Of course I can only comment with any authority on my own preferred communication style; but there does seems to be a trend of Asperger’s women being, by nature, natural born communicators “in writing” more so than face-to-face and this is certainly my way. For me, writing my conversations is always preferred…unless with people who are quite slow, disjointed or brief repliers in which case there is a danger I will tip myself over with far too much rumination about whether their (lack or brevity of) response means I offended them. Did I say the wrong thing, are they unhappy or offended, perhaps judging me harshly for some unwitting faux pas I committed, etc? Yet if there is good communication flow, writing is truly my happy place. I can get all my multilayered thoughts lined up and consider what I want to say at the pace that works best for me, with no other priorities or distractions. By this, I don’t just mean an information dump that I expect the other party to read, like in the days of letter writing (of which I was also a fan) but the to-and-fro dialogue that has been made possible via the internet; creating the best of both worlds for someone whose words come out easier in black and white.
Given the above foible of over-analysing my correspondent’s behaviour, I admit, I am horribly prone to raking over what I have said if there is enough hesitation in the conversation flow to make me concerned (though, at least in writing, I can do this with better accuracy than when I try to recall what was said on the spur of the moment). This leaves me wide open to making a meal of a simple lack of thought on the other person’s part since, to them, our written communications may not be a pivotal part of their day to which they are giving every attention. Slowly responded-to emails and messages have generated some of the most torturous scenarios of my life, causing untold anxiety and stress at times, since my default is to assume I have messed up, am being misunderstood or deliberately ignored (and how I hate to be misconstrued or ignored); forgetting that, to the other person, our online chat is probably not the be-all-and-end-all crux of their social interactions but just a side-line to other, more direct conversations, whereas I have very few of these. Writer’s regret can be worse than verbal regret when you can’t remove evidence of what you said or how you said it; even worse when obsessive compulsive levels of analysis have you constantly going over what is already water under the bridge. Yet, with a good respondent, who is prompt and receptive, writing can generate so much more genuine enjoyment for me than any face-to-face dialogue ever could, allowing me to go deep and to be considered and open, articulate, daring, playful and inspired without all the pitfalls of social nicety, nuance and pace that dominate in a spoken situation. I can go in deep and get straight to the point, pushing my own boundaries in ways I would never dare to face-to-face. I value those who meet me in my written head spaces more than I could ever truly convey!
By contrast, talking on the phone, as I was required to do for two hours last night (which is what inspired me to write this post), to catch up with a sibling who hates to type his messages, can leave me wrung out and anxious without good reason. It had been a very long time since I had spoken on the phone like this; to be precise, about six months, which is when we last caught up. He is about the only person to whom I speak on the phone these days but his written style is perfunctory to the point of rudeness, leaving me little choice. I find telephone speak physically “crashes” me in a way that I have come to associate with dysautonomia because it makes my head feel woozy and my nervous system falter, even if I manage to lie down while doing it to avoid Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS: a physical trait that can present challenges talking when upright), as I did yesterday. There is no other logical reason for how exhausting I find this method of communication; even more so, perhaps, because of having to work with the verbal information I am getting without any facial or other non-verbal clues from me to the other party, and vice versa, to say what is not quite being said. It’s like my whole nervous system is a-flutter while I am engaged in the conversation; and the effort to think straight, to listen and respond is then doubly harder, like wading through thick sand to convey what would be easy in written form. I often prepare notes to refer to in advance, even when I talk to a family member.
This morning, I slept in by as long as the length of that phone conversation, as though my body had to recuperate in equal proportion to how long I had kept going our back-and-forth verbal tennis match, in fact I now feel as though I could continue sleeping all day; even though I enjoyed speaking to him at the time. Afterwards, my whole system felt charged with energy and I never quite settled down in time for bedtime and I didn’t sleep well, as though beset with an electric charge that still fizzed and popped with all the uncertainty of what transpired “on the hoof” of our galloping words. I felt deeply over-tired from the requirement to second-sense when I had said enough, when to listen, to sift out from his words what I was supposed to most notice and thus react to, and all done without facial expressions or the ability to lip read…like a complicated dance manoeuvre, executed without much practice and done blindfolded. Theres no doubt my lack of practice talking like this, these days, is making it harder to return to the phone when I have to. Its as though I have to hover in a void space somewhere between myself and other person in order to meet them half way whereas, when I write, I feel centred in my own most-coherent thoughts, even as I listen to the other person’s in alternate turns. Having to air-tread in hyperspace like this for two hours is a hugely demanding thing whilst coming up with appropriate responses. The compunction to post-mortem a spoken conversation afterwards is so much stronger in me and, by the time I have finished with it, it feels bled dry, distorted and wrung out.
But then my Aspie bluntness sometimes comes across unsoftened and without subtle nuance or, of course, softening facial expressions in writing and I know I am sometimes taken the wrong way, which increases my anxiety ten fold if that potential exists (as when speaking to someone who isn’t wired at all like me), especially if they hesitate before replying or don’t reply at all. As is the case with one neurotypical acquaintance that I have, who seems to want to talk deeply on profound things…but then has this confusing habit of not continuing the thread after I have responded to her missive, ceasing a dialogue (typically instigated by her) at what feels like its tenderest moment to me, just when I have just imparted some sensitive or heart-felt information that I have dared to entrust her with in my response. As a result, many of these conversations have been left hanging on some strange note, her deep-innermosts responded to thoroughly but mine left unacknowledged. It baffles and hurts me every time, especially as she seems to want to go in so “deep”, gushing with enthusiasm to talk to me; but then we operate in some very different ways to each other and there seems to be a fundamental miscompute going on because this is the way I am all the time, whereas she is “just visiting” between other more outgoing friendships.
A typical dialogue might go thus: she sends me a very long and personal missive, enthusing over our special connection, asking for my intimate responses; I write her an equally long missive responding diligently to those things she asked me about and then adding some intimacies of my own…as is the “normal” trait I witness amongst NT friends…but she never replies and so the conversation ceases until next time she has something to run past me. If I am overstepping some invisible mark of appropriate material for sharing, or being too intense or subject-fixated, according to neurotypical rules, a real friend would at least mention this or work round it but instead I meet stone-wall silence; until she bubbles up again.
I wonder if other Asperger’s women are familiar with this one-way street format of some of their friendships because I have certainly read about this trait in other Aspie bios; as though we are a “wall of wisdom” or sort-of “Agony Aunt” that neurotypical friends go to for profound answers yet which they don’t expect to have to reciprocate to as they would their NT friends; in fact, as though they don’t even equate us with a need for that reciprocation. I have heard Aspie’s labelled “self-contained” and other such phrases that suggest we are regarded as more self-sufficient and far less needy than our NT peers but this is an unfortunate and false assumptions on their part if so.
The hours of unhappy hyper-analysis that can follow such an encounter, sometimes leading towards resentment directed at this acquaintance for having drawn out so much of my attention and vulnerability yet offered so little in return, have tended to sour this and similar “friendships” to the point where I have gradually pulled away from them as not particularly good for me. I have withdrawn my energy and so they have withered on the bough. Why should I put in all the effort again, risking no acknowledgement of the equally deep and complex thoughts I have entrusted to them and taken time to articulate in return? This is a social lapse which most people would consider quite unacceptable in face-to-face conversation yet which is often overlooked in writing, as though it is the poor second cousin of verbal communication (as are those who conduct their friendships this way in their eyes). I sense I am considered a second rate friend to this type of person whereas I am a first-rate friend to those who truly meet me in the place where we both love to communicate in writing; and those friends know who they are since they are the mainstay of my world, whether they are friends made on social media or regular commenters on my blogs. To me, these true souls are the best that life has ever offered me and they mean the world to me, for all we have never met.
So, as you can tell, the effect of a long silence in response to something I have said via written communication comes at me like a slap, however it was meant. Is this a particularly Asperger’s thing? Since childhood, it has always hit me with the exaggerated effect of being “sent to Coventry”, though I have come to realise its mostly done out of thoughtlessness or not realising the effect upon me far more often than out of spite. Perhaps it’s because I have the urge to talk so infrequently, and it takes such painstaking effort, that whenever I make that effort, I long for others to reciprocate in equal part. Its like I physically need that response (even a brief one), as acknowledgement of my feelings, to hear me out and to reassure me I did alright in whatever I said to the person, since I am never one hundred per cent sure of myself in social situations. The same goes for blogging or using social media; when met with deathly silence after I’ve published, I have sometimes lost confidence enough to delete a post if there is still no comment or “like” within a few days. My default is to assume that the silence itself is the comment and that what I shared was not met well.
I do suspect that over-reliance on outside things as measures and cues as to how well we are doing at “being a human being” is a pitfall of being an Aspie. I have often wondered if my whole nervous system is built to this default, which is why it looks to sun and moon, weather system and environmental cues as to how to feel….more so than asking me “how do you feel today”! If I wasn’t at the beck and call of so much arbitrary outside instruction and feedback, how could my life look? Very different to how it does now, I warrant….and a lot less painful or changeable, subject to so much sensory overwhelm that my attention is grabbed by literally everything going on. Yet, even though I have noticed this pitfall, its one thing to know about it and another to rewire an entire nervous system to respond differently to outside stimuli; though neuroplasticity is a possibility, I know that too, so to realise there is a shortcoming is the very first step on the way to making life more comfortable, less reactionary. These days I really pay attention to how reliant I am to a myriad of cues beyond myself which could, if I let them, negatively impact the experience I am having…and then I try to soften them, overriding them with the choice of myself; but it is very-much work in progress. Reclaiming my own integrity – emotionally and physically – is the long slow progress of my life and I make headway in steady inches.
I am convinced that hormone levels play a huge part in how capable women are at speaking out and being heard, of being true to who they most intrinsically are and carving some space to be authentic according to their own inbuilt traits. This is an area of particular study for me right now as I navigate my way through the territory of menopause (and look back at how I have been blown on the variable seas of self-confidence in the years that led up to this). Because when I am high on progesterone I am acquiescent and “easy going” more so than anything (I have much to say on this topic and the modern phenomenon of pharmaceutical progestins that are altering the way women behave; not always in positive ways). Its why using progesterone cream has been such a help mate through the perimenopause years of increased chronic pain since its role is to soften and allow, as when a woman is about to expand her body ready to give birth…but there is a time and place for allowing ourselves to be morphed into a shape other than our own. Oestrogen dominance, the common pitfall of the perimenopause years (for all women) as natural progesterone declines, made worse by living in a world beset with environmental xenoestrogenic compounds, from plastics and other toxins, that flood our food chain and the air we breathe (which influence both genders, by the way), makes us “stronger” – yes – but in a more bombastic, territorial and aggressively entitled way. Think premenstrual behaviour, when we often rant and argue our way, single-mindedly, to what we think, in that moment, that we really want.
However, the body’s own “natural “ oestrogen makes us stand up for ourselves appropriately, self-protectively and with the steady-handed capacity to draw lines in the sand between what is us and what is the territory of other…in a way that is quite essential for homeostasis since every living cell requires this marker around itself in order to best function as its own unit. Without this, sooner or later, we go to pieces, overstepping the mark like a cancer cell goes wandering off into territory that is not its own….and, ultimately, returning to dust; quite literally or in our emotional state. Fallen apart like this, we are no longer sure of our own edges and become overly-responsive to everything outside of ourselves in our search for clues as to what we are “meant” to be doing here, what we are supposedly “allowed” to do. The only one with the answer to this is our most intrinsic self and we will not find it by seeking the approval of entities outside of ourselves; not least if they are wired in a quite different way to ourselves since our inherent uniqueness is the key to our own front door.
When hormone balance is in place, I know what I’m about and am sturdier in my instincts regarding “where is my comfort zone”. I am far better at deciding what I am most happy putting out into “the field” without needing so much feedback to measure it by or to inform my next decision. I am the one who determines if it is OK and this evaluation starts at the point of motivation, not at the point when scores out of ten are offered up from the mosh-pit of life. At these times, I stand by myself and just know I am being authentically and justifiably me; that there is no need for the ball to be hit back over the net at me in order for me to feel entitled to take part in the game of life. It becomes more like the game of racquet ball that I so loved to play solo as the kid who enjoyed her own company; my respondent being a wall or a piece of line holding that ball to a post.
Daring to be true to the reality that we have always enjoyed our own company, and inner guidance, more so than being in a crowd, or seeking approval, doing things alone because we feel so much more enjoyment and drive as we approach things this way, is a core strength to the Aspie. Perhaps its a trait we felt we had to shun once childhood was over, tipping ourselves sideways into a disjointed conversation with the whole of life itself, from now on seeking approval to justify ourselves, as everyone else seems to do but no, that’s not our inherent way. In reclaiming this independent trait, without apology, we find ourselves so much stronger and with much to offer, without need of so much feedback or approval from a world wired quite differently to ourselves. Somehow, when I am most centred in my acceptance of this stand-alone trait, its as though I am in my strongest and most inspired state of all, taking my cues from a different source altogether; you could say from a higher source or my deepest and most inspired intuition, not the variables of a chaotic and highly fickle world. In order to be able to do this to the best of my ability, I find I need very little conversation at all (compared to most people); and its about quality, not quantity.
In my case, a desire for such quality always brings me back to the written format for, though I may enjoy the occasional, pleasantly surprising, face-to-face dialogue with another person, they are seldom planned. These are the ad-hoc encounters that litter my life when I am most relaxed and just “happen” to strike up conversation with synchronistically placed people, often strangers, who “chance” to cross my path; and the more relaxed and unplanned these encounters are, the better they tend to go….just like receiving a bolt of pure inspiration is something you can never expect to occur but is pure gold when it does.
For my other conversations, I like to settle into them with my thoughts clear and un-muddied by social niceties and my fingers poised ready to type without the interference of having to remember how to appear, pace, use tone or conduct my hands. For this reason, I am so thankful for the internet era; for how would I have coped otherwise? This is, surely, one of many reasons why I sense we have entered the golden age of the Aspie and, above all (given we are natural-born communicators) the Aspie woman since we have so much of value bottled-up waiting to be said and we have finally acquired the means, and the self-worth, to say it.
Meanwhile, the less we pain over audience numbers or long silences (remembering our own foible of “replying” to things we have read in our head but not always brave enough to do so in an actual comment…), the more we get from this healthy habit of self-expressing, trusting others similar to us will find what they need to find in our words when the time is right. I say “healthy” because it allows us to open up our box, to make room for thoughts to flow through more easily, without stagnation and with better sense of purpose….and we all need some sense of purpose in order to properly thrive. Creating a focal point for that purpose, such as a blog or a book that you long to write, even a journal that no one else will ever get to see, can be a wonderful way for an Asperger’s woman to open the floodgates of herself but a few choice friendships can also do that very thing as well. So discovering friends who are prepared to communicate in your preferred way is the very highest gift they can give you, and hopefully you them, since being met and heard-out on your own territory is something we should all get to experience at some point but is much harder for someone with Asperger’s to accomplish.
The more we communicate according to our own preferred style, the more we seem to blossom; or, at least, that’s my experience of knowingly being an “Asperger’s woman”. Doing so enables me to hold my boat steady in what feels like a choppy sea of other behaviours that don’t feel nearly so comfortable to me; in fact, in means I get to stay onboard my own boat, not always having to jump overboard to join other people “out there” where they are apparently more at home yet I feel I am drowning. The truism that we tend to like written communication the most negates the popular viewpoint that all meaningful and socially valuable communication with friends must be done face to face, spontaneously, loudly, according to social rules we don’t quite grasp or with great and often extroverted jocular prowess. Or, these days, in short perfunctory messages with little content, which also defeats our understanding entirely. We possess our own quiet yet wordy brand of communication and there is only one key required to explore it; finding our own particular style and preference in order for us to relax enough to allow it to happen. This tends to be just the beginning of our deepest journey of self-exploration; the one in much we concentrate on walking our own quite particular, most gifted path, not some other well-worn route we thought we were meant to follow because so many other people have worn it down.
Writing is communication too – Musings of an Aspie
4 thoughts on “Considering autistic communication styles”
I find most phone calls debilitating, too.
Regarding the NT friend not replying to your thoughtful reply, I wonder if her style is to go online one exchange deep. I’ve noticed most Aspies love to thoroughly explore concepts of interest… I have topics I’d stay with for a lifetime. But it seems that NTs I know have a different rhythm of exchange, like one back-and-forth and then onto the next!
On your thought about the friend: Possibly….it just strikes me as odd that sheer courtesy would have me go back to the other person and say, basically, “I hear you”, reciprocate with some kind words as a friend and then wind down the conversation politely, even if it was only a short reply this time. Ironic as we are the ones labelled insensitive and lacking in social niceties but, actually, my extreme sensitivity makes me very responsive to how the other person might be feeling or taking what I say (or dont say) and I always make sure to reply after deep stuff is imparted to me in a message, I would never just leave it wide open and stop talking.
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I know. I’m the same way. I always get back within 24 hours, even if it’s just to say, “I read this, and I’m thinking about it. I’ll share more later,” or “Thank you for sharing your ideas and thoughts!” I’ve just encountered the same situation you describe so many times (like 90% of the time) that I figure it must be a difference between neurological styles.
Its one of the misnomers I want to address in my writing…this thing that we are coldly aloof or lack empathy etc as Im not finding it in any of the female accounts but, rather, that we often feel much more and more deeply (for ourselves and everyone around us) but we handle it differently, taking it inwards. In the bio Im currently reading, the Aspie woman’s (Laura James) reaction to the Brexit vote in the UK, and the subsequent rise of right wing attitudes on forums etc, has her free falling in such anxiety and distress, not only for herself but worrying about what this means for everyone including minority groups etc, is exactly like reading a first hand account of how I felt at the time. She makes it, in a way, her “special focussed interest”, pouring over social media and news reports and even answering back to some of these bullies, provoking their horrible reactions, until it makes her deeply depressed and ill, which is what I did for a time…until I realised I had to stop or I would fall over a cliff so I had to go cold turkey on reading and researching about it. But the potential to feel so much overwhelming emotion and anxiety for self and others, and to feel deepy and empathically for everyone we deal with, taking care with their feelings, is immense to such a degree that I often find NTs are the ones that seem oddly impassive and unaffected by comparison. You’re right, it must be different neurologcal styles as its like we dont easily see it in each other because our Lego bricks don’t fit together.