Have I No Mouth: on talking, speaking, spluttering, anxieties, and those uncomfortable silences

Yesterday was not one of the good days. Not to go into detail, but it was one of those days where everything seems to be constantly falling away at the seams: things fall apart, or they feel too massive for your very small self, or even the smallest gesture can send you into a panic or slip you into a spiral. Horrible, really.

And if I tried to communicate this verbally, how would it come across? I would say not very well.

Being autistic means that anxiety is my constant bedfellow. Most especially, anxiety is there every single time I open my mouth to speak, and when that mouth opens I quickly lose faith in everything that tumbles out of it. My sentences stop and start. I mumble and I run through words like they were water. I start waving my hands around because any words I have left will be terribly forced, uninteresting ones. The whole process is as if English is actually my second language, second only to flailing and spluttering and excruciating long pauses, searching for lost words. I’m very good at making eye contact with someone who is talking TO me, but if I’m the one who’s talking my eyes dart towards the left or right of the person I’m talking to and now I’ve become super self-conscious about it and I’ve started thinking that that might be too rude and that they must think I’m looking for better people to talk to than them and that’s not true because all it really is that I’m so unsure of what I’m saying and I sound terribly stupid when I say it and they probably are getting very bored of me right now and I’ve probably offended them in some way and they don’t REALLY want to talk to me anyway.

And this is coming from someone who says that she wants to embark on an academic career? Hahahahahaha.

I’ve talked about how I’m more self-conscious about my articulation and self-expression than I am about my weight, my hair, my face, or whatever part of me. People have pointed out that I am much more articulate and eloquent online than I am in person, and it actually cuts to the bone. I love writing and I loved acting because there were words on the page and I could prepare them or rehearse them. And they were THERE, they were RIGHT THERE, and only I could control or shape them. But the fact that I can never match up to the person I am in writing hurts. There’s only so much that scripting can do: meeting new people almost feels like being confronted with some new blank slates. What is it that you do with them? How do you approach them? What the hell do you say to them? What can you do when your internal script just fails you, or actually just sounds so ridiculous that you don’t use it anyway?

And then, there are the days where verbal expression just absolutely fails me. Even when I’m with people I trust and love. There are days where I’ll lose the run of myself, and feel so anxious or so pressurised that I cannot actually get the words out at all. And it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world when it happens in front of your peers, your colleagues, and people you respect: they have to watch while I try to put sentences and words together, very very slowly and painfully. I fear that to them it looks like I haven’t thought things through or that I haven’t even tried. But I have: it’s just the sense of what I want to say never translates into the right-sounding words in my head, and my brain takes slower than most to formulate a response or argument. And then I beat myself up because I start to wonder: why can’t I be as quick-witted or as sharp to respond as everyone else? Why does it take several minutes when it could take a minute for someone else? Why can’t I just be normal like everyone else is?

I guess it feeds into my own feelings about myself as an autistic woman: feeling so out of place, feeling that I don’t match up, feeling that I have much more work to do in order to fit in or to make people like me. Allistic people, I wish you knew how lucky you actually have it. I wish you knew how lucky you are, because you can actually remember to do the simple things in life like laundry and shopping, because loud noises in nightclubs or elsewhere may be bothersome but not TOO bothersome, because you’re never constantly fearing that people will hate you over a single turn of phrase, because people will never think you’re stupid or lazy or making excuses for yourself when you find yourself unable to explain why it is that you are feeling so anxious right now or why you can’t get out of bed today or something as simple as, I don’t know, early modern theatre practice.

It’s hard. But this is normal for me. It always has been. And I really don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.


On Being Autistic And Navigating The Minefield of Social Interaction

One of the simplest to define attributes of autism/Aspergers’ syndrome is a poor sense of social interaction. When I try and fail to describe what Aspergers’ is to people, it’s one of the things that immediately come to mind — mainly because it’s really easy to remember. (I just wish more people would ask me what it was when I have a laptop in front of me though, then I could properly explain it and then we would all benefit.) But it isn’t simply about sticking a Socially Awkward Penguin macro where my face is. Even though I do love penguins, it’s actually a lot more problematic than that. In fact, I’m going to confess right now that I am most self-conscious about my articulation and the way I talk more than I am about, say, my weight or my skin or my hair. There. I’ve said it, it’ll be committed to this blog for evermore, and you’ll just have to indulge me on this one.

Don’t get me wrong: I love people. I love hanging out with people, and I like to socialise and make new friends. Some people also happen to be some of My Favourite Things Ever, and the majority of my friends (who are mainly allistic, too) are great and really, really supportive and the best folk you’ll ever meet. The main fear that I have in writing this post is that somehow I end up trying to use my autism to legitimise being an asshole to people, which should never happen because that would let my autism define me and my behaviour. At the same time, I would argue that I have been an accidental asshole on occasion, being totally unaware that I have done something wrong or inappropriate. I can only hope that if I have done so, someone should call me out on it: I may not know otherwise, as I have a tendency to miss or completely misread some social signals, and I’ll recognise my mistake when it’s too late. In general, it’s something I try to avoid anyway, and I’m lucky to have had friends and family to have helped me along the way throughout the years. However, meeting and talking to new people, or people I admire or don’t really know that well, or talking about things I don’t particularly feel secure about in a particular situation, can bring out an awful kind of anxiety in me. I start to lose faith in everything I say, I lose the run of myself, I begin to feel under immense pressure, I begin to worry about keeping the conversation going, and, worst of all, my thoughts start going at a million miles per hour, undermining every single thing that I say.

Exhibit A

Person X: oh hi Emer how are you?

Public Emer: Oh HELLO! I’m grand, I’m grand!

Private Emer: dear god why do you always use the same script EVERY FUCKING TIME don’t you have anything else to say than ‘grand, grand’ didn’t that ‘hello’ sound a bit weird

Exhibit B

Person Y: so what are you doing for your dissertation?

Public Emer: so I’m looking at — what I’m looking at is, uh, how participants and spectators remember, and write, and talk about performance, and I’m looking at the 1999 production of Macbeth because there’s loads written on it…

Private Emer: ok now you’re sounding really stupid right now it’s a stupid idea for a dissertation anyway look they obviously think it’s stupid too

About the whole ‘script’ thing: scripts are secure. Scripts don’t change, for the most part. Scripts have words on them that I can say, and I know that they are there, and I can learn them, and they’re not going away any time soon. Life, unfortunately, does not have such scripts for me to rely on. But I almost feel as if I have to learn some form of a prepared script in order to interact with people, because if I don’t, I will sound incoherent, I will not know what I am saying, and they will think I am weird and silly and stupid. I don’t talk off the cuff in presentations and papers mainly because it’d be impossible for me to talk without some form of script or written paper: again, I would forget things, lose the run of myself, and then feel under immense pressure to sound intelligent, to sound eloquent, to sound PERFECT. One of the worst things is being stuck in a room packed to the gills with other people: you know you should socialise, you know you should talk to people, but how do you do that? How do you do small talk? Who the hell came up with small talk, anyway? To sum up: it’s exhausting, it’s incredibly overwhelming, and I end up leaving very early because I simply cannot deal with it any longer. Social interaction can be a minefield for autistic people. It’s something completely out of control and has a life of its own. Being unable to read people correctly, being unable to read the social situation correctly either, and thus not knowing what to do. It’s generally quite confusing. And when you screw up, you want to tell the person I’M SORRY THAT I’M WEIRD I HAVE ASPERGERS’, but they’ve already cast their judgement: you’re weird, or boring, or just plain strange. And then you start to worry that you’re using your autism as an crutch (again). And the cycle goes forth once more. Part of the problem is that my autism lies in the smallest of details, the smallest of interactions, the ones that are barely noticeable as anything other than ‘normal’.

I should say that it’s fine in comfortable situations. I love house parties, for example, as they’re so laid-back and people want to feed you lots of tacos and/or give you wine, and to those of you who may say: ‘but you’re never like that with ME’, please note that that is because I am comfortable with you, and that you make me feel at ease. That means that you are a good friend too, so well done you.

But in all honesty, I can’t stop that little voice in my brain rebuking me after a conversation with someone. I can’t stop the feelings of being completely overcome by noise and people and everything in between. I don’t want to sound utterly helpless though: even though some things will always be difficult, things can and have gotten better. I would love nothing more than to put paid to the feeling of losing complete confidence in my words: I know it’s something I need to work on. I’m very lucky to have people in my life who are open, loving, and who don’t mind me missing the point of their jokes or being too loud in public places, but who know to pull me in at the right time. I’ve come a long way due to a lot of help from the right people. As long as people are generally good and giving, and as long as I don’t become completely misanthropic and anti-social, I think things are going to be OK. Eventually.