A Short Interview With Emma

This is a short interview I did with Emma this morning about speaking, writing, and words.  

Ariane:  Do you have an inner dialogue?  You know, where you have a running conversation in your head?

Emma:  I do not think in words.

Ariane:  So that must make it hard to articulate what you are thinking and feeling.

Emma:  Yes, it is frustrating.  I am often unable to express myself even in writing.

Ariane:  Any suggestions for those of us who think in words?

Emma:  Do not think so much.  Empathy and love are not conveyed with words.

Texas ~ September, 2013

Texas ~ September, 2013

50 responses to “A Short Interview With Emma

  1. I love it! Please give this girl a (virtual) hug from me!

  2. Emma you are amazing your final words reminds me very much of a quote by Helen Keller, which is a favourite of mine. It goes: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched— they must be felt with the heart–

  3. a quote that I think also fits you and who you are or at least what I have learned about you

  4. and she leads by example…her words are always valuable and true in a way i very much feel, without needing to articulate why.

  5. I don’t think in words, either. It is tiring to be always translating to and from words because that seems to be the only way to share thoughts with many people. Written words are a lot easier for me to process.

    I often get lost in presentations or phone conversations because the words come faster than I can translate them, and I miss a lot.

    People (including some autistic people) are often surprised when I tell them this; I think it is a result of information overload. Intense World and all that.

  6. What dies she think in? Pictures? Something else?

  7. I’d love to hear more about this from other autistic people who don’t speak or speak with difficulty. Do you also not “think with words”? Does the absence of, or lessened degree of an internal dialog or “word-based thinking” directly relate to the issue of difficulty with spoken language?

    I have “sensed” that Emma had little or no internal dialog since she was a child. Disclaimer: I’m a lifelong weirdo. I’ve always been into ESP and parapsychology. I’m also a huge science nut and am constantly reading about physics, AI, neurology, dreams, consciousness and how consciousness is connected with physical reality (quantum theories). I’ve also done a lot of meditation and have experienced other “altered states” of consciousness, so I know first hand how the lack of an internal dialog profoundly impacts perception and what one might call “knowledge acquisition, analysis, interpretation and understanding.” I do know that it is possible to experience a direct “knowing” of something in the absence of an internal dialog going through the whole analysis/interpretation/comprehension cycle. It can happen instantly, directly and without words. There have been times when I could not find words to express this “knowing”. On one memorable occasion I couldn’t speak at all, I had forgotten, or couldn’t access the ability to convert my perception into words.

    When Emma began writing and sharing her profoundly intelligent, insightful and compassionate thoughts, the mystery of why this ability was so disconnected from her spoken language deepened with each new piece she wrote. Now, with this one simple sentence, “I do not think in words” the disconnect makes much more sense to me–and also, like almost everything Emma writes, raises a hundred more questions, like the ones I first posed above: how common is this dynamic with autistic people who primarily communicate through writing? If you don’t think “in words” how DO you think? What does “thinking” mean? How can we better help facilitate the process of self-expression?

    Anyway, another “post-sized” comment, but this is all so mysterious, exciting and revelatory to me that I just want to know and understand as much as my word-challenged brain can handle.

    • You may be interested to read these articles I found the other day

      • Wow! Great article and links to other articles! Thanks so much Robyn. Do you have personal experiences with these things?

        • My daughter (who has autism) is very telepathic and intuitive, I’ve tested it many times where we share thoughts and she will say what I’m thinking. Funny you should ask because she just a moment ago pointed across the room and said “ghost”, and I literally have never spoken to her about what a ghost even is. She’s 5 and semi-verbal at this point. I do think those with autism are on a higher vibrational plane than us, and therefore have evolved beyond language. I’m not sure if you are familiar with Abraham-Hicks, they have a DVD called “The Autistic Revolution” and here is an excerpt from it. It’s given me a new understanding.

          • Hi Robyn, I watched the video and went to the Abraham-Hicks website and while there was plenty of things that interested me, I also felt really turned off by the cottage industry they’ve created around this. They are clearly making mega-bucks with their workshops etc. and it all has the same flavor as the televangelists and the Tony Robbins/Deepak Chopra gurus who have the “truth” and are going to sell it to you. What’s your take on that?

          • Robyn, so strange that you said that your daughter is telepathic. I swear my autistic son (who just turned 5 and is semi-verbal) can read my mind sometimes. For example, two years ago (and then again 6 months later) he did a listening program that required the use of headphones. A few weeks ago I was thinking about doing another round of this program with him. Within a few days he started talking about “headphones with Terrie” (the lady who does the program). He hadn’t mentioned her in the longest time. He has also started talking about things within minutes after I think them sometimes. It has happened enough that it cannot possibly be coincidental. I never said anything to anyone about it because it sounds so crazy. You’re the only one that I have heard say that their child has also done this.

            • It’s amazing isn’t it? I was telling my husband about it, and he wasn’t sure, but he’s had it happen with her too. He will be reading about something, and next thing you know she will say a word he just read. It really makes you realize how you must always keep pure and happy thoughts, to keep a happy child. Once I realized this, it was a turning point for her development.

    • I do not think in words.
      I have found many people use words in a way that tarnishes the real of life.
      Sometimes it causes them to stray from the meaning of their own essence.
      No wonder so many are unhappily searching for meaning.
      Blankets of words assuming comfort have been welcomed, covering shivering inhabitants with smiling faces.

      • “Blankets of words assuming comfort have been welcomed, covering shivering inhabitants with smiling faces” That is so wonderfully profound and poetic. And very true. My internal dialog is largely fear-based, wanting something I think I need, worrying about something I could lose, planning to achieve goals or prevent me from experiencing pain and disappointment. Yet, “I” keep thinking, that thinking is helpful and necessary. Some of the fear-based thinking probably is helpful, because it’s a difficult world to navigate at times.

        The only times when my internal dialog is enjoyable, or truly helpful (even if it is also sometimes painful), is when I’m daydreaming, thinking about topics that interest me, creative expression, funny thoughts. I write fiction (and some non-fiction) and when I’m writing it is a very dream-like process: I SEE the characters, I HEAR them speak and think. I’m not experience consciousness in my own ego-based pod.

        Thanks so much Judy, I’d love to hear any more of your thoughts on the matter. I’m currently reading a number of articles by Mary Ann Harrington from the link Robyn sent me above, which are, to the say the least, fascinating. Also, if you or anyone else would prefer communicating with me privately, my email is: richard@richardlongcauthor.com

    • I do think partly in words. Probably about 50% words/50% not words. But it doesn’t feel like there aren’t words in my head…they just tend to be in long echolalic or repetitive loops. They’re not internal “dialogue,” the way I think that means. It’s kind of baffling to me that internal dialogue *would* be necessary to learning and comprehension to most people…or, I heard a RadioLab episode where they were describing the process of learning to think as a process of internalizing *external* dialogue…and that’s actually completely backwards from how I think and learn.

      I do have to translate almost all spoken language into non-verbal comprehension of what’s being said to me, unless I’m talking to someone who uses language very similarly to me in a deep way, and then you get a very, very weird effect of “I can just understand you when you talk,” without having to go through the internal translation. (Kassiane’s one of the people I can just understand when she talks, btw.)

      If I had to describe my natural mode of thinking, I’d say it’s something along the lines of visual logic or visual metaphor.

      • Thanks so much for describing that process. One thing that’s very hard for me to describe with words is how I can sometimes comprehend things WITHOUT words (the internal dialog’s description). “Thinking” is so typically “thought of” by most people as listening to their internal dialog as it interprets their reality. Yet reality can be directly perceived, I believe with more “accuracy”) in the absence of internal dialog.

    • Yes, I have always known things I wasn’t supposed to know–things about other people’s insides, how animals feel and think. Pictures are in the moment, words lag behind…I have always said that English is my second language, but in that case pictures or impressions were my first. But weren’t they everyone’s first language?

  8. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Emma is wise beyond her years!


  10. Oh, that last sentence, love!

  11. For the longest time, I never knew that anyone actually did think in words on a regular basis. People would talk about “photographic memory” like it only applied to things I memorized. But my thoughts are far more complex than that. As an Aspie, I can subvocalize, but I usually only do it to encode the complex pictures, sounds, feelings, and other ideas I’m thinking into useful language. I always just treated language as a code we rely on to describe and communicate ideas.

    It’s why I look forward to brain-computer interface technology and a “mind-reading” capability that people with BCI enhancements would share. Why would I rely so much on language when I could share with others the raw idea that I’m thinking? So much is lost in translation when I speak. All I can do with language is approximate my idea and hope that people can fill in the missing information correctly.

    I really think this is the reason why autistic people often have hyperlexia. We have to codify so many language rules for the ideas we think of in order to communicate, but this means we can also extrapolate the rules to cover words we’ve never encountered before. There is a lot of complexity in the English language, but the complexity is defined by universal, systematic rules and patterns. Needless to say, we excel when we work with rules and patterns.

  12. I do think in words. However, I agree with Emma. Some things, like the design for a spaceship I recently completed, cannot be worded through–especially not in English. I have instead developed a language of my own, allowing my hands to speak what I see in my mind. The only trouble is that no one else knows it!

  13. I am a visual thinker and I understand totally what Emma is describing here. Although I am usually good at expressing myself there are times, particularly when I am emotional, when translating my thoughts into words becomes difficult or even impossible.

    There are times when all I can do is describe the images in my mind as best I can., It is so frustrating not to be able to find the words to adequately convey what I am thinking. They say a picture paints a thousand words: it is difficult to capture the richness of what is inside my mind using only spoken or written language. But unfortunately I have no talent for drawing, painting, or music.

    I will try to illustrate: imagine that I say “I am happy.” I have no idea what that conjures up in your mind. But for me those three words are but the ripples on the surface, beneath which I see a clamor, a veritable whirlwind that blends memory and sensation into a Fourth of July spectacular as images of happy events and experiences burst forth. The birth of my daughter, hugging my wife, a walk beside a river in summer, my best friend telling me “You will always have my support”. A thread that runs back through my whole life linking all the happiness I have ever felt.

    Can any mere words ever do justice to that?

    • “I am happy.” Reading those words actually didn’t make me think anything. I read them, but for some reason, I couldn’t make the connection. I found this strange, so I wanted to try invoking the feeling myself to see what I get from it. Turns out forcing a smile doesn’t work out so well, as evidenced by my internal dialogue:

      “Am I doing it right?”
      “No, you look ridiculous.”
      “Can I stop now? It’s uncomfortable.”
      “Yes, please! I’m uncomfortable looking at it.”

      Mind you, none of that took place using words, it was all a mixture of indescribable “raw ideas” and some emotions mixed in. Also, the two uses of “uncomfortable” actually described different emotions.

      Then I tried visualizing something that always makes me happy: a dragon hatchling sitting on my head. A feeling of “happy” came out, along with a feeling of “calm” and a feeling of “fatherly love.” Any lingering remnants of “anxiety” passed away to “calm,” and “happy” turned into me being compelled to try to throw my ears back like a dog being petted would. It didn’t work, but I was visualizing it as if it did. I also tried to avoid moving my head up or down to stay mindful of the hatchling that really wasn’t there. Telling myself it wasn’t there didn’t really seem to matter, and I’m still doing it as I type. It actually felt as though there was something sitting on the top of my head, and I had to pat my hair to convince myself it wasn’t there.

      It’s quite the feeling, but I can see how other people wouldn’t get the same thoughts and feelings from that visualization. Still, I use this in place of meditation because of how powerful the reaction is.

  14. When I read I only see pictures I don’t see words, I struggle with spelling as was always told to read more as a child even though I always read way too much (if that is possible) but I don’t see words in my head only pictures.

  15. Emma: I do not think in words.
    Ariane: So that must make it hard to articulate what you are thinking and feeling.
    Emma: Yes, it is frustrating. I am often unable to express myself even in writing.
    Ariane: Any suggestions for those of us who think in words?
    Emma: Do not think so much. Empathy and love are not conveyed with words.

    Being autistically, involves personal sensory-cognitive processing, too rich to be expressed or consummated in words.
    Being autistically involves the aloneness of experiencing the flow of becoming personally.
    Words serve a collective process glorying in truly wonderful illusion.
    Relief from the terrible wonder of being autistically, can be had in words; and much can be touched thereby.
    Empathy and love, and much more not mediated by words, are the strengths in being autistically.

  16. Language is hijacked by the forms of collective life we have come to have. Words tie you into these forms. Which is not all bad. Collective life is what it is.
    Being autistically sees the individual going back to source, back to origins, back to self-reliance.
    While mastery and prowess with words is a valuable skill, it’s difficult to redeem words from what they have become mortgaged to.
    Concern with words must be balanced by supporting the autistically becoming child in feral being beyond and without words. Articulation here takes many forms; autistic forms.

  17. What Colin said. And asking if people think in words isn’t a specific enough question I think. Lots of us speak and think about words a lot, but the words are just labels for wordless notions. There are autistic blog posts all over that name something.. “I’ve been thinking about that concept where…” and then they might even make up a word to it. So they are not thinking *in* words, but using words to get at other things. Someone who thinks purely in words might not be able to ponder something that there was no prior word for, as well.

  18. I don’t think in words or pictures. I don’t know words that describe how I think.

  19. This discussion is fascinating to me…and an insight as to why autistic children “appear” to develop expressive and receptive language later because their minds cant yet tackle the interpretation part…and the reason for scripting and the language that baffles us as NT. Eg tathars dragon scenario…and Emma’s cake. Apologize in advance if I am way off base to both of you…but say that anxiety has taken most of speech even for those old enough to translate…tathar could conceivably be trying to alleviate that anxiety and be mumbling about dragons trying to calm down. Someone who hasn’t yet figured out that the dragon on the head idea is calming and that translation to im really frustrated is currently impossible and think its merely nonsense. And scripting is simply holding on to an idea that is familiar and can be accessed rather than meaningless repeats. As someone seriously considering speech therapy degree w a nonspeaking munchkin I’d really like to know how close or far these thoughts are (if I’ve managed to convey my idea…what’s in my mind doesn’t always translate either)

    • Actually, saying the word “dragon” out loud is hard for me. I can think the idea at any moment, and I can type or write it without hesitation, but saying it feels strange and uncomfortable for some reason. You wouldn’t hear me mumble it under my breath.

      I visualize this particular event fairly often, and usually not in response to anxiety. It helps with anxiety for sure, but I think about it most when I’m deeply aware of my dragon identity. This awareness is comparable to the feeling you get when you get in touch with your inner child, and for me, the feeling often comes with an unshakable sensation of wings to my sides, a tail between my legs, and a pair of horns on my head.

      Does this help?

      • It was more of a hypothetical theory really…but any answer is helpful really…which is why I like the comments in blog’s I read as much as the blog itself. Comments by and exchanges between autistic people all give valuable insight into a mind I’ll never share and he can’t yet tell me about. That might help me understand or relate even a tiny bit better….sorry disjointed rambling as usual

  20. People think in words? How limiting. I respond to words or I don’t respond. I can think about words. Words can enter my thoughts. Number thoughts, colour thoughts, musical thoughts. Idea. Collaborated thoughts. let’s say you have a gun. What part of the gun would a word be. The trigger?: words trigger response. the bullet punctuates. The hammer induces thought… Oh I ramble. But such is the beast.

  21. @ camelynelayne. Re what you say about: expressive and receptive language; interpretation; anxiety; calming; scripting.
    When, as an autistically occurring person, you speak into a socially configured (usually contextualising) setting of others: we find language being employed at two nodes of purpose (one autistic and one social); and what language is doing at each node, differs (differs because of differing ontological and epistemological needs, on the part of the persons at each node).
    Anxiety arises for the autistically occurring and developing person, if and as those at a social node, cannot or will not make sense of the autistically occurring person’s autistic use of language. That failure to make sense, tends to prevent crucial development on the part of an autistically occurring person; anxiety arising here.
    Socially situated contextualising others, not making sense of what you express in autistic language use, mediates developing in which your innate autistic sensing and cognition, are inchoate and formless relative to what language secures in working socially (albeit socially grounded forms are seldom all they seem to be, and in that sense always involve crucial illusion, illusion which will be revealed as such as a social moves on).
    An autistically developing person can rescue the situation of their personal language usage (from social reception of it which puts the process of their person at fundamental developmental risk), by taking it private, and perhaps into silence. This going-private of autistic language use, takes many forms. Researching these forms requires something of an anthropological approach.
    Coming out of self-sustaining private mode, to interpret to and for those who are occurring on a social basis, remains a complex and potentially costly and risky action, throughout an autistic life; as the exigency of being seen and received and reacted and responded to, as not making sense, never goes away. What the autistic person can do, is in their own understanding, move the locus of the exigency: away from being an in-them issue (this the social view); and into the impersonal space between them and those who are socially grounded.
    This issue is providing form to sensory-cognitive process. Where that providing of form is crucial in self formation. Socially occurring persons provide themselves with such form, across using language and words in a conventional manner. Autistically occurring persons have to do something different with language.

  22. @ ianology. “So they are not thinking *in* words, but using words to get at other things. Someone who thinks purely in words might not be able to ponder something that there was no prior word for, as well.”

    Language, word use, mediates thingness, keeps all the things in our individual and collective lives, in play.
    Social persons come at this from the library and storehouse of authorised things.
    Autistic persons are born into the workplace of thing-forming. From under the table in that place, they see and understand what there goes on.

  23. I think strongly in visual images but with an audio soundtrack, which is words or sounds, often wordless music. I think having the audio soundtrack and being hyperlexic are what allowed me to develop the speech that I do have. My writing is way in advance of my speech, a lot of the time, but I write and memorize (sort of) scripts for the most important things, and things like directing a choir rehearsal, that I have done hundreds of times, do not require a script.

  24. When I am really relaxing or stuck or other things… I am not thinking in pictures, I am merely observing the world around me, sometimes with my eyes not focused. To the untrained observer, I will look like I am “in my own little world.” At those times I have a very repetitive music track going, typically with no associated words, and tonal as opposed to atonal in nature. Just to add to my description above, as I was just doing it and thought to pay attention to how I was thinking.

  25. Thanks so much to everyone for sharing your thoughts on how you or your autistic comrades “think” (hmmmmm…do we need a new word for that…”perceive”?). It really helps me to gain somewhat of a better understanding of these issues and learn how I can be more helpful to Emma. I was going to write a post today about dream consciousness and some strange interactions I’ve had with Emma in that regard, but I’m holding back on that until I get the latest report from Ariane and Emma in Austin.

  26. We’ve talked about this too Richard, fractal music? Polygons being electric? Translation escapes, but I get it done, over time. xx

  27. I love reading posts from Emma. You’ve got one smart, beautiful girl. She is wise beyond her years. I think equally in words and pictures and my mind just never stops.

  28. I’m a late commenter, but couldn’t help myself; this may or may not be one of my favorite things to talk about, and (being an autistic girl named Emma myself) I can’t help but want to add/echo/add what AboveEmma was talking about.
    (For the record) I don’t think using words almost ever, with the exception of when I’m trying to figure out how to explain/describe something to someone else verbally, in which case my word-thoughts tend to be very piecemeal and iterative. They’re also almost always borrowed/echolalic, even in my head. In most cases, I think using a combination of movements, textures, temperatures, shapes, and so on (I could make a bad Baron-Cohen-And-His-Folk-Physics joke here, but I’m trying to not seem like a total weirdo, so I won’t). I think an aspect of thought processes that I find varies a lot between NTs and autistics, and is sometimes (but not always) related to thinking verbally versus nonverbally, is the breadth/quality of “focus,” so to speak. Kind of like with a camera, but not necessarily in just the visual sense.
    From what I understand, many NT people tend to think using discrete units (words, objects, symbols, etc.) and will reason by connecting/relating those discrete units to each other. Based on my personal experience, and what I’ve read from other autistic people (including all the folks who commented above), many autistic people think and encode information in sets/wholes and only deal with one set/whole at a time. Instead of reasoning and learning information by being like thing->relationship->other thing, I tend to learn by encoding all those “things” and “relationships” as various concrete qualities of one whole “environment” in my head. When I’m thinking about a topic (especially one I know a lot about) I feel like I am in a place inside of my head, and the information about the topic is just all the features/feelings of that place in my head. And then thinking is the process of moving through and exploring that place. I find it very, very hard to then translate this into words, because words are sequential units, and my knowledge is spatial and one giant thing.
    When it comes to speech, I know that I experience talking (and reading) as activities that have more to do with movement than with sound, necessarily, and I even experience most sound as inherently movement in some way (I’m of a family of dancers, so this is unsurprising). That’s one of the reasons I can mimic and change accents very easily; I naturally feel myself imitating the movements of speech when I hear it. When I had lots of neuropsych. testing done for diagnosis, my tester was very weirded out by how much better my verbal fluency was when I had to generate words based on their starting letter, versus words that fit a category. But it made complete sense to me, because if you give me a sound/movement that a word should start with, all I have to do is keep moving through a mini-movement-script (one word), and then start over and try not to repeat mini-movement-scripts. So, I guess it’s like, I don’t use words to think, but sometimes my thinking makes words. Because words are a kind of moving, and moving is my way of thinking. But words aren’t the only kind of moving, and therefore not the only kind of thinking I do.
    This has become excessively long. Please forgive the infodumping, I just think this is cool. And your blog is great. And then Emma and I have the same name. It got kind of out of control. Oops. Apologies.

    • Love reading this!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write about your experience with all of this!! I can’t wait for my husband to read as he will also be excited by all you’ve written AND you are also Emma, which is the best name ever 🙂

  29. Thanks so much to everyone for commenting about their experience with thought and perception. I realized just now that Em and I were traveling when I posted this interview and as a result I didn’t have time to respond to anyone’s comments, but I really appreciate them!

  30. I have a gifted/hyperlexic (2e) daughter that will be 13 this summer. We live in Austin, TX. Perhaps our families could meet at a park. Thank you for sharing your website.

  31. Love this! Great advice. “Do not think so much. Empathy and love are not conveyed with words.”

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