Thursday, July 11, 2019

Being Hyper-Verbal Is A Real—And Disabling—Autistic Experience

Two Vietnamese men, seen from behind, wearing billed caps and squatting as they have a conversation. The man on the right is gesticulating with his left hand
Photo © ePi.Longo | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Two Vietnamese men, seen from behind, wearing billed caps and squatting as
they have a conversation. The man on the right is gesticulating with his left hand.]

M. Kelter
www.TheInvisibleStrings.com

Content note: This article discusses suicide risk factors specific to the autistic experience.

I worry that too many people think of hyper-verbal autistic speech as being synonymous with "articulate" or "fast" or as something purely beneficial. This is actually not correct. Hyper-verbal autism is autism, and it is a disability. I want to provide a few details about how it generally works, so that I can draw a line connecting it to what people generally think of, when they think of autism.

I am on the spectrum, and I was fortunate enough to spend a few years working with a specialist who taught me the parameters of my particular way of engaging with language. We found that my verbal processing tends to create difficulties for me when it connects up with three factors: Emotional volume, thought speed, and social pragmatics.

What I am going to describe here is the way hyper-verbal speech works for myself—one, non -representative individual—and the way that these factors are exactly what you would expect to find in the realm of autism.

Some who have children with significant degrees of intellectual disability feel like conversations like this can obscure what they call "real" autism. But this, too, is incorrect. The distinction they are making only manages to cut the common thread that connects varied autistic experiences into a coherent neurological profile.

To explain what I mean by that: there simply is no reason to see different experiences with autism as mutually exclusive, as if they are in competition for territory. Autism is a disability that impacts communication. And because there is predominantly a genetic basis—there are currently 102 genes associated with ASD—you would actually expect for people on the spectrum to be very different from one another. The genetic complexity means that people are taking many different neurological pathways into an autistic profile.

The unifying component of autism is communication, not the many individualized forms communication can take. If you focus only on differences at the expression side of autism—whether someone is verbal or non-verbal—you are going to skip over that essential shared ground. Variations are not invalidating of a diagnosis, they are what you would expect to find in a condition this genetically heterogeneous.

So, that's how the different types of autistic communication link up, but I do want to go into some detail about accelerated language since it is one of the ways that autistic communication happens.

Take that word "accelerated" and think of hyper-verbal speech as an accelerant or a fuel, something combustible that can turn volatile when mixed with the wrong variables (like fire, for example). Then take that accelerant and throw it on a mood.

When words are naturally assembled in such a way that they bring a detailed, granular focus to an experience, it can become quite destabilizing if that experience is an emotion. The words take the volume of a mood and turn them to a much higher level.

Hyper-verbal autism is no joke. It is not an affectation. When anger or depression or self-hatred gets a boost from this kind of added intensity, it can be very difficult to steer in a better direction. The interplay between mood volume and hyper-verbal speech is under-discussed and under-appreciated as a risk factor for suicide in autistic people. Please believe me when I tell you this.

These concerns include risks for children, as well as teens and adults. If you are a parent and you do not believe me when I say this kind of speech can be extraordinarily difficult to manage, ask another parent of a hyper-verbal autistic child. I am quite confident that they will tell you, at least in many cases, that the internal fights these children go through as they battle with their own words; it can be a terribly difficult situation.

If we are thinking of words as a kind of fuel, thoughts are what drive the vehicle. The speed with which words can form and race to new and varied patterns can make concentration a daily, hourly nightmare. I am rarely able to concentrate. Simple tasks are not simple. Every possible thought is instantly ten alternate thoughts that quickly grow to a hundred and then more and when you take that head space into a grocery store or a school test or a job interview, most of every day can feel like an incredibly frustrating obstacle course.

That's internally. Externally, people interpret your concentration issues a lot of way. It can scan as not paying attention, as rude, as flighty, as indifferent, as lacking empathy (because you're too overwhelmed to notice subtle emotions and people, not understanding autism, feel neglected and inadvertently spread myths about empathy) and so on. The concentration issue alone can lead to significant degrees of impact and disability when it comes to daily functioning.

Take the mood thing, the thought thing and imagine how they play out in the middle of a real-time social interaction. It can be extremely disruptive. The impact of this kind of autistic speech can be significant and—due to the hostile reactions it receives from the rest of the word—it can easily lead to depression and social isolation.

Via front-line observation, I can report to you that in social contexts, hyper-verbal autistic speech functions like a chain event. As a child, I had social needs, I liked approaching other kids and sharing my thoughts, but that's now how interactions work. You have to know the social codes and hidden social rituals, and my words blew past all of that like a boulder going downhill. I would approach kids and start talking out of my head in a deluge of monologue, and that only ever drove kids away, or elicited bullying (aka violence). Mood disorders and social isolation ensued. It was a chain event.

To be clear, the answer back then would not have simply been to have me talk less. People tried that, but it didn't take because that's not how autism works. The answer would have had a lot more to do with changing the way people react to autistic differences, but we can take that up in another post.

If you are someone who generally believes that hyper-verbal autistics are arrogant, or have it easy, or that they do not have "real" autism: please know that you do not understand what autism is, and you are not helping autism conversations. What you are doing is are disparaging a group that doesn't need more disparagement. My only hope is that you can sense that I am trying to share good information with you here, and that you do not need to shout at autistics on twitter because they said a thing.

I honestly believe people will have an easier time understanding the autism spectrum the instant they stop creating nonsensical barriers between autistic people and their lived experience, and the ways that they engage with communication. New school, 2019 autism is simply a better conversation to have. I did not like the old one.