Photo © Fran López | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Photo of a page from a play script, furled so the words form a spiral.]

Bev Harp


It seems that one of the hardest things for typical people to understand about autism is the way skill sets can seemingly change overnight, so that although, for example, I spoke very well yesterday, I can barely manage to put a sentence together this morning. I understand the skepticism I’ve encountered about this; before I knew much about autism, it’s one of the things that most made me doubt myself and question my sanity. This doesn’t apply only to speech and it isn’t always about short-term changes either. That’s just the aspect of life I’ve chosen to talk about today.

Some of the people I interact with on a regular basis are familiar with some of the scripts I use on days when speech is hard, but mostly, they assume unless (and sometimes even if) told otherwise that I do this to be either funny or annoying. Scripts are different from stimmy things that are just relaxing or invigorating to say. Nonsense words, syllables and simple random facts (seven times seven is forty-nine) fall into the latter category. More complex repetitions of lines from movies, songs, TV shows or earlier conversations are more likely an attempt to communicate something.

A funny thing about that: sometimes I am completely unaware of what this “something” is until later, when I am alone and able to process the situation. It’s hardly ever a clear cut case of what most people would consider symbolism, wherein one thing substitutes for another; it’s rather more tangential or loosely associative.

One of the common forms goes like this:

First someone asks a question and I can’t think how to answer it. Either several possible (equally valid) answers compete to be said and confound my ability to choose, or I can’t, at the moment, figure out what the question means. I’ve tried saying “I don’t know what that means,” or “I don’t know how to answer you,” but this tends to anger many people and even (perhaps especially) therapists and other “helpful” types have accused me of lying in these cases. Other times, I may be unable to formulate even that much of a response.

Sometimes, though, the answer comes as easily as I imagine most answers do to most people, that is, almost automatically. Only the answer isn’t “from” me. It’s one of my scripts, which may or may not make sense to the other person involved. The answer to “How was work today?” might be “what of ‘what of” ?” (from a Frank O’Hara poem) or “asafetida” (a spice referenced frequently in a cooking show I watched in the 80s). Then again it might be “fine,” but what people don’t know is it isn’t today’s “fine” but from a conversation I had with a teacher in high school or a “fine” clipped from last night’s Law and Order episode. It has layers of meaning which are not expressed and are not available to me through speech (though I could possibly write about if I had a reason to do so).

Of course, things go more easily when the answer is “fine” rather than “asafetida.” No one thinks I am being a smartass, though they might wish for more information. Yet, I haven’t answered any more authentically. The response is “cut and paste” whether or not the listener thinks I have made a legitimate effort to converse. Indeed, very long and credible conversations can be made up, unbeknownst to the conversational partner, of many of these bits and pieces strung together. And, in some ways, it’s for the best they don’t suspect.

The idea is foreign to most non-autistic people, and would disturb some who might assume that the scripted nature of my talk indicates the entire interaction has been meaningless to me. Actually, I may have had a pleasant and comfortable experience, imagining that the other person understood what I meant, just as he or she imagined I couldn’t possibly find a “simple” question (“How was your day?”) confusing. I’ve always understood that people mostly talk out of habit and anxiety to be seen/heard, that not much is really accomplished through these rituals beyond the mysterious strengthening of social bonds.

So I talk this way and when the “right” scripts are selected, the people around me feel heard, they feel secure and understood. The funny thing to me, is that they seem to perceive my speech as more authentic or more valid at these times when I’m scripting than at other times, when I’m working hard to do what comes naturally to NTs, generating sentences “from scratch.”

When I do this, even on a “good” communication day, it is hard work. When I am “really” talking, the speech is labored, full of long pauses, missing referents, backtracking and parenthetical thoughts. The very slowness of the process triggers both annoyance and suspicion in many people. There is a dangerous misconception that having to stop and think about something too often equals dishonesty. They are not used to having to painstakingly construct spoken language, so why should I find it so difficult unless I am busy “making things up?” They’ve seen me speak fluently, easily, sensibly. And they assume that was the “real” me, since it is closer to what they know about themselves.

If not dishonesty, then the slowness of speech can be taken for nervousness. “Just relax,” someone might say. “Just be yourself” is a line I’ve heard a few times, ironically, just at the time I was doing that very thing.


This essay was previously published at www.aspergersquare8.blogspot.com