When I am Non-Verbal

I have learned so much about myself and my own condition by meeting other people on the Autism Spectrum. Last year I went to APAC, the Asia Pacific Autism Conference. There I met a young man and as we were chatting I noticed some non-verbal cards on his lanyard. They said things like “Hi, my name is…”, “I’m non-verbal” and a bunch of other common useful phrases. He seemed like your typical teenager and in any other environment I probably wouldn’t have even guessed he was on the Spectrum. I was curious and so asked in a very direct but polite way.

“Can I ask you about them? How often do you use them?”

“I use them sometimes”, he replied, “but more often at events like this where people understand”.

“How fascinating!”, I thought to myself. I just couldn’t imagine how that worked!

Earlier that day I met another very softly spoken young lady. The first time I spoke to her she responded so quietly that I wasn’t sure if I actually heard any sound or if I was just reading her lips. On top of that she accompanied her spoken reply with sign language (which I didn’t understand), but which seemed to serve as ‘captions’ for her incredibly soft voice. She wasn’t deaf, but had a lot of deaf friends and clearly enjoyed augmenting her speech with non-verbal signs.

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So much is expressed non-verbally.
If you cannot understand my silence. How will you understand my words?

So all this got me thinking… I do that too, sometimes, to a degree. When I’m really tired I go non-verbal. I’m there. I interact. I just don’t speak. Or rather, I’d prefer not to speak because it takes so much energy. I actually really like communicating without words. It’s peaceful and relaxing and I feel really connected to the other person. Words seem superfluous, ugly, cumbersome, unnecessary.

It’s hard to explain. Sometimes I just hate noise. Not all noise, but noise for the sake of noise (like a TV on in the background that no-one is watching). I detest this so much that I cannot bring myself to open my mouth and contribute to it. When you ask me a question, do I REALLY have to say ‘yes’? Can’t I just give you a big smile, or a head nod, or a thumbs up or something? But no, society dictates that I have to actually speak the words out loud and my failure to do so sometimes has negative consequences.

“If you think that I’m quiet then you don’t read my eyes
’cause I’ve got a lot to say most of the time” – Diana Anaid

Very often people don’t acknowledge me (as much) because they perceive me as ‘silent’. I am not silent. I’m just not speaking. Looking back now this previously unconscious preference often hurt me socially. As I have now learned, most people really do need these spoken words that seem so unnecessary to me. I might do things like join a group, wave and make eye contact with everyone, but not say a word. I would then feel a little rejected by those who refused to acknowledge me (i.e. look at me). In fact, all I needed to do was to say ‘hi’ and they would have responded positively. It’s just that my wave and physical presence didn’t make their radar and so they didn’t notice me. (Neurotypicals often have surprisingly poor awareness!)

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I went camping recently and noticed this effect early in the morning. My brain was still waking up. I walked over to a man and woman from our group who were standing by the kettle making tea. I made eye contact and waved and the man acknowledged me with a nod and said “good morning”. The woman however did not acknowledge me. She didn’t raise her eyes from her cup. I looked at her for a few seconds waiting to see if she’d look up, but she didn’t. Because of this she didn’t notice that I was saying “hello, good morning” non-verbally (i.e. with my eyes and hands). I was consciously aware that because she didn’t notice she would probably assume I didn’t say hi and therefore judge me as rude. Ah, humans, don’t you just love them!

On this particular morning I chose to conserve my energy and to let her misjudge me as rude. Meanwhile, a neurotipical friend is sitting at the table by herself journaling, in her own world humming to herself and listening to music through headphones. Later that morning another friend casually remarks “don’t talk to me yet. I haven’t had a coffee”….

Are we really so different?

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9 thoughts on “When I am Non-Verbal

  1. Time and again I’m struck by the overlap between autism as it manifests itself and ABI (acquired brain injury).
    A variety of environments or activities will cause me neural fatigue. When I’m dealing with neuro fatigue I can relate to the choice of conserving energy and chosing to go non-verbal.
    Maybe that’s why I enjoy being outdoors. When I’m outdoors most sounds are muted. There isn’t the echo or reverberation that happens when dealing with sound in a building or some type of enclosed space. When I’m outdoors there are so many sounds at a variety of decibel levels. However, it isn’t the decibel level that stands out, but rather the way different sounds flow together. Sounds are somewhat muted in different ways. As I experience certain natural spaces long enough, I start to tune into more and more non-verbal activity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps the woman with the tea wasn’t judging you as rude but was being rude herself. Or perhaps she was simply “in a world of her own” and not taking in other things around her. Perhaps she was in a bad mood for whatever reason and didn’t want to communicate with anyone at all. Who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

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