Autism awareness month has just finished, and even though much of the self-advocacy work is via printed word online or in other print media, most of the work I do is via oral communication. I thought I would write about the perceptions around oral communication as I currently see and experience them, both for myself, other aspies and autistics and those not on the autistic spectrum.
Whenever oral communication and autism are mentioned together the speaker is usually launching into a short explanation of the perceived shortcomings around language for those on the spectrum. However, I would and do argue that aspies often have a better grasp of grammar, syntax and language than many others. I would also argue that a fluid oral language ability is mor to do with sensory and/or emotional overload than a lack of language skills as evidenced by the beautiful and highly-skilled writings, both fiction and non-fiction of some well known non-oral autistic adults. I would suggest that an autistic child who makes movies with a passion and skill not evident in their oral language is communicating with skill and passion in their chosen way. Non-autistic film directors are certainly accepted as communicating via their movies, so why not autistics.
Oral language is both more important and less important to myself and others on the spectrum. More important in that we value words, treasure their meanings, their shape, texture and sound, and less important in that we value and appreciate silence between words, are comfortable with communication being in other formats such as sign, type, emotion, or body movements.
I do not believe that the majority of people understand that they often say one thing and mean another in such a casual manner. I think this is because most people do not find anything of value in their own words. Why would one adult say to another, “I’ll phone you later,” and then not do so. When I talk with my neuro-typical colleagues or friends, they suggest various reasons for saying this and then not following through with an actual phone call. These reasons are listed below:
1. The person talking doesn’t want to meet the other person again, but it rude to say this. When the other person doesn’t get a phone call, they know that the talker is not interested in meeting up again. (Aspie response in my head, what the???? If you don’t want to meet someone again say thanks for the evening/meal/whatever and leave)
2. The person talking is demonstrating a continued interest in the other person in a socially conventional manner, ie saying they will talk to them later. Aspie response in my head, but how do you know I it is not wanting to meet again or continued interest? This is very confusing.
3. This is just a casual comment/statement like ‘see you tomorrow’ it means I may or may not call/see you tomorrow, but I am fine with doing so. This may or may not contain emotional feelings within it. Aspie thoughts in my head…. Ok so this is basically a social construction with a number of different possible meanings that I may or may not understand.

This is why an Aspie or autistic person would say to another person, “I’ll phone you later,” and then not do so: they either became severely incapacitated or their phone did!

Another situation where oral language is used to mis-communicate by neuro-typicals is when leaving social gathering early. Excuses are provided to the host along the lines of, ‘my dog/child/work/sick relative require my presence. As I understand it,this is so that the host is not offended by a guest leaving early. I wonder what happens if there really is a sick relative a home/I the hospital? How does on know the difference?

This is what an Aspie would say before leaving a social gathering, “thanks for inviting me, I am tired now and need to go home. I am unsure why someone could be offended by this. It says what it means.

And that I think is one of the fundamental differences in oral language use by aspies and autistics versus neuro-typical people. We say what we mean and consciously mean what we say, whereas neuro-typical people are constrained by a social code around oral language use that does not prioritise meanings of words. Instead words are vehicles to convey social attitudes and hidden agendas not to communicate clearly at all. This is not the same in all oral languages or cultures, ie Dutch in the Netherlands, where the majority of people say what they mean and mean what they say. However, the English language and those cultures that speak it seem to prioritise tact, social attitudes and hidden agendas most of the time.

I am ever grateful to my primary school in Cumbria, in the UK, for explicitly teaching us the hidden agenda behind words in that culture. We started by looking at houses being advertised for sale. Close to transport turned out to the the favourite euphemism for train/freeway right next to the property. Perfect for DIY enthusiasts translates as falling down property and so on. We went on to study advertising, oral selling techniques, political speeches and so on. This mean that I understood from the age of 8 or 9 that people can and do use language to deliberately miscommunicate. However, I still find it jarring that ordinary people in ordinary situations feel the need to hide their true meanings in oral language that says one thing and means another. Why? What is the point? Isn’t it more hurtful to wait hours or days for a phone call than to be told, thanks but no thanks?

Autistic kids a school rarely get explicitly taught about deliberate miscommunication in oral language, and I they do not until high school. The problem with this is that instead these kids learn that their teachers lie and/or are stupid. For example, students are often told ‘in 5 minutes’ x will happen. Ten or more minutes go by and x has still not happened. The autistic student who can tell the time has two choices of thought in these cases, either the teacher can’t tell the time (in which case he/she is stupid) or the teacher didn’t mean it in the first place (in which case they are a liar). I don’t think that either of these thoughts are helpful for long-term student teacher relationships. However, when I discuss this with colleagues they either don’t believe me or they say that the students need to learn that they as teacher are meaning in around five minutes if nothing else more important comes up… My response as an Aspie and an educator “Say that, say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say.

Thank-you to the teachers who have gone on to change the way they talk so that ALL their students, especially those on he spectrum whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, know not only what the teacher means, but go on to develop positive relationships with those teachers. These lucky students know their teachers are not stupid and do not mislead them constantly. Thank-you again.