Friday, 4 March 2016

Autism and Sometimes Non-Verbal and Telephone Call Centres

One of the strangest myths about autism is around speech.

In Ye Olden Days, 'autism' was believed to always mean a speech delay as a young child.  Then, usually the assumption that the person would never speak.

In the DSM V diagnostic checklist, speech & language issues are a separate thing from autism, now.

Some of us started off not being able to use speech for conversation, but gradually learned the art.  It's not fixed forever.  Most 'non verbal' autistic people do speak, eventually. Many on the autism spectrum have been able to speak well from an early age.  Some are 'hyperlexic' - amazing ability with words.  Our fab son, for example, broke the computer program that was analysing his language abilities when he was in his mid teens.  His verbal ability in that test was 'off the scale'. Yet, as a young child, he could hardly use language.  It's a real variable, in autism.

But, it is true that most autistic people do have difficulties decoding and using some sorts of language.  Strange expressions like, "Back in five minutes", for example.  Big clue - it doesn't mean what it says.  No, I don't know why.  Also expressions like, "Elvis has left the building!".  There isn't someone called Elvis who has just left.  I've checked this.  It seems it means, "This event has stopped".

Apparently, we are often told, either you can speak really well, or you can't speak at all.  Those are the only two states that are talked about in autism.  All or nothing.
The funny thing is that autistic people are often told that we have 'black and white/all or nothing thinking'.  It seems those diagnosing and working with us are equally affected by this!

Many of us can speak sometimes.
And other times, we cannot speak.

We are sometimes non-verbal.  Why do we not hear more about this probable majority of us?

I'm sometimes non-verbal.  For a businessperson, presenter and adviser, this isn't handy.  I can't afford situations where I go to speak, and nothing happens.  It's disempowering, embarrassing, exhausting, and potentially dangerous.  And there is nothing much I can do about it, other than try to balance my brain's internal heat.

A reminder for readers; autism appears to come with a brain design that literally overheats inside, if faced with too much sensory/social overload and too many dilemmas. It then has to cool the wiring back down again before it 'comes back online'.

How does it feel when it happens?   I can picture what I want to say.  I think in pictures, not words.   I can then imagine which words are appropriate.  But, I cannot then turn that into speech.  Nothing happens.  The mechanism in my brain that does that has switched itself off, to wait for that bit to cool down.  Ever had one of those dreams at night where you can't move?  Even if you want to?  It's like that.  Pretty scary.  Not even in an emergency can I then say something.   I can usually still type, though.   Social media, and assistive technology, is a blessing when it happens.  If I need to say something, I can type it.  Not always well, but it'll get some info out.

Except some situations demand the use of the phone.

Unexpected phone calls are scary things for many autistic people.  For all sorts of reasons.  Others everywhere on the internet will talk about this too.  We have no idea what we are about to be asked.  Then we have to improvise a good response.  I can, on a good day, chat on the phone for a while to an unexpected caller.   A lot of what I say is 'social gambits'.  Learned responses.  Automated phrases, if you like.  I can do telephone answering in a reception-capacity for businesses because it's the same thing every time.  That's easy.

But what if it isn't the same thing?  "Just ring this call centre and they will ask you all sorts of randomly-picked security questions and then give you all sorts of random instructions".  Better still, there will be 5 options to choose first, then an automated 'say your name after the tone', then another 5 options to remember, then another 4 options, then another 5 options, then 'now put in this 20 digit number, your date of birth, your inside leg measurement, the age of your grandmother's cat..."  I may have made up the last two.   And, of course, 15 minutes of hold-music with random, "Your call is important to us" messages.   All the time, my brain is trying to recall which words to use when the call starts.   Not yet...still not yet....nope, not yet....

Then I'm put through to someone I can barely hear...and... I can't speak.  My brain has now been running on maximum heat for that 20 mins and it's out of heating-capacity.  It has probably switched off its speech.


"Oh nearly all our customers love dealing with telephone support".  Like heck they do.  I doubt it's just autistic people who fear and loathe impersonal call centres.  But, for autistic people, what do I say to a random person at the other end about my needs?  Someone who has no idea I'm autistic - and probably no idea how to make it simple and straightforward for me.  It's a nightmare, even if I can speak at the time.

"Well, you can write a letter".  Hmm.  Yes.  And then post it.  "No you can't scan it and email it - we need the original to prove it was really you".  If it gets there, that's probably a three or four day delay. If it gets there at all.  I could pay a lot of money to ensure delivery, yes. When it's something time-sensitive around money, that's not handy. A worse, slower and more expensive service than non-disabled customers get.

So, good people of the internet.  Are you insisting that your autistic customers only use a telephone based service, because it's 'better for them'.  Well, it probably isn't.  Ask. And offer the support we need.  It could be as many as 1 in 30 of your customers.

Thank you for listening.