This year when thinking about autistics speaking day, 1st Nov, I decided I wanted to write about the ways in which different speaking people use speech. In particular, how different speaking people use silence. Silence can be like a comforting blanket draped around the shoulders of everyone participating, or it can be wielded like a weapon, showering disapproval or holding up the barriers of exclusion and rejection.
As children, many autistics, like toddlers, are told to ‘use your words’. One would hope this included non-speaking forms of words, such as sign, text, pictures, gestures and apps. However, as we grow up, those of us who are highly verbal find that people do not really want us to use our words, what they want is for us to; ‘talk less, give other people a chance to speak, be more tactful, be quiet, stop talking.’ Whilst those of us who are partially or totally non-speaking have to battle to gain access to and then be validated to use alternative and/or augmented forms of communication (AAC). Speech being prioritised over other forms of communication by many, but not all, families and professionals.
The contradiction is obvious to all of us on the spectrum, but not necessarily to others. But silence I think is the most contradictory of all. In my family we can sit in silence happily, comfortable. I thought this was how everyone was, until it was obvious that it was not. Some people cannot tolerate silence, and seek to fill it, often with pointless small talk. Sounds filling the air for no reason other than to have sound. I think perhaps it is out of this relationship with silence, that silence can be used to alienate and hurt.
In the UK, when I was young, there was an expression used by kids to explain this particular form of alienation and hurt; ‘sending someone to Coventry.’ This meant to stop talking to someone for a period of time, often days or weeks. It was a way of punishing someone for talking too much or in ways that others found unacceptable or even just mildly annoying. Speaking adults may not mean to alienate or hurt when they use silence in this prolonged way. Often it seems that this silence is meant to convey disapproval. Short bursts of silence can also be used to show disapproval, but tend to be used when there is a power imbalance.
I have rarely used this short term disapproving silence, and it was even more rarely understood as such. Each time it was because speaking up at that point would have cost me too much in terms of opportunities, employment, safe ride home or even just anxiety. When I use longer term silence, it is because I have no idea how to end the silence. If it is ended for me, I can shift back into conversation, but only meaningful conversation and not sounds to say nothing of any value.
I like the sound of words, when I read, I read aloud in my head, to hear the words. Sometimes I read purely for the sounds, completely disinterested in the meaning. This was hugely problematic at school and occasionally so at uni. But now that I am an adult, it is a source of joy. I know other autistic adults who speak in puns, others whose joy in the spoken word relates to their synesthesia, and others who speak only to convey important information, preferring other kinds of sounds or indeed silence.
Does the world listen to silence in ways that validate autistics speaking in words and in silence, personally or via AAC? Are autistics wrapped in blankets of silence or bombarded with it in ways that seek to highlight things the silencer values or does not? Research over the last few years has highlighted what many of us on the spectrum have known for much longer. Autistics, whether speaking or not, tend to understand each others’ communication. Non-autistics also tend to understand each other. Miscommunication occurs mostly between autistics and non-autistics. Why? Because, we autistics tend to say (whether through speech or not) what we mean and mean what we say and use silence with kindness and compassion, to give people a rest from sound or time to process or even time to just be. However, the rest of the world couches meanings in sounds that bear little or no relevance to honesty, with silence often based in unkindness. Tact was described to me by a number of Dutch people as lying, and they came closest to autistic communication of any people that I have lived among.
It is far harder to autistic people to decipher the tact and other social and cultural norms of speech than it is for non-autistic people to understand the autistic ways of speaking.
I challenge you all to start to say what you mean and mean what you say. This single act makes your communication far more widely accessible and inclusive, not just for autistics but for speakers of other languages, for people with language difficulties and so on. I also challenge you to learn a few signs in your country’s sign language and to use these within you everyday conversations. This normalizes sign, which is used by many people outside of and within the deaf community.