I promise — this is going to be about autistic-style conversation. But first I need to get something out.
As dehumanizing and shitty as it would be, sometimes I wish we could have had a David Attenborough-style documentary on autistic folks ‘in the wild.’
Like, have a group of autistic folks living together, old Attenborough narrating our habits and lives and explaining, as he did so well, why we do what we do.
It’s really shitty when documentaries of actual animals are a step up from how your people are usually described and presented.
I don’t want to start doing the kind of ongoing blog series I used to do for Polyamory on Purpose. But I may have blog ‘themes’. Where I’m not committed to writing a certain topic/idea, but when I feel like it, I add another post to this theme tag.
“Autistics in the wild” would be my first theme.
Where’d that come from?
The above (and the below) was inspired by a comment I left in a Quora reply thread about how autistic folks socialize when left to our own devices. Autistic-style conversation has come up several times over the past few months. I’ve had a few conversations, seen some Twitter threads. I think someone had a blog post… I don’t remember and couldn’t find it. (Put out a call for help on Twitter, if anyone finds it I’ll update.)
Anyway, it’s been a topic.
A topic that is, in fact, the main point of today’s blog post. But I had to get the bit about David Attenborough off my chest.
Did you know that autistic-style conversation is a thing?
It is, really.
So much time has been spent figuring how to ‘teach’ autistic people how to ‘socialize’, that none of the ‘experts’ ever stopped to ask the critical question. How do autistic people socialize? The ‘experts’ assume we don’t and need to be taught how.
Nope. We do, we just have our own approach.
It’s a wonderful scary feeling — realizing that you’re not wrong or broken. You really are just different. The people trying to help you spent years teaching you your difference was wrong. That the only right way was their way.
It’s a Spectrum
No, not autism. Well, I mean, autism too. But autistic-style communication. There isn’t one way autistic folks communicate and converse. No more than there is one way allistic folks communicate and converse. Some allistic folks get right up in each other’s faces when they talk, some leave a lot of ‘personal’ space. Some are loud, some are quiet, some ‘take the piss,’ others are very polite. Some use cooperative overlap, others don’t distinguish between overlap and interruption. You get the idea.
Nothing I say applies to all autistic people or all autistic conversations. (That’s obvious, right?)
So we’re going to talk about one type of autistic-style conversation today. The type that I and my autistic family circle are most likely to engage in.
Our Autistic-Style Conversations
The early stages of this autistic conversational style involves searching for a topic. We all bring up various things we’ve thought of, done, seen, read, etc since the last time we talked. Sooner or later, someone brings up a topic that gets other folks engaged. Something that makes multiple people sit up and go ‘Ooh!’
Then we latch onto that topic and dig into it. Conversation often becomes very intense with one or more people losing our volume control in our focus on the discussion. Cooperative overlap is heavy.
As the intensity dies down, conversation will shift towards a series of short monologues. I say what I think, not in a sentence or two, but in several paragraphs. Then someone else steps in to share their experience, again talking for far longer than allistic people tend to consider polite. ‘Dominating’ the conversation, except that we all do it as we feel we have something to say.
Sooner or later, someone says something that reverberates with everyone, and the intensity ramps up again and there will be 2-4 minutes of pure cooperative overlap, ‘talking over each other’, except we are talking with each other. And eventually, that dies down and we go back to a more deliberate conversational pace.
We rarely stay on the first topic. One topic leads to another to another.
Eventually, one of two things happen. We need to stop before we are really done — we get too tired to continue (executive dysfunction kicks in, aural processing starts acting up, someone’s getting sensory overload, etc.); or something interrupts. Or We run out of things to say and reach a conversational dead end.
If we reach a conversational dead end and still have time/energy/desire to keep talking, we go back to the beginning and find a new/previously missed topic. “Oh, you said X — tell me about it.”
Our Autistic-Style Conversations (Take 2)
Sometimes there isn’t any topic that makes two or more people excited to talk about. Or we don’t feel the need/desire for that intensity level in a conversation.
In that case, things take a different turn. During the ‘finding a topic’ part of the conversation, someone asks a question about something they’d like to hear about. The person asked then talks about that thing, with the listener asking questions or making comments but generally just listening. Sometimes someone just wants to listen. When the speaker finishes, the listener will then ask another question to prompt the conversation. Other times we trade back and forth — when I am done talking about my writing, I ask the other person(s) about the family visit they had planned. Then it’s my turn to listen.
Stuff I Missed
There’s a lot I didn’t cover here — how stims factor into conversation, the way we will often all be quiet for a time to give the current speaker space to find the words they need, etc. But this hopefully gives you a starting point.