Behind the Interview: Thoughts on Autism and Communication

Our languages are not mistakes,
or broken syllables, or to be dismissed as mere
unintelligible nonsense. They simply need our translations
to be understood.
— “Code”

I was invited by Emma Kingsley of BBC Radio 3 to be part of an episode of “Between the Ears” called “How Was Your Day, Joe?”. In mid-May, she interviewed me at WCBE Radio in Columbus, Ohio through a high-speed connection from England. Kingsley asked me questions about communication and autism and asked me to read a few of my poems. This program aired on June 7 on BBC Radio 3: you can listen to the archived show here. I was honored to be a part of this program and to be given an opportunity to share my experiences and art to help people better understand autism.

Specifically, Kingsley centered the program around a question which she asked Joe every day but with which he found frustration – “how was your day, Joe?”. Kingsley asked autistic people to provide insight on why answering the question would be so difficult for Joe. She also interviewed clinical psychologist Andrew McDonnell, speech therapist Robert Bell, Simon Baron-Cohen (Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University), and Delia Barton, Michael’s mother. Excerpts of two of my poems, “Glass and Concrete” and “Code“, were played during the broadcast.

Communication about Communication

In preparation for this interview, Kingsley sent me a general list of questions about communication and my own experiences. The questions forced me to think about a lot of things – how I process my episodic memories, how I communicate my experiences to others, and even my own childhood and teenage years.

First, let me speak about how I process and communicate my experiences. I have said before that my mind works rather visually. Borrowing from Dr. Temple Grandin’s explanation of autistic types of thinking, I have determined that I’m mostly a visual thinker with some verbal logic thinking as well – this is how I compose my poetry, translating the images and moving film in my head into words. So when I think of my memories, I must first rewind, replay, and even freeze-frame and focus on the details I desire in order to speak about them. After that, I must find the words to reflect what I perceive with my senses and feel with my whole self.

Secondly, Kingsley’s questions about my childhood forced me to realize one horrific truth. I have little to no memory of anyone asking about my day when I was younger, and certainly no memory of this after about age thirteen…because as a teenager, no one asked me about my day. If you had asked me back then how I felt about this, I might have actually told you that it was a good thing no one asked. I would have seen it as avoiding further verbal and physical abuse through exposing myself emotionally and then being cut down with insults or hit by my aunt because of her disapproval over something I did, or ridicule by one of my cousins.

However, I realized before and during the interview that the fact that no one asked me about my day…was a bad thing. It confirms my worst feelings about those years of my life – that no one paid attention to me except to abuse me, to give me subtle and not-so-subtle messages that I was a burden…because I wouldn’t be normal, because I had needs, because I was confused about the world and made a lot of social and other kinds of faux pas, because they were afraid that my behavior would call too much attention to the lie and dysfunction that was my family of origin.

Untangling myself and communicating these yarns have sometimes been rather difficult for me because of these horrific years. I curled up inside myself and pulled a clam shell of safety around me. That clam shell was made of books, poems, stories, fantasies, dreams, and sometimes hopes, both strong and brittle. Although my silence was not as complete and total as what the late Dr. Maya Angelou experienced as a child following traumatic sexual abuse, it was none the less silence. Perhaps that is why, as I accounted when Kingsley asked me about communication and meltdowns, I often felt like I would explode. I probably had enough canon fodder in my heart for a hundred wars.

Make no mistake – silence does not necessarily mean a lack of speech. Dr. Angelou proved that this was true. Nonverbal autistics communicating through alternate means – such as Amy Sequenzia, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and Amanda Baggs – also prove that this was true. What I mean by silence here is a confining, soul-deadening prison in which all you hear is the empty echoes of your own breath. I have been there. The late Johnny Cash might call this place a chasm “between heaven and hell…[and] in that chasm is no place for any man”.

My own experiences, as well as the experiences of other autistics, underscore the human need for communication. When we chose the silence for healthy reasons, it is because we need it. But when we chose it to avoid pain and abuse…or when silence is forced upon us at our detriment to serve others’ selfish interests…or when no one asks us to communicate because they assume we do not or cannot…this is were the problems lie.

I am grateful that I can reach out, that I mostly feel safe in doing do, and that (thanks be to God) poetry has become a tongue I borrow to better speak or when my own fails. My willingness to communicate and to reach out more broadly is also partially thanks to my fiancé, who has been constantly supporting and encouraging me since we met fourteen years ago. I am grateful for other autistics speaking, blogging, and writing as well. I am also glad that explorations into autistic communication such as this radio program are taking place, but much more needs to be done.

I Was a Little Worried…and Still Am

I must admit that before my fiancé and I listened to the broadcast on Saturday, I felt a bit of trepidation knowing that Simon Baron-Cohen had contributed to the program. I tend to feel trepidation when those who are deemed experts on autism speak about it, because sometimes they get it all wrong. And that “getting it wrong” leads to conclusions which are not only errors of fact but dangerous in that they continue to promote misunderstanding and prejudice about autism and autistic people.

However, upon first listen I found the program was balanced in its look at autism and communication. I was also pleased at the fact that autistic people were asked for their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and insight – I was interviewed along with Wendy Lawson, Michael Barton, and Kingsley’s 13 year-old son Joe, who was the genesis of this episode’s theme. We observed that Kingsley was genuinely on a detective mission of sorts — to find out why Joe had such difficulty communicating about his day, and to explore issues with communication and autism in general. She concluded that perhaps the question — “how was your day, Joe?” — was itself part of the problem.

While I did not at first glance detect any glaringly obvious problems with what he said during his part of the broadcast, I still remain cautious regarding Dr. Baron-Cohen and his research, considering that his material includes conclusions such as lack of empathy on our part and the “extreme male-wired brain” idea of autism. Following the axiom of “nothing about us without us”, many of us will continue to aim a logical and critical eye at such research and counteract misinformation, fallacies, and lies contained therein.

The Next Steps

My own experiences as an autistic communicating, as well as a need to understand how these processes work inside us, are reasons why I believe that more research and dialogue needs to happen regarding autistic thinking and processing. Autistic people are the perfect individuals with which to start. Many of us have already begun to analyze our communication and thinking processes and share our experiences with the world at large. Some positive things have already resulted from this broadcast — for example, an open dialogue with my coworkers about autism.

However, science and researchers need to take our experiences and input seriously. Because of misinformation, pathologization of neurological differences, and flat-out prejudice towards autistic folk, some of us do not trust the medical, psychological, and scientific communities. Additionally, organizations such as Autism Speaks only continue to make things worse. To the medical, psychological, and scientific communications I call for a logical, even-minded approach to researching autism and a greater commitment to involving autistics by genuinely listening to our experiences and opinions. And to Autism Speaks and to the celebrity opportunists (yes, Ms. Jenny McCarthy, I mean YOU) who use autism to further your agendas, I call for an end to your propaganda, lies, and disregard for autistic involvement in how you define and speak about our unique neurology.

I and my fiancé speak about our autism openly (although I am the louder mouth of the two) and choose activism through art — with our own art and by promoting neurodiverse literature through our journal, Barking Sycamores. And we will not give up. I suspect if you are autistic and reading this, you won’t give up either. To allistic friends and allies, thank you for not giving up as well. And to Ms. Kingsley and BBC Radio 3, I offer my sincere thanks for giving me and the other autistics in the program an opportunity to share about how we communicate and process.

To allistic folk who are new to autism, I say to you these things:

Forget what you have heard from the media about autism.
Forget what you have heard from Autism Speaks.
Forget what you have heard about autism being a tragedy or a sentence to a miserable life.
Forget what you have been told about autism by celebrities pushing their cause du jour.
Forget the tenuous and invalid connections which have been made between autism and things such as psychopathy, a lack of empathy, widespread savant abilities, and gun violence.
Open your minds.

And finally, talk to an autistic. I’m here. And a lot of us are out here. We’re willing to listen. Are you?

-Nicole

P.S. Please stay tuned for a special announcement about the Woman With Asperger’s blog in the upcoming days.

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4 thoughts on “Behind the Interview: Thoughts on Autism and Communication

  1. I am greatly moved by what you have written about your childhood and the fact that no-one ever asked how your day was. You lived with invalidation and you have come through that to write these heartfelt truths of your experience. You are a wonderful human being.

  2. It’s been a while since I visited this site. Yes, I am still aware of bing “different” I still have prblems making conversations with people I don’t yet know very well. The new wife of my eldest son is a lovely person, open and friendly, yet I have problems keeping a conversation going with her. She is probably 25 years younger than me, we have quite a bit in common – Yet I still feel “on edge” worrying what to say next, — does this sound dumb, does that sound like I haven’t been paying attention? After all these years, I still “don’t get it!”

    Sometimes it seems I let my daughter act as my interpreter. She has a touch of autism, but not enough to get in her way. She is comfortable with herself, at least enough to make friends easily, and if there are times when she doesn’t feel at ease, she is good at covering.

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