Autistic-Style Conversation (Autistics in the Wild?)

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.

Autistic-Style Conversation

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 isn’t.

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.

Winding Down

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.

Polya Relationship Expectations: Nothing for Granted

Updated version of a previously published article on Postmodern Woman.

Up front and honest. Heard and understood. Let’s both (all) be right. No either-or thinking. Surface vs. Substance. No expectations. Humanity (individuality) first. No defaults.
In all things, my values came (and still come) first. I didn’t grow up with stability or honesty or respect. More often than not I was the wall at which everyone decided to throw their shit. I grew up seeing humanity’s worst. Yet, instead of giving into it, instead of becoming a statistic, I chose another path. I’m addicted to discovering new things. If I don’t consider at least five different perspectives on something before settling on the most rational one then I haven’t done my job. As the world fell apart into nonsense around me I sought knowledge about anything and everything. I incorporated that knowledge into my writing, into my books. I’m especially partial to philosophy and the way that brains and minds work.
Being on the outside of the world’s typical human experiences allowed me to come to certain conclusions more quickly. I was (and am) living proof of an extreme intersection of categories that shouldn’t even seem possible to most. Much of the world can’t conceive of a person like me existing, rendering me effectively invisible by default. People tend to search for the familiar. This phenomenon does serve to leave me alone more often than not. I learned to love my own company very early on.
These experiences made it easier for me to put my values into practice; they made it easier to clearly define what was truly important to me. They allowed me to see through the layers of bullshit societies build up around things like family, romance, sex, education, and so much more. I literally cannot take anything for granted. There are no defaults in my life save change (and perhaps pain, if my physical ailments are any indication). My bedrock has always been a shifting, amorphous blob. So I learned to dance. Buddhists meditate for years to learn how to remain unattached from outcomes, people, and things. People try for years to be comfortable being alone (being single). People hurt one another so much before they realize that you must treat people as people.
Many polya people (or people in general) have disastrous relationships because they are embedded into common cultural narratives that separate human beings into categories. Most of us grow up learning to see people by their attributes first. Using those categorical lenses serves to help us miss one another on a most basic level. I couldn’t understand why labels were so important to others, why people built tribes along arbitrary lines, why they couldn’t conceive of a person being both or neither instead of always either-or, why they only extended logic bit by bit to each facet of their life instead of universally.
It’s because I’m such a weirdo. Most people don’t experience the world like I do. I have several forms of synesthesia, I’m left-handed, an atheist, Aspie, and noetisexual. I’m many other very queer things that are normally listed on the fringes of every scale. I cannot afford to take anything for granted. I can’t rely on heuristics to run my life. I don’t have defaults to fall back on to build the illusion of safety around me.
Going back to that list at the beginning, those are my only “rules” for dealing with reality. How much heartache would be avoided if people dealt with humans first and foremost instead of labels? Most people don’t have that sort of focus, that self-awareness, that desire for autonomy and that willingness to see reality as it is. We learn to view ourselves as empty halves needing to be filled. We expect others to fix us. We open ourselves up to abuse because we don’t even see ourselves as human first. There’s a reason people learn to dehumanize the enemy. You can do anything to a non-human. The more human someone becomes, the less likely you are to want to hurt them.
I find a lot of people tend to run aw`ay from me. I’m much too honest, and perhaps too serious, from the start. I value my time and others’. Because there are so many things about me that I know many might have issues with I’ve taken the up front and honest route. I’d rather have people in my life that truly want to be there than to take their time and have them feel I’d tricked them later. I have no expectations for how things need to shape up. Knowing what others expect allows us to discover what actually works, even if that means saying goodbye. I don’t dump everything on a person at the first meeting, obviously, unless it naturally comes up. But I do make certain to state my intentions and to inform them I’m not anything close to normal as soon as possible. Informed decision-making all around!
The purpose of heard and understood is to communicate diametrically-opposed ideas without devolving into an argument. My longest-term partner (and my deceased partner) and I have never yelled at one another. I can count on my fingers the number of times that I’ve yelled at him (and I can be a very, very, angry person). We keep in mind that the goal of communication is to understand one another. And even if we don’t agree, we search for a “let’s both be right” solution. That goes right along with the “no either-or thinking”. It’s not us against each other; it’s us both searching for the truth. Meaning, if we come to an impasse about something we go out and do our research before making our own decisions. Heard and understood also works well for sharing thoughts that may be difficult to hear, fears that could eat us alive, and experiences we’d rather forget. We’ve learned things about each other people don’t even write down in their diaries. It may be that most people are fine knowing much less about their significant others but my partner(s) and I do tend to be a bit nosy. And our trust was (and is) built gradually and actively.
Having no expectations requires you to be active and vigilant when dealing with other people (or ideas and other things). For instance, the ideas of romance and marriage were always suspect to me. I see people as individuals; couples (or other configurations) don’t matter to me. I’m a person first and foremost; my relationship configurations aren’t relevant to how I define myself or how I feel about myself. Knowing the history of marriage, I never saw a reason to tie the knot. I thought it was odd that two people being in love was such a big deal that it needed to be flaunted in public and then shared with friends and family with a ceremony.
I knew it was mathematically impossible for “the one” to exist. I knew that “safety and security” were illusions. I knew that love didn’t mean availability, longevity, stability, or compatibility. I knew that most people are hurt by their own expectations rather than by others’ actions. I knew that most people will naturally leave your life; that everyone is walking along their own unique paths and, though your lives might entwine for a while, inevitably you are the only one following your path to completion.
I know that every second, every breath, every step is a moment full of awe and worship of life. I know that substance (reality) trumps surface (illusion). I know that endless possibilities echo in every moment. I know that life is short. I know I’ll spend mine in appreciation, wonder, and awareness. I take nothing for granted. I never get comfortable (which he always playfully complains about). I never default. There’s so much to learn and see, after all.

When Communication is a Bad Thing

I’m amused by the first line of this post. I’ve realized over the years that actually, 90% of what I do is give relationship advice. It’s just a broader variety of relationship advice than you’ll find in books and blogs that are focused on ‘fixing’ relationships or how to have a healthy relationship. Major change here is I originally talked about “good communication” and “bad communication”. I’ve changed that because communication is sharing information and ideas. Not all types of talking (or writing, or signaling) are communication. Sometimes telling someone something is just nagging. Sometimes it’s abuse. Sometimes it’s venting. And those things aren’t ‘bad’ communication. They plain aren’t communication. (Okay, sometimes venting can also be communication. Grey areas. They are a thing.) This is also the first post where I am using “connection” in place of a generic “partner”. Revised 2/20/17

I am straying dangerously close to relationship advice today, but what the hell.

Yes, I said it. I said it and I will stand by it. Communication is not always a good thing.

As heretical as it can sound, too much communication can be a bad thing. Or maybe it is better to say telling someone how you feel is not always communication.

Today, I read a post on Sex Geek by Andrea Zanin, about the 10 rules of non-monogamy. Overall, I think they are great rules. But this line:

Is there something on your mind that you don’t want to tell your partner? MAJOR warning bell… this is almost a guarantee that you should be telling them!

kinda jumped out at me.

Things I Don’t Want to Tell my Partner

I am sick today. Stuffed nose, sore throat, exhausted, and generally feeling like shit. My partner is disabled. He needs me to fix his meals, and help out with a lot of the day-to-day stuff that he ’should’ be able to do himself, but often can’t.

There are things that have been on my mind all day that I do not want to tell my partner. I do not want to tell him that I am sick of being the one who does everything. I do not want to tell him that he can take care of himself today because I’m done doing it. I do not want to tell him that I am sick and he can just suck it up. (Believe me when I say that if he could take care of himself on his own, he would, if only because he is a better cook than I am!)

I feel these things, I think them. But I do not want to say them to him. I’m pretty sure that Andrea would agree with me that this time, not wanting to say these things that are on my mind is a not major warning bell. Why? Because it is one thing to sit down calmly with my partner, discuss of my frustrations with his disability, and what, if anything, can be done to make things easier. (Which we have done. He is well aware of how frustrated I am and has taken the time, spontaneously, today, to tell me that it is okay if I can’t do everything, just do my best – throwing my own words back in my face :D)

It is another thing entirely for me to say these things that are on my mind, which would be very hurtful to him, would not provide any information he doesn’t already have, and that I am really only thinking because I am sick and miserable myself.

So When Is Talking NOT Communication?

What are some other times when telling someone how you feel isn’t a good thing? How about when you are crossing the line between communication and nagging/haranguing.

Say you don’t like your connection’s new girlfriend. It is important and good communication, to say ‘I really don’t like her, and this is why.’ But if every time they have a date with her you say, ‘I wish you would stop dating her, you know I don’t like her’. . .

Not so good. If their dating her is getting to you that much, then it may be time to have a long sit-down discussion to sort out how to handle the situation. But that kind of discussion is very different from making resentful comments as they are heading out for a date.

Similarly, it’s fine to say ‘I wish you weren’t going out tonight, but I hope you have a good time.’ or even (sometimes) ‘I really need you to stay home tonight, is it possible for you to reschedule?’

Txting every 15 minutes to say that you miss them and when are they going to be home is definitely not communicating anything. Except that you don’t respect their time with their other connection. And it’s guaranteed to cause resentment and problems.

So, what is the difference between communication and telling someone how you feel in an unhealthy way? I’d say that communication is when you are in control of and expressing your feelings to tell someone what they need to or should know. Bad communication is when your feelings are in control of you and expressing themselves in a way that is hurtful and shares no new information. Often in ways that are either aggressive, passive-aggressive, or just plain inconsiderate. (Yes, there is a gray area between the two. No such thing as human binaries-even, or perhaps especially-in how we communicate.)

It’s Okay to Be Human

I don’t know about you, personally, I am not a Zen master or any other form of super-evolved being. There are times when my emotions are in control when I am that stressed, that angry, that tired, and I say things I probably shouldn’t. It happens. But when it happens, I recognize it as harmful, something that shouldn’t have been said and I try to keep it from happening again.

​Clarify Your Silence In the Name of Love by Michon Neal

Updated version. Previously appeared on Postmodern Woman.
Are you one of those people who hates awkward silences? Do you feel like you have to fill in the quiet with something, anything? Have you ever dated or talked with someone who went silent and assumed they were bored, angry, or shutting you out?

My longest term partner felt like that a lot. He still isn’t very comfortable with silence. And he couldn’t stand it whenever I would go quiet, or when I wouldn’t respond, or when I’d simply sit on my own without making conversation.
There has been a lot of talk going around about how silence is a form of violence. And this makes a lot of sense. After all, we all grow up with the messages that to be shunned (usually depicted by people literally turning their back on a character) is awful and that the silent treatment is a go-to move (especially for women). And we’ve all had that person drop out of our lives without even a parting word.

Silence has become the enemy.

But this is missing the ‘words’ for the trees.

    There are two types of relational silence — one that serves the connection, one that damages it. In the first, silence comes with the qualifier “I need some quiet time to reflect”, which is healthy and respectful to the connection. In the second, silence comes with no qualifier and others are left to wonder what is actually happening. In this case, silence is actually violence — a passive aggressive attempt to cause suffering, or, at the least, a negligent self-absorption that makes things worse. Given that so many of us grew up with the silent treatment, it is essential that we let others know what is happening when we go quiet. It is respectful and it keeps the love alive. Even something like “Time out!” can be enough to keep silence from turning into violence. (~an excerpt from ‘Love it Forward’)

For those of us who are introverted, who value our independence and individuality, who are autistic, who are empaths, who have been abused, who are creative (especially writers), who meditate or think a lot, or who are simply naturally quiet it is our default state.

For us, silence means many things:

  • It may mean we’ve been hurt.
  • It may mean we’ve been ignored.
  • It may mean we recharge with silence.
  • It may be that we’re just one of those who revel in it.

When people constantly talk over you, when you’ve been belittled or abused, when you think before you speak, when you recharge by focusing inward, when you need to focus it is by being silent if you are a person who is quiet.

Yet for those who don’t understand this sort of silence things can go terribly wrong. People have their feelings hurt. They don’t understand what went wrong. Like the quote above says: there are two kinds of silence. How are you to tell the difference? How can these types of people come to a healthy understanding?

Well, each one has a job to do.

The onus lies on the quiet person to speak up about their need for silence. Tell your partners what duration works best for you. Tell them if they’ve triggered you. If you’ve shut down then tell them why at the soonest possible moment or warn them that it’s coming. Tell them you need time to think about your reply. Tell them you enjoy having them near because being in the same space is a way to share yourself.

For the not-quiet person here are things to try: listen (quietly) while they speak. If you’re the type to interrupt or if you’re thinking about what to say next then work on that. You need to give them the space to open up in their own time. Instead of assuming they’ve shut down or shut you out, ask if they’re thinking or need time. If you find it hard to sit without talking then play some music.
Because for the empath, autistic, or the introvert it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Think about it as a smell. At first the scent is light and pleasant. But as the day wears on, the scent grows stronger and stronger, until you can barely concentrate on anything else. Even if you love the smell (say it’s your favorite perfume) you definitely feel uncomfortable when it’s caked on too much.

So the next time you find yourself panicking when your partner takes a breath that lasts three seconds (even if it seems like an eternity) or if you panic because only three seconds have passed before you’re being asked another question (they’re not trying to bombard you) please keep in mind that everyone is different. Remember that you must speak up so that they know your experience. Remember that you must listen so that you don’t miss anything. Remember that there are as many kinds of silence as there are people.

It is not something to fear. It is something to embrace. Because even if the silence is intentionally meant to hurt you, I can guarantee it still has nothing to do with you. And either way, you have to learn to deal with it. Let it go. Let it be.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”

Standard Poly advice: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Nothing is more important to a healthy relationship than communication. If we aren’t keeping our SOs in the loop about how we feel and what is going on with us, then small problems will become big problems until someone comes home from work to find their stuff sitting on the front steps.

Right. A few years ago I wrote about when communication is a bad thing. Here’s one of the key takeaways:

good communication is when you are in control of, and expressing, your feelings. Bad communication is when your feelings are in control of you, and expressing themselves.

See, it’s all well and good for me to tell Michael I feel like shit, depression has taken over my brain, and I’m feeling neglected and needy. But everyone dealing with mental illness has times when we are just being irrational. Sometimes, especially when our illness is well managed, we can recognize that irrationality and discuss our feelings. Other times that irrationality can drive us into “communicating” things that we would never say when we were in control of ourselves. What we “communicate” when our mental illnesses are in control can be hurtful, damaging, false, or just plain misleading. Sometimes communicate is not the fucking answer.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Assess, Plan, Then Communicate

Mental illness loves impulse. Acting on your first thought is great for your mental illness, because it is much easier for the monster to control you when you don’t stop and check yourself.

Before you communicate, stop and assess yourself. Are you in control? Is your mental illness? Engage your logic circuits if possible. Maybe just take fifteen minutes to let yourself get past your immediate thought/reaction/idea.

For most part, DON’T try to be your you emotions. That’s an invitation for your mental illness to take over. Instead either A) think about what you want to say and why or B) do something to distract yourself for a few minutes and come back to what you wanted to communicate a bit later and see if you changed your mind.

If you find that what you wanted to say seems to be coming more from your mental illness than from anything else, you may still want to tell your poly partners, but make sure you tell them as an “this is how my mental illness is affecting me.”

Plan what you are going to say and how. Write out talking points, go over it in your head, whatever works for you. When you have a plan it is harder for mental illnesses to impulse-drive you into saying you’ll regret later.

When you’ve accessed and planned, then it’s time to communicate.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

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