Verbal and Written Communication: The Disconnect

Image has colored pictures with talk bubbles against a black background to demonstrate the contrast between written and verbal communication for autistic people with autism

My communication skills have always been the star pupil of my skills.  On paper, that is.  On paper, I’m capable of writing intelligent comments, posts, and retorts that even surprise and impress me when I go back and read them at a later time.  Verbal communication is a whole other story.  The verbal communication mask is the hardest and most exhausting mask I wear.  

Verbal communication is full of challenges for me.  I easily draw blanks and often cannot get my brain and my mouth to connect just right.  The social requirements of eye contact, polite turn-taking, and knowing when it’s my turn to speak are tough.  I end up rehearsing my next movements and my next words in my mind while the other person is talking, or I’ll often blurt out my next words, interrupting the person’s socially-acceptable conversational turn.  

Phone conversations are extra uncomfortable because I cannot use visual cues to help me communicate in a manner that doesn’t bring discomfort to the conversation.  I find myself talking over the other person.  When it comes to pauses in conversation, I’m not sure if we got disconnected, if the person is distracted by something, if they are having a medical episode, or have been abducted by aliens. 

My anxious mind goes all kinds of places.  I also don’t know how to end a conversation.  I depend on the other person to do it.  The few times I’ve tried to end a conversation I’ve found that I’ve tried to end it too early or that I might have sounded rude because telling white lies are not my thing.  A crying child is always an excellent conversation-ender, but it’s never a guarantee.  

Despite my issues with verbal communication, I have been able to maintain a career in the IT field for almost 25 years.  I’m a programmer/developer.  I primarily use email for communication.  If someone calls me and leaves a voice message, I will reply via email.  I’ve worked from home for the last 2.5 years, so that has eliminated verbal communication of any sort by 95%.  I’m less stressed, more productive, and putting out higher quality work.  Things are great on the work front.

Being overwhelmed at home is one of the things that severely hinders my ability to verbally communicate.  If I am on sensory overload due to my children being noisy and running and jumping on me, my verbal ability can almost completely shut down.  I want to say something meaningful rather than yell, but the words will not come out. 

It’s as if my brain itself is stuttering.  This adds more frustration to my already-heightened level and can send me into a meltdown unless I can withdraw into seclusion for a bit to reset myself…to reset my brain.  Losing my language can be scary.  It’s like someone threw a stick in the turning gears and jammed them.

My 5 year old son has level 2 autism.  He also has Apraxia of speech.  He deals with fighting for his language on a daily basis.  He tends to get frustrated when told “no.”  He lashes out, hitting, kicking, pinching, attempting to bite, or he screams.  I try to keep in mind that hearing “no” overwhelms him and sends him into a similar state of “brain jam” where his language won’t come. 

His emotional development is not fully formed yet, so he communicates his frustration by lashing out in the ways I mentioned.  His violent outbursts can easily send me into an overwhelmed state.  It’s a byproduct of an autistic mother parenting an autistic child, I guess. 

I need to try to remain calm with my son. He can sense when I’m getting frustrated, and it only escalates things for both of us. I try to do for him what I do for myself in those situations. That is to walk away and give him some time to himself to reset.

My son has been having a hard time at school.  I’ve been in close contact with the school.  I’ve been coaching the principal and teachers on how to work with him when they need tips. I like for us to be consistent in the way we handle issues with him so we aren’t confusing him.  A week without an email or phone call is cause for a huge internal celebration for me. 

People always tell me that my son is lucky to have me, as if to say that most people would be less proud to be his mom. It’s because I have so much empathy for him. It’s because I experience what he does, but on a smaller scale. 

My neurotypical husband is a bit lost when I try to explain it to him, and I can hardly blame him.  The spectrum is not an easy place for neurotypicals to navigate, but I can certainly try via email, snail mail, or carrier pigeon. You know, in writing.

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4 Responses

  1. This has been the case with many people who have Autism, me included. What is going on in my head doesn’t always come out of my mouth the way I intended. Then there is the answer required on the spot situation that is very frustrating for me. I wish I had you as my mother when I was a child, (I’m probably a lot older than you though). You’re doing a great deal of good for your child. Keep it up.

    1. I’m 42 and recently diagnosed. Childhood was an internal battle for me that was hidden as well as it could be. My son has so much help available to him today. It’s really amazing to see. Thank you for the kind words.

      1. I always thought that my mind worked differently to others. Your article is the first time that i’ve understood what that difference is. I also see some of the same traits in my young daughter. I’m keen to know more, is there any reading you can recommend?

  2. I have this….its hard to explain…because we can’t(we see words for what they are…thats it)…always thought I was an idiot..until, I realized that I am, kinda…only high functioning.

    43yr old father/husband

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