia after a stroke at the age of 73. While Johnson eventually regained the ability to speak, he “made uncharacteristic mistakes, sometimes omitting a word or writing the wrong word” in his writing and correspondence.


Adding Up the Evidence

I omit words when I write–more often than the average person it seems–at a rate of about one missing word per one to three hundred words, more if I’m tired (yes, I’ve started keeping track).

The missing words are small but important, like not, an and the. I need to proofread multiple times to catch them, often in an alternative format, because my brain likes to help me out by pretending the missing word exists and skimming right over the omission.

I sometimes use the wrong word without noticing. In writing, it tends to be a word that is close in spelling or sound, though not necessarily in meaning, like bring instead of brain. When speaking, my substitutions are more entertaining. For example, last night The Scientist was using a kitchen towel to clean up a mess.

“Put that in the dishwasher when you’re done,” I suggested helpfully.

He looked at the towel and frowned. “You mean the washing machine.”

Right. That’s exactly what I meant. And what I thought I’d said. This happens a few times a week and I rarely notice that I’ve done it until someone points it out. It’s more common when I’m fatigued or in a setting with a lot of distractions.

I have trouble with retrieving words, especially names of people and things:

“I’ll recycle the, the  . . .” I’m staring at the newspaper and pointing at the newspaper and I cannot for the life of me come up with the word for it. All I have is a blank–a tangible, almost physical hole in my mind where newspaper should be. “I’ll recycle that that  . . . thing after I finish reading it. $%&*! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT WORDS FOR THINGS?!”

I’d been attributing the increasing frequency of gaps in word retrieval to getting older. It’s frustrating, especially when I’m trying to find the right word for a written piece and it refuses to surface. Sometimes it will be hours before I can come up with the word I’m looking for; fortunately I’ve learned how to set the problem to process in the background. This often results in me randomly exclaiming things like “dichotomy!” at inappropriate times.

Is Aphasia the Answer?

If this is indeed mild aphasia, then I finally have an explanation for some minor but annoying language difficulties. Perhaps my auditory processing delay is a form of receptive aphasia?

Then again, this could all be tied to Asperger’s. I’ve heard others on the spectrum mention difficulty with finding words at times. Our issues with processing spoken language are widely known. The missing word problem, though? Does anyone else experience that to the degree that I do?

Eager to learn more than what Sacks presents in his brief chapter, I Googled aphasia and instantly regretted it. Here’s what I found at that reliable bastion of truth, Wikipedia:

“Acute aphasia disorders usually develop quickly as a result of head injury or stroke, and progressive forms of aphasia develop slowly from a brain tumor, infection, or dementia.”

Ruh roh.

My language glitches have become frequent enough in the last 2-3 years that I can no longer ignore them. The missing words. The struggle to retrieve words. The odd, unpredictable substitutions. The Scientist says that my receptive language difficulties seem to have gotten worse in the past year too. I ask him to repeat himself a lot, especially when he’s not facing me and I don’t have the advantage of watching his lips.

And this is where I think it pays to stop Googling and back slowly away from the neurology textbook.

The language oddities I’ve described here are firmly in the “inconvenient” category for me right now. Unless that changes, I’ll consider the similarities to aphasia symptoms an interesting bit of trivia. Stay tuned . . .

**In proofreading this multiple times, I found 7 missing words (my, their, a, I’m, an, the and of) and 1 incorrect substitution (ever for even). There may be others that I missed.

Writing is Communication Too

If you get a group of writers together, on the internet or in a workshop, someone will eventually ask the ultimate navel-gazing question: why do we write?

My stock answer–the one that’s easiest to explain and makes me look least weird–is that I write because I enjoy it. There’s nothing like the rush of chasing an idea, my fingers flying across the keyboard, barely able to keep pace with my thoughts. There’s no other activity I can get so completely lost in.

That answer saves me from having to reveal this: I write to set the words in my head free.

My brain latches onto interesting ideas in a way that makes it hard to stop thinking about them. Once something grabs my attention, my mind will turn it around and around, shaping and growing it like a vase on a potter’s wheel. Writing the idea down stops the rapid spinning of the wheel and leaves me with the equivalent of a finished vase I can share with other people instead of a hard lump of clay sitting in my brain.

Shaping an idea in my head feels like this:

Ultimately, I write because I need to. I communicate better through written words than spoken words. When I write, I can take as much time as I like to shape my thoughts into a coherent whole. I can get feedback from others to check for clarity. I can let an idea breathe and grow over days or weeks.

The process is something like this: Write. Revise. Reconsider. Delete. Edit. Clarify. Rethink. Shape. Walk away. Come back. Write more. Think more. Print it. Read it. Share it. Revise, revise, revise. Done. Mmm, maybe just change that word. Or this one. Okay, really done. Yeah? Yeah.

Doing this in a spoken conversation is impossible. There’s no delete button for spoken words. Revising, in the form of explanations and clarifications, is rarely successful. Once you say something, it’s out there in a way that is, ironically, indelible.

Communication Deficit or Communication Difference

So do I have a communication deficit? (one of the core diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s)

That may depend on how we define communication. You could argue that writing is a one-way process. I carefully shape my idea and put it out there, feeling quite content with how it looks and feels, and then I go on my merry way, chasing another bright shiny idea.

It’s all very neat and tidy. It’s also very autistic. What could be more characteristic of an aspie than a one-way information dump followed by a determined retreat back inside my head to ponder the mysteries of the universe, or at least the mystery of why someone keeps leaving sandwiches on the sidewalk of one particular street where I walk my dog?

But, short of a mind meld, writing is my best shot at sharing what I want to say. I could talk all day and not get across half of what I can communicate in writing. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve shared things with my family–in writing–that we’ve never talked about. Big important things and little niggling things, all of them left unspoken, sometimes for many years.

The result has been anything but one-way. Sharing my thoughts in writing creates an opening for others to start conversations, to ask questions, to offer insights and to share their own thoughts. This is communication–deep, fulfilling, nontraditional communication–in a way that I’ve rarely experienced.

It feels so good to share something with my husband and see a light of understanding in his eyes. It’s done wonders for our relationship to revisit past hurts and misunderstandings in a fresh light. There’s a new level of understanding opening up and I think it’s because I’m finally able to communicate, really communicate, how I experience and process the world around me.

I’ve also discovered that writing is a way to communicate with myself. The process of exploring Asperger’s is helping me integrate disparate parts of myself into a whole. It’s creating a map of my inner landscape in a way that is profoundly healing and empowering.

Perhaps this is what I meant when I said I write because I need to. Writing connects me to those around me, and it connects me to myself.

Once a Writer, Always a Writer

This is one the first things I ever wrote, when I was seven. I remember hearing my mother telling parts of this election day story to someone and deciding that I wanted to make it into a book. I still have it, in all its stained, stapled glory, and thought it would be fun to share.

If you look closely enough at these pages, you’ll see my aspie traits shining through. Note the atrocious handwriting.
Aspie trait #2: oddly advanced vocabulary and syntax for a 7-year-old (quite puzzled, indeed)
I have a feeling a lot of this writing is actually echolalia (the repetition of another person’s words, which is common to kids with ASD) and I was mimicking my mother’s telling of the story to another adult.
More aspie traits: a pedantic approach to social situations and a rigid adherence to the rules (going out the “in” door! *gasp*). I was also a pretty funny little kid, no?