Do You Prefer Writing to Speaking?

I think a great deal about writing and how I write less because it feels like a choice and more because it is a need.  I am far more comfortable writing than I am speaking, though people who know me well may find this surprising as I certainly can go on and on about things I feel passionate about.  Writing is the most honest way I can communicate.  When I am speaking to another person(s) I am easily caught up in the emotional exchange, whether it is verbal or not is of little consequence.  I am all too aware of the other person’s tone, their facial expression, the volume they are using, the emphasis they place, the way they move as they are speaking and together with the words that come out of their mouths I make interpretations about what they really mean.  I’m sometimes wrong, sometimes I’m right, but most of the time I have no idea whether I’m right or wrong because I cannot ask to verify my conclusions.

If someone raises their voice in anger, I cannot “hear” them.  Literally, they could be saying anything to me, but I cannot hear their words above the “anger tape” that is embedded in my brain and clicks on when they begin to shout.  The anger tape is ugly and cruel, words are brandished as weapons and used to make deep, painful cuts that take my breath away.  Once the tape begins to play it is almost impossible for me to turn it off.  Still I’ve gotten better and can even say, “I can’t hear you, when you’re yelling.”  Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, even so it’s better than remaining silent.  I think about these things a great deal because of my daughter, who cannot access language easily.   I think about communication and how much of it has nothing to do with actual words.  I think about how I am 52 years old and am just now beginning to really make strides in how I communicate with spoken words in the face of anger and upset.

Writing though, writing is different.  I can think about the words, I can use metaphor, simile and punctuation to enhance.  I can take my time.  I can savor and wallow, I can perseverate.  Words are little sparks, placed together they can sputter and die or surge forth creating something unexpected and beautiful.  Some days it’s easier, the words flow readily and easily.  Whatever I’m writing about takes on a life of its own, the words spill out, paragraphs come together.  On days like that it all feels magical.  But there are other days when I write and delete, I agonize, the words do not obediently fall into place, they are stubborn, they scatter or elude.  I must remind myself to breath and refocus.  But I am dogged and know from years of practice the written words will come if I’m patient.

However with the internet and social media written communication is presenting some of the same problems I have with speech.  If I’m having a written conversation with someone it can go too quickly for me.  I can’t take the time and care I want or need to say things in a way I’ve intended.  I can get swept up in the emotional content of the words being written, either my own or the other person’s and I become easily confused.  Sometimes I perceive the written words in the same way I do when someone begins yelling and I can no longer process what they are saying.  The anger tape has clicked on, the volume is so loud, the content so cruel I’m transported to that miserable place of feeling all my worst fears are being confirmed.  I have thought of this as an “anger tape” but another apt word for what happens to me is what is called “scripting”.  This is a word used often regarding autism; my anger tape is most definitely a script.  And once it’s been activated it is almost impossible for me to turn it off.

I welcome these insights.  So much about autism is covered in thick layers of seemingly impenetrable “otherness”.  That puzzle piece used to symbolize Autism isn’t doing any of us any favors by the way, but that’s worthy of a whole post all on its own.  Whenever I discover things I have experienced, things I know about myself that give me clues into what my daughter or my friends who share her neurology may be experiencing, I am grateful.  I need these insights to help me understand, but also to help me progress and grow as a writer and human being.


36 responses to “Do You Prefer Writing to Speaking?

  1. “Words are little sparks, placed together they can sputter and die or surge forth creating something unexpected and beautiful.” Oh how I like that!

    And you know, I think we all are trying to figure out our neurology as so many things are so challenging and confusing to so many.

    Keep on keepin’ on! 🙂

  2. I completely agree with you. I find myself being much more articulate in writing than with words, even though I am a university professor and can do fine with words as well. Under substantial stress, I become inarticulate in speech, but can process through writing. And I’ve also become more sensitive to this as I become aware both of neurodiversity and more specifically of my daughter’s greater and lesser facility with different forms of communication, which are not the same as mine, but are no more inherently “able” or “impaired”. Thank you, as always, for putting things so beautifully!

  3. I prefer typing to speech too. Some of our reasons are similar, some are not. For me, I think it is more about my expressive language capabilities (varies between none and a bit better than average speaking, consistently strong typing) than about what other people are saying, since I can’t always detect tone. I think it may also be about people realizing that tone will not always be detected over the Internet as opposed to expecting that it will be in person and over phones.

  4. I prefer writing, too, but for a slightly different reason. I need the time to find my own words, moreso than to understand the other person’s words. I’m fairly good at taking in another person’s words, but my response can be slow to form and require a lot of revision before I get to the point where what I’m actually conveying with my words and what I want to convey intersect.

    And if you saw how much I edited even these few sentences you would be laughing as I am now. So I’ll stop and hit post and hope you’ve gotten the gist of what I meant.

  5. I agree, but again for a different reason, namely that I can’t think quickly in reply to someone else’s comments or questions and tend to agree with them as the easiest way out of the dilemma. I really annoy myself when i do this, as often I don’t agree with whatever that person said and can subsequently think of numerous other retorts that would have expressed what I really thought. Then I’ll waste a lot of time having conversations with that person inside my head, as though that’s helpful!

    So where on the neuro-spectrum do I lie? NT or autistic or somewhere along that pendulum swing’s infinite number of points?

  6. For me it is not a preference, it is a necessity. Most of the time, or all of the time, but in most situations I don not have the luxury of writing. Writing is not a luxury, however; it is simply that most people will not take the time to process written information unless they are in a “I think I’ll check my email” mode or a “I think I’ll read a book mode.” People who KNOW I communicate better or sometimes ONLY in writing will refuse to communicate with me in my-not preferred but necessary- mode of language.

  7. P.S. Because I can talk does not mean I can really communicate much of what I think in speech, just as just because I can sort of swim does not mean I can do multiple laps across the pool or swim against a rip tide. That’s probably not a great analogy but it’s the one I have right now.

    • This is such an important point, Paula and one that is deeply misunderstood I think. It’s this idea that if someone has language they have full use of it at all times and that if they do not speak it’s because they are choosing not to. Even NT people lose their ability to speak during stress or extreme upset. We have phrases for that “I’m speechless” or “I was so surprised I couldn’t speak,” or “words left me” etc. and no one thinks twice about it. But with Autism suddenly everyone is confused and can’t understand what’s going on. I wonder if it is similar to what NTs experience under great duress only for Autistics it happens more frequently yet is just as upsetting.

  8. I prefer writing for the most part. It is easier if I can see what I want to say. When I speak words can get mixed up especially if I am anxious. The way I speak through my writing is very different than the way I speak verbally.

  9. Interesting this post should come today. I had a mute morning. Not on purpose. I could not speak…but I could write and I am grateful for that. Still, very frustrating. (It must truly be frustrating to be able to neither speak nor write yet be aware and forming thoughts.) It is one of the few things about autism that still makes me feel completely helpless. But it passed after several hours.Writing or speaking? I am grateful to have the choice again.

  10. Speed of conversation seems to be key for me, especially when it’s about something or in a context that I’m not comfortable in. Writing (or lets face it, typing) tends to work better for me because I can slow down, even stop for a while to think. Even in real-time text conversations rarely is it urgent that I reply quickly, especially for a one-on-one scenario. (Also, it’s easier to maintain multiple conversations, so if I want to reply to something a topic shift doesn’t shut me out the same way that it does in verbal communication).

    The only downside is that I sometimes don’t realise how something sounds until I actually say it out loud (stopping to think before I speak doesn’t help), and with written communication it winds up taking longer for that process to happen, while when speaking I usually realise my mistake as soon as the words are out of my mouth.

  11. I find myself so incredibly attuned to the things you write about yourself. I LOVE reading about Emma because I think she is just amazing, but what really has drawn me to your blog is how you write about yourself, your thoughts, the way you viewed things “before” and how you view things “now”. (Which is all so ever changing in any of us). I really, really think you are an amazing mother.

  12. Chou Chou Scantlin

    I understand what you mean by your process of writing, and I agree it is vastly easier than conversation, but the internet, with its infinite amount of information, can be as overwhelming as any crowd of chatter, if not more. As for your experience with not being able to understand an angry voice, I wish I could shut it off or not follow the angry words, for that would give a bit of protection. That’s okay, though. I may not be very good at protecting myself from anger, but I am good at handling it other ways. The challenge I have, and perhaps other autists have, in conversation is different and two-fold. One is the amount of other conversations, stimuli, or noise going on at the same time, so I just can’t hear or understand it above the other distractions. The other is content. If it is an idea with larger thinking or purpose to it, even if delivered in the simplest, most playful ways, it clicks. If it is “small talk”, for the sole purpose of social connect, or gossip, I am quickly confused or glaze over. I know there are other signals and bonding going on that is as foreign to me as being color blind. I am always so relived once a get together gets past the “how are yous” and actual gets to an idea with purpose. I am amazed how often some never do. Also, I am finding Twitter a great place to practice small talk. I have been forcing myself to post small bits every morning, just to stretch a bit. I will put a few out there, and realize how trite it must appear, and laugh. I always want to end with, “Burma Shave”
    Did I get too off topic here? I hope not! XO!

    • Not off topic at all! I don’t know the Burma Shave reference, but I smiled anyway; I love reading your comments, they always make me think. Like this one “I know there are other signals and bonding going on that is as foreign to me as being color blind.” I have to think about this more as it is such a huge part of so called social interactions, but what exactly is going on in those interactions? I will think about this more…

  13. I definitely prefer writing to speaking. And apparently people think I’m so articulate that it often comes as a surprise to hear that speech is so deeply unnatural to me.

    I can also access different language and emotional patterns by handwriting vs. typing…sometimes if I know basically exactly what I want to say, I can just type it out. I can have comment thread debates pretty effectively by typing. But for things that are more deeply emotional, or that need a serious level of mental organization before I’m even totally sure what I’m saying, I need to write by hand. This is why it’s so upsetting to me when people talk about wanting to do away with teaching handwriting in grade school. I don’t think anyone should be forced to use a mode of writing that doesn’t work well for them–insisting on handwriting from kids with dysgraphia or fine motor skill problems is counterproductive–but handwriting means access to entirely different modes of communication for some people, and I can’t see the good in denying kids the chance to learn it.

    • Wow, really interesting. I will often write by hand when I’m working on something and feel stuck. The process is different enough that it seems to jolt me into another state from typing, but I’ve never considered why or what “state” that is exactly.

  14. It depends on my day. Some days it’s much easier to express myself verbally, other days writing gives me the time I need to carefully think through the message I want to bring across. Either way, effective communication remains a challenge: to hear/see/read/ what is really being said and to be able to express what I really mean. I’m maybe overly aware of the responsibility of my communication and try extremely hard to avoid misunderstandings. Some days it is a holiday to not communicate at all.

  15. I find it easier to write than talk too, words flow more readily, more honestly. I especially find it hard if someone is angry because my mind just goes blank and its so hard.

  16. I prefer to write when I write I feel like people see me and not my wheelchair 🙂

  17. I have no diagnosis of anything however, I often think I should. Your description is exactly how I struggle. I have been fighting the NSW Department of Education to allow me to communicate with them in writing instead of having to attend meetings regarding my son (who has Down syndrome) and his progress/development and they will not consider people have different communication strengths. Irony at its best!!! Thank you. I feel less like an alien now 🙂

  18. I’m thrilled to read your post, but not necessarily because of the writing vs speaking aspect. My 12-yr old daughter has language and communication because she is a highly visual thinker. We seem to get caught in a negative-feedback loop of sorts and I’ve always found it hard to describe to people. Your description of the “anger tape” seems like it comes very close. What usually happens is my daughter senses that I’m mad at her about something and starts to ask “Are you mad at me?” She seems to be able to read my mind, probably because she constantly is observing facial expression and tone of voice as you described. Usually I am irritated on the inside, but I am trying to out on a good face for whatever reason. So, she continues stating that I’m mad at her and I try to put on my most soothing voice to convince her otherwise, but she can sense otherwise. Like you said, she seems unable to stop this script, even if I honestly am telling her I’m not mad (or I know it’s not appropriate for me to be mad). She asks me to use my “sweet” voice. The problem is, the more emphatic and anxious she gets, the more irritated and anxious I get, and I physically can’t use that sweet voice she wants. So, I can’t calm down because she can’t calm down and we get stuck big time.

    Does this sound familiar? Do you have any suggestions for how to get ourselves out of the loop when it happens?

    • Angela, I really appreciate you writing this. A couple of things leapt to mind as I read your comment. The first is – Do not lie to her. If you are angry, even slightly, for whatever reason, do not lie and tell her that you are not. My guess is she is picking up on more than tone and facial expression, she is picking up on your emotions. So when you say, I’m not angry and you really are, even if just slightly irritated, that’s confusing and doesn’t make sense to her, which will make her want the reassurance you will never be able to provide because it’s a lie and she will know it.
      Another part to this is, if you are irritated because you’re having one of those mornings, then tell her this. You may be angry about things that have nothing to do with your daughter, but she may not know this and blames herself. Her anxiety will increase the more she feels she is somehow responsible.
      The second part is looking at the annoyance, irritation, and anger. Recognize it and accept it first. Try not to apply blame, either that it’s because your daughter can’t calm down or because you can’t, won’t help either of you. Try to just feel it without judgment first and recognize that it’s a feeling and you’re having it and it’s okay. You can even say, I’m feeling angry right now and I don’t know why, or I’m feeling angry and I need a couple minutes to figure out why. Anger is a tough one, it’s scary, people do hurtful things when they’re angry. But we all get angry. We have to find ways to work with it, so that we don’t say or do harmful things to ourselves or others. I hope this helps. Your daughter sounds like a wonderful astute, sensitive and smart girl!

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