Like many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, I struggle with interpersonal communication. Anxiety accompanies most face-to-face interactions, as worry that something inevitably will go awry. Discovering the power of words revealed a way to be a participant in society, not merely an observer.
Writing allows me to interact with the world. To be more precise, words empower me. My “writing” is a mix of scribbled marks on paper, auto-completed words typed on computer keyboards, and speech converted into text by dictations software. How the words are recorded, stored, and transmitted to others is important, but what matters most is that words are essential to my nature. Words really do define who I am.
I realize that waxing poetic about words defining me seems like a cliché to some people, one that any aspiring author might use to describe his or her motivations to write a story or a poem. In my case it is the truth. Vocationally, I am a professor of rhetoric: the art of communicating effectively. Avocationally, I am a poet, playwright, and screenwriter. Words are my work and my hobby.
Without writing I would be more alienated, more alone, than I am. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not unhappy or miserable, but I am aware that I’m not included in activities with coworkers or peers. I know that I drive people away with what they perceive as an anti-social personality. At best, I’m viewed as egocentric. But when I communicate via writing, people tell me I’m witty and entertaining. Words don’t have to read faces or interpret vocal pitch. My words build connections I’d never be able to initiate in person.
I do not understand people; they are confusing. It isn’t that I don’t understand words or their meanings. What I’ve discovered is that there are too many variables to interpret what people actually mean when they say the simplest things. Unless it is a well-worn metaphor, a phrase I have memorized, I tend to be literal. For me, listening to and reading English is a process of translation. When I was first learning Spanish, I would translate phrases to and from basic English. I do the same with the complex English most people use with ease in speech and writing. I learn metaphors and idioms by context. This is difficult to explain because most people ask, “Don’t we all translate metaphors?” I think the difference might be how quickly, almost instinctively, most people seem to make these symbolic connections.
Consider this sentence from a story I heard: “Her fingers were icicles.”
Most people seem to understand instantly that the example means a woman has cold hands. When I hear or read the sentence, even now, I pause to “look it up” in my memory and consider all the possible meanings. If it is a cartoon character, then she might have literal icicles for fingers. What about someone frozen to death? What about fingernails that are long and pointy, resembling icicles? Then I recall people saying things are “cold as ice” and start forming various connections. It might only take a few seconds longer than for most people, but I have been told that I look “blank” or confused at times during conversations. What I’m really doing during these moments is analyzing metaphors and rushing through my mental index.
Thankfully, I have memorized thousands of common sayings and have a pretty decent thesaurus-like approach to these. I love dictionaries of common idioms and metaphors, since such books spare me the effort of translating sayings I encounter in texts. Plus, language is fascinating to study. My fascination with language is key to my academic survival; it is also key to any vocational success I enjoy.
Imagine hearing only monotone voices, void of any excitement, sorrow, anger, or love. While my world isn’t quite that bland, it can feel close to it. When you cannot read people, you learn to listen to the words spoken and ignore the manner in which they are spoken. You eventually learn, through unpleasant experiences, that people do not always mean what they say. Sarcasm in monotone is meaningless. Thankfully, some sarcastic phrases can be memorized and variations interpolated. Without an ear for inflection, without grasping the clues tone, pitch, and speed provide a listener, the greater parts of human speech are lost.
Standing among a group of colleagues, they might start laughing at a sentence it takes me some time to decode. By the time I comprehend the humor, the conversation has moved along — leaving me behind. It is nobody’s fault, and I don’t think it would be fair of me to ask a group to wait for my mind to catch up with the words. There are times in groups when I feel like I’m merely an observer, not a participant. I try not to be frustrated by this, but sometimes I am annoyed by my mental processes. My mind gets overloaded by casual conversations or heated debates. There’s simply too much going on behind the words.
People in a group are doing more than speaking. There are facial expressions, gestures, proximities, and additional non-verbal components to communication. I study these elements of interaction, hoping to understand them better and to mimic them with some skill. Over the years, I believe I have developed the ability to mimic quite well. I doubt most people meeting me only once or twice would notice anything unusual in my responses to them. It is over time that people notice I’m not like everyone else. Sudden or unexpected gestures can seem threatening to me and cause anxiety. When I can’t anticipate someone moving an arm or waving a finger, I might flinch or step away. Facial expressions are at least not threatening in quite the same way as movements. Expressions are confusing, though.
It is difficult for some people to believe, but I have confused “happy” facial expressions for sadness and anger for surprise. For me, body language is like the English words and phrases I look up and study so I can interpret what people mean when they speak to me. I try to analyze faces carefully, looking at details based on books I have read. I have read a lot about body language and, like my obsession with books of sayings, I believe my ability to interpret people has improved with each book read. Of course, using memorized cues doesn’t mean I get the cues right every time… but it is better than I was doing before reading on the topic of body language.
Unfortunately, I’m still not good with conversations. I hyper-focus on issues and interests, to the point of annoying those in my presence. I latch on to ideas, concepts, objects, projects, and people for a sense of stability and purpose. While others adapt easily to temporary changes in settings and routines, I find minor deviations from my routine generate a sense of panic and anxiety. As a result, in a social situation I locate a safe, quiet, predictable location and remain there. I try to remain in place so others can approach — and leave — as they want. I can address groups because the distance between an audience and me provides security. The more distance, the better. No one can tell if eye contact isn’t perfect when I’m standing a dozen or more feet away.
When I do interact with individuals, I am as likely as not to offend them. I do not have the social skills society expects, especially in business. Despite my best attempts, I frequently lack tact and subtlety. I sometimes anticipate that what I am about to say might be improper, but I still speak aloud. How can I recognize something is improper? I have created a mental list of things I have been told were improper in the past. The list grows more slowly now, but it is still growing. Sometimes I forget a question or statement is on the list of things I should not say or ask. How can you anticipate every combination of circumstance and every potential social exchange? Even the guidelines I have created for myself based on more than 40 years of social interactions can fail me in humiliating ways.
You “say” the wrong thing in an essay, it becomes humorous. You ask pointed questions in an editorial, that’s considered being a tough journalist. But there are things apparently not said aloud. Writing lets me say or ask almost anything with impunity. It is nice not to worry about my thoughts being socially acceptable. And I get to write at home or in my office, as opposed to navigating a new place.
I am anxious in new situations and settings, often relying on habits to remain calm. I can’t really explain it, but I will try to do something inconspicuous with my hands, arms, or legs to relax. I might tap my cane, for example, using the rhythm to soothe my nerves. Familiar objects become essential to cope with my anxieties. Leaving home without at least one such object can be disastrous. I’ve risked being late to important events or meetings in order to return home for a forgotten item. It isn’t about one item or even a small set of items. I simply need whatever it is at that moment that helps me relax.
Even when I am alone, safe at home, I am not always comfortable. Lights, sounds, smells, and even textures can send me into a downward spiral if I do not take quick action. It can be a simple shirt tag scratching my neck, but it will feel like a knife carving into my flesh. Maybe it is only a banana peel in the kitchen trash, but I’ll smell it in the bedroom and be overwhelmed by the odor. A car backfiring echoes painfully between my ears, hurting so much I fear my ears will literally bleed. I have even been annoyed by the texture of paper in a book, which felt like sandpaper to my fingers.
At least alone, I can take action to restore order — after I calm down and think through the situation. I can remove a shirt tag. I can take out the trash. I can put a book down for a while. Okay, I burrow under a pillow after a car backfires, but at least I can do something to recover. It is the unpredictable, the thing I cannot prepare for, that sends me into the deepest downward spiral. Imagine taking these sensitivities into a social situation. Why would I risk that? There is always something I won’t be able to ignore.
I have described the sounds around me as constant static. It becomes overwhelming at times, but I realize I have to force myself to deal with the background noise most of the time. I end up using one sound to block the others. At night, I will turn on a radio to drown out any sounds from outside. The worst annoyance is that I cannot ignore conversations, much less other sounds. I hear bits and pieces of every conversation around me in a restaurant, at a party, or even on a train. The voices can be too much, and I have excused myself from dinner because it.
I could continue to list personality traits, attempting to explain how I experience the world, but doing so would serve no purpose. While there are medical explanations for how I am, none excuse my lack of interpersonal skills. I am tired of acronyms and labels, diagnoses made after each new test. What matters is that I can write.
Writing is one form of communication I can master. Words on paper are clear and concise. When I write, I can edit and improve my thoughts. I can correct the mistakes I would make in person. Writing is my freedom. It is my appreciation for words that guided me back to school (several times) and helped me finally complete a graduate degree program. My journey isn’t over, and never will be. At least I’ll have words and writing along the way.