Sunday 9 April 2017

Autistic Communication

The picture shows three autistic people with grey hair, sitting on a park bench.  There is a man reading a newspaper.  There are two women, one holding a small dog.  The two women are turned slightly towards one another, but not completely.

Notice anything about the picture?  No faces.  I don't see faces.  Like many autistic people, I'm faceblind.  The part of my brain that decodes which face is which doesn't work.  So, how would you recognise who was who, next time you met them?   You have the other clues,  of course.  Height, weight, shape, clothing style, perhaps the dog.  Beards?  Spectacles?  Hair style?  Everything becomes an important clue.  I can walk straight past my own son in the street; I don't recognise his face.

Recognising who we are speaking to is a first step in good communication, isn't it.  Signalling to them that they are a trusted person.  Spotting people who have been unpleasant.  Knowing who is who is important.

So, many autistic people start with this challenge.

Then, there is the challenge of all that non-verbal communication that happens between non-autistic people.  Eyebrow raisings, eye signalling, body angle and space, body leaning forward or backward, hand gestures, arm gestures, face expressions, voice tone, legs crossed, feet pointing in a certain direction.  Almost the whole of a non-autistic person's body is a signalling system made for non-autistic people.   It's interesting to watch, for someone like me.  But it's also baffling.  

I communicate differently to that.  So do all other autistic people.  Social communication differences are a standard feature of autism.

In the picture, the two women are turned slightly towards one another.  Perhaps they are talking. Perhaps not.  Remember that I said this is a picture of three autistic people.  I would not assume anything about communication from looking at this picture.  It is very likely that the man and the women next to him are in fact communicating.  In autism, it is respectful not to look one another in the eye.   I'd also expect that the two women are a lesbian couple, since some 30% of autistic people are from the LGBTI community.  Different set of expectations, eh?  Were you also expecting the picture of autistic people to show younger people?  Why?  Challenging stereotypes, right here....right now.

It is respectful not to face an autistic person directly, but to sit alongside them where possible.   It is respectful not to overwhelm them with social signalling, face expressions, etc.  Autistic people may rock or flap or tap things, to find out where they are....or as a way of finding where their bodies are ('proprioception'), as a way of calculating how far they are from other things and people. We may also use those kinds of movements ('stims', to use our phrase) to regain a sense of calm in a busy, noisy place.  So, insisting on 'correct use of body language and eye contact' from us actually gets in the way of autistic need.  As eye contact can cause exhaustion and brain overheating, it is also a cruelty for many.  

Only this week I heard of a college for autistic people who were telling autistic students to give a presentation.... and then giving them a low score if they failed to make eye contact during it. My goodness me, that is unacceptable. It's like refusing to give presentation marks to a wheelchair user, unless they stand up for the presentation.  Or like telling a Sign-Language-using Deaf person that they are going to have marks deducted for using sign language.  Autistic need is autistic need.  I hope you're listening, trainers?

So, we already have a huge range of communication differences.  We haven't mentioned language yet.  I use language differently to other people.  Most autistic people do. I think in pictures, not words.  Some autistic people do.   I am sometimes non-verbal, even as an adult.  I was effectively non-verbal for ten years as a child.  i could repeat words, but didn't know what they were for.  The National Autistic Society have produced a useful short film, "Make it Stop".   It is about how long it takes to think of the answer to something, when your brain doesn't 'do' words.  is the link.  Needs sound.  If people ask one question after another, it becomes overwhelming...thinking about each needed response.  Like a traffic jam in the brain.  We don't actually hallucinate about seeing people, by the way - it's just the way the film is trying to make a point.

In the first 20 years of life, learned spoken words by repeating them, and phrases, over and over and over.  "Echolalia".  I was teaching my brain how to use different circuits to do language, I think.  If I hear a new word or phrase now, I do the same thing.  I have to repeat it and repeat it.  People hear me at national and international conferences, now, and would never guess that I can struggle with words.  At my age, all the repetition really worked.  I learned thousands and thousands of words and phrases over time.  Putting them together in different ways.  But language is also about which words to use, when, to who, isn't it?   That's the 'social' bit of 'social communication'.  And it goes wrong.   

It goes wrong, because I can't always see who I'm speaking to. 
It goes wrong, because my brain doesn't really 'do' social rank, so I may treat a passing Bishop, Lord or Baroness like an old friend.  (Some are, as it happens, but that's another story...).   
It goes wrong, because I can take a time to think of the right which time, the right moment to say it has gone.   
It goes wrong, because some words are about social-concepts, and I can't think what they might mean.   
It goes wrong, because if words are used angrily towards me, my brain just seizes up or shuts down.  I'm hopeless in a verbal 'fight'.  So I have to be hugely careful.  

I always work with others that I trust.  Always.  

If I go non-verbal, I use technology.  It happened to me at a conference recently where the speaker was relentlessly negative about autism.  I had to write on my iPad.  That's fine. That's communication.  This blog is communication. 

With trusted people, I also use touch to communicate.  I have trusted friends who know to put a hand on an arm or shoulder to say, "I'm here, it's OK".  Obviously all use of touch has to be safe and sensible. I am.  Autistic, sometimes non-verbal, and running a national Professional Practice.  Speaking at conferences, training people on autism, being a mum to a fabulous autistic son who is a well respected national speaker also (Chris Memmott).  Which is all great.  You'd think therefore that I have my life sorted, yes?  Mmm, no, because every day I am with people who expect me to communicate differently.  To cope with sensory environments that are painful.  Who cannot see what I can see, nor hear what I can may think I've 'lost the plot' if I'm standing transfixed at the most beautiful colours and patterns.  Colours and patterns completely invisible to their eyes, it seems.  A shame.  Lots of deficits to being non-autistic...

When we are at home with one another, as a family, we spend much of our time in different rooms, doing different things.  We may eat separately. We may not speak much for a whole day.  To others, it could look totally 'dysfunctional'.  It's not.  It's a perfect set of adaptations for a set of autistic people, and it works beautifully.  It allows us the brain 'cooldown' time that we need, after a busy day.

Behaviour is also communication.  I get a lot of parents and carers who say, "My child cannot communicate - they are always angry/always race about/always [whatever else]". That's communication, right there.  A child always hitting their head could be suffering sensory pain, or migraines.  A child hitting their mouth may have dental pain.  A child hitting their body may have pain in that part of their body.  A child running away in fear is communicating fear.  It's all communication.  I think some parents and carers mean, "I don't know what it means".  Ask an autistic specialist.  We can often see, hear and sense things that other autistic people can also see, hear and sense.    We can often solve problems faster, as a result.   I get a certain amount of, "Oh but we can't just ask one autistic specialist, because they're just one autistic person".  Yet, they ask just one non-autistic specialist without any worries about doing so.  Odd, isn't it.  

So, that's a starter on communication.
It's different.  Different is OK.  Learn about our differences, and find ways to respect them. We're learning about yours.  Learning together is good.

Thank you for listening.