Justifying Our Words

Richard and I have conversations that other people might find odd.  We have little inside jokes we think funny, but that no one else is likely to agree.  We reference conversations we had years ago with a single word or sometimes even a look.  It’s the same with our son and daughter.  In fact, with all of my family and close friends I have at least one or two references that we think funny, but that others witnessing might not understand or see the humor.  With Emma, our inside jokes often come in the form of music.   We will sing to one another or utter a sentence said by someone else years ago, but that now makes all of us laugh.  For no particular reason one of us will say, “Get down Angelo!” and we will collapse in hysterical laughter or instead of saying “Good morning” we will mimic the sound of a quail.  The other will then respond with a similar noise and it is better than any greeting made of words.

When Emma began writing to express her thoughts, insights, and experience of life, I thought she would be so relieved to finally be able to communicate these things to us and the world.  So when she didn’t seem particularly eager to write, I wondered how and why that was possible.  I know communicating in language, whether it is in written or spoken form is difficult and hard work, but I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t be overjoyed to finally have this connection with other people.

A few months ago I asked Emma about something and she wrote, “Words are not as meaningful to me as they are to you.”  I think about that sentence a great deal.  Emma then told me she senses people.  She wrote, in reference to a question about someone who works at her school, “I can hear her.”  She then added “I feel her.”  I used to be confused by these sentences, but over time I have come to believe Emma means this literally.  Barb Rentenbach, the co-author of the book she wrote with Lois Prislovsky, I Might Be You talks about this as well.  Emma has an acute sense of people’s inner life and as a result, having to translate all of this into words must be tedious and (this is my interpretation of what it might be like for her) a step backwards.

Richard has a theory that Emma is operating at a “higher vibration” or frequency than either of us.  I have the same thought, but use the words a “higher plane,” which has the same meaning.  We both believe Emma is capable of a more sensitive and intense understanding of people than we are.  If I think about those I am close to, I am in tune to their vibes at a higher frequency than I am to strangers.  But what if I was attune to all people I came in contact with at that same level of intensity?  What if I “felt” them the way I can feel my husband and close friends?  What if I sensed the essence of them before they said a word?  What if the words they then said, rote responses to questions like “how are you?” were untrue?

We, non-autistics, tend to view our neurology as better, more efficient, less socially awkward, but in many ways our word-heavy way of communicating is less truthful.  We say things we don’t mean.  We say things we don’t believe, we agree with people we think are more powerful.  We are easily intimidated.  We are swayed by groups of people who share beliefs, even if those beliefs are not something we agree with.  We learn at an early age to question our instincts, to tamp down our emotions, to apologize when we are not sorry, to say things we do not mean and then, once we are adults, we use words like “polite,” and “kind” to justify the lies we tell.

“Words are not as meaningful to me as they are to you.”

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

25 responses to “Justifying Our Words

  1. And those are words worth ‘re-tweeting’ ♡

  2. Thanks for putting a feeling I have into words.

  3. On a regular basis, I question why we put NT behavior on a pedestal. I listen, observe and just see so much cruelty in the world. Not just the overt, big picture forms of cruelty, but the small moments in every day interactions: listening to NTs, there just seems to be so many moments of exclusion, judgement, etc. When you write about Emma’s sense for the internal life of others, I think it highlights exactly what many other people lack: regard for the emotions of others, any real feeling for the well-being of others. This just seems like an incredibly harsh world to me courtesy of NT habits, yet autistics are the ones who “lack empathy” according to the stereotype.

    I think if people look past the stereotype, they’ll see the reality: the world could use a heavy dose of Emma’s sensitivity and goodness.

  4. “Emma has an acute sense of people’s inner life and as a result, having to translate all of this into words must be tedious and (this is my interpretation of what it might be like for her) a step backwards.”
    I find I have to do two interrelated things. Firstly, I have to mask what I am reading as the person of the other: as admitting to such a sense is to admit to violating social boundaries; as admitting to such a sense leaves you open to being seen as concerningly wrong. Secondly, I have to find ways to word things generally (so not referring to what I sense as the other person): so as to mask where my data is coming from; and so as to avoid confrontation which brings the roof down; that confrontation not intended, but simply stemming from having and using data which conflicts with the sense of themselves which others are proceeding with.
    At work, where I can see how an autistic child is reading a member of staff, it proves very difficult to manage and word what then needs to be said. Ragged edge stuff always.
    Emma’s compassion is her safeguard here.

  5. I often feel that words are completely inadequate to express emotion. Simple words like happy and sad are used to describe feelings that are really so much more complicated than that. Feelings are bright, colorful rays of light that shine from a person’s soul. How can you label something like that ? How can you expect to really understand anyone from such a narrow point of view ?

  6. I love this post. It made me laugh (unsurprisingly) when you spoke of all our in-jokes especially the ones we have with Emma. One thing I’ve always found interesting is that while Emma is maybe the most kind, compassionate, forgiving human being I’ve ever met, she thinks it’s hysterical when I stub my toe and scream. I give her plenty of opportunities for that, because I’m so clumsy/accident prone that Ariane gave me the nickname “toe boy.” Plus, I almost always smash the same toe: the big one on my right foot. If I’m not kicking into a curb, I’m dropping books, barbells and laptop computers on it.

    One time I was telling Emma that our cat Merlin, who thinks he’s a black panther, was stalking me and leapt onto my back with his claws out. No matter how many times I play-act that out, I’m guaranteed big laughs from Emma, like I’m the king of slapstick comedy. I’m thinking I should show her some old Three Stooges shows. She’ll probably die laughing.

    Some of my favorite humor is visual–sight gags, people’s expressions, to all those millions of pet videos on YouTube. Being a writer, I have to craft a good joke with words, or describe a funny scene well enough so that it’s actually funny. But in my daily life, I don’t need words to amuse me. I love to laugh and I’m endlessly amused by the sheer absurdity of everything I see around me. When I go out for long walk, I don’t speak with anyone for hours. I don’t listen much to what other people are saying. But I will break out laughing (yes, out loud) at least a dozen times, simply because life is funny.

    As to everything Ariane wrote about how Emma “hears people” — I could write a whole post about that!

  7. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m always a bit wary of explaining autistic differences in interpersonal or social tendencies as somehow “more genuine” or on a “higher plane” than those of NT people. Autistic people are simply (“simply,” hah!) different; being autistic doesn’t make you immune to social expectations and rules, nor does it make you immune from like, being a jerk, potentially. I think that most people who are in some way very different from a “norm” end up interacting with others in a way that’s less socially presumptuous and normative. And I’d love to hear if anyone has like, some kind of autistic magic that lets you not feel the impact and coercive influence of normative social things, because I want some of that, please.

    That said, I can totally relate to what Emma says about “hearing” people; I’ve found that since I can’t filter the perceptual information that I get in an interaction, I tend to have a much more…sensory-rich, and often more nuanced picture of another person’s mental/emotional state than most people. The hearing/feeling combination is also something that I get; I’m really sensitive to, pretty literally, any kind of vibration/movement, both in the form of sounds and touch or physical force, and I tend to experience sounds in a way that’s mostly like touch or movement, rather than something…not like that (sound-y?). When I get super, super high-energy or anxious, I actually experience sounds and people moving around me as physical sensations of touch–kind of as if I’m in water, and every time someone moves near me, they send a wake in the water that hits me. My sense of self, in most situations, is very…spatially distributed, I guess. And when I remember/think about people, my representations/memories of who they are is…kind of like a physical space that contains a combination of like, movement, texture, emotions, temperature, pressure, etc. that tells me all the information I know about who they are.

    With regard to the word things, I can definitely say that I spend a huge amount of stress and energy trying to deal with the fact that people say things that they don’t mean, or say things that have a certain meaning that they will then deny exists. I think most NT people use words within a specifically socially normative context that specifies what they mean very narrowly (i.e. “How are you?” meaning basically “Hi, this is a social interaction,” rather than “Tell me your life feelings.”). But like, when someone says something neutral or “nice” to me in a way that’s really mean, or condescending, I can’t not feel the mean/condescending part, and it’s really overpowering. Like, the whole “Oh, this person is a person I like, so I’m going to presume that everything they say is a nice thing that has no bad meaning,” can’t really happen for me. It’s really exhausting.

    This post is cool! I can’t help my impulse to be both jokingly and actually literal, and say: Higher vibrations are gross and terrible, like those dog whistles, or overtones on low-quality synth. music. Low vibrations are freaking great. I may miss ‘social cues,’ but nobody is more aware than I am of the HVAC system in any given building.

    • Exactly. Sometimes I have had to swim through very thick water to try to be near someone as they have hardened around themselves. I have also known people by these attributes of theirs so that when I first meet them I know their name, where they are from, and other things about them.

  8. I completely agree with you and Richard. I think most, if not all, people with autism operate on a higher plane than us “normal” people. I’ve always thought so of Risa. Even as a baby, she exuded that “old soul” feeling you get about people.

    My daughter has no use for words. She doesn’t understand why people want her to talk. She’s perfectly happy in her own skin. (Ironically, she can and does say a few words – Mama, Papa, Bubba, etc.) I am honored that she utters the names of her family as her chosen words. I wish we could find a consistent way to communicate with her, but that will hopefully come in time, when she’s ready.

    I’ve also always said that Risa has a huge instinct for “good” or “bad” people. She’ll be at therapy and randomly grab another mom’s hand or sit on her lap, luckily these moms consider that a compliment! I remember last year when we first met my niece’s boyfriend, she sat right on his lap and rubbed his beard. I told my niece matter of factly that she had indeed found a good man and he’s since proven her right.

    Anyhow, all this rambling really just means I agree with you guys. I think there are people out there who are indeed more sensitive to the things that are likely all around us, every day – that us “normal” people don’t see or hear, because we have it taught out of us at an early age. Too bad, I’d like to see more enlightened people in the world!

  9. So, so true about saying things we don’t mean, etc. Which method is really better? And which is more confusing?
    Thank you for this.

  10. I have been on the inside looking out, and the outside trying to explain how it was to be inside–this does a tremendous job. Thank you Ariane for these words.

  11. I have a four years old autistic girl who will run after me screaming:
    “NO, NO! You are happy! you are happy! ” every time I am just a little bit upset. She is trying to say “I want to see you happy, I want to see a happiness on your face.” but of course she is unable to say it due to language delay.

    therapists are saying that our children are unable to read our emotions. I just dont understand this. Thank you for the post.

  12. This post makes me think of what I have recently learned at an Equine Facilitated Mental Health clinic. Horses, as herd animals who are also prey, rely on this “higher plane” communication to keep safe. Many people, such as those with autism, those who have undergone very stressful periods (victims of severe trauma, soldiers with PTSD) and some people who are just very sensitive, can also communicate on this plane. It is an awareness of what I think of as the “energy level” of yourself and those around you. As a person who works with therapy horses (and regular horses!) I have to constantly be aware of my energy level and how it affects the horses, and vice versa. If I’m too excited, my horse will be frisky. If I’m tired, my horse will act lazy. If I’m nervous, my horse will wonder what she should be worried about, and the beginnings of a flight response might be triggered. If I’m not feeling happy, but pretend to be, my horse will wonder why I’m lying. I have to be congruent with how I’m feeling and how I’m acting, to keep the trust with my horse. I’m working on doing that with people, but it is much, much harder for me. Our current culture is so ingrained with using verbal communication, that other forms are ignored or suppressed. I really love how Emma put it: “Words are not as meaningful to me as they are to you.”

  13. People who have Autism communicate differently from us we should stop trying to make them communicate like us and accept them just the way they are who says our way of communicating is better anyway. I think all of us can feel people Emma’s just on other level she isn’t bothered with words so that makes her more attuned to people’s energies.

  14. I have to say that I, like emmapretzel, am rather hesitant of thinking of autistic people as on a “higher plane” or more “enlightened” than NTs. While it may seem like a positive thing to counteract stereotypes and think of autistics this way, I think it can be dangerous to say that either neurology’s form of communication is objectively better. They’re just different. There are some wonderful, compassionate people of both neurologies, just as there are some really rotten ones.

    Also, not all autistic people have that level of sensitivity to others. I don’t really know where I fit in relation to Emma with sensitivity to people – the words here are too vague. I don’t understand what “feeling” people means. Certainly, I’ll get a sense of whether someone is safe or not (which is always accurate, I’ve made some bad judgements), and if I know someone well, I’m quite good at logically analyzing their psychology. But with strangers and acquaintences, I definitely don’t have an immediate sense of their inner lives. For me, most people are like raw data. While I can see that the information is there, I can’t make sense of it – it needs to be processed first. And I’m not equipped to process it as fast as it comes. My systems are overwhelmed, and then most of the data doesn’t get processed at all. I’m generally very un-intune with people, and most of my compassion is calculated logically. So, I’m more of the stereotypical cold, non-empathetic autistic person.

    I don’t mean to bring a sour note to the conversation here, and I’m sorry if that’s how it comes across. I just think that we should be careful to generalize, even if the statement seems positive. Putting a minority group on a different pedestal in an attemp to equalize doesn’t actually work, it just fosters stereotyping of a different manner. In society, I’ve often heard people make a big deal of black people being particularly talented with music and athletics. While many think that this is a positive image, it’s actually limiting. Black people have just as varied of talents as any other race, and are just as well suited to engineering, medicine, leadership, or literally any other field – what people are good at is determined by the individual. I’m well aware of the differences between race and neurology; that was just an example that I’ve seen frequently in society. But autistic people, as a group, have many variations too. Some autistics are very sensitive, compassionate, and intune with people. And some, like myself, find most people completely baffling and would rather just stay away from them. Both ways of being are okay; they’re just different.

    • “For me, most people are like raw data. While I can see that the information is there, I can’t make sense of it – it needs to be processed first. And I’m not equipped to process it as fast as it comes. My systems are overwhelmed, and then most of the data doesn’t get processed at all.”

      This chimes with my own sense and experience and conception of things fromobscurity.

      Emma remains open to the flow of raw data, rather than reducing it to conventional and normative symbolic forms. That can on occasion see her overwhelmed by input from collective life in relying on these symbolic forms.
      Ariane and Richard, as parents intending being with and supporting Emma where she finds themselves in this, speak of their own familial shorthand for richly experiential sharing: shorthand that can in rich moments keep up with and process the raw data inflow; where that shorthand functions as does the symbolising of collective life.

      “Putting a minority group on a different pedestal in an attempt to equalize doesn’t actually work, it just fosters stereotyping of a different manner.”

      I would agree with you in general terms. However, non-whites are dominating sprinting and long-distance running; so there are island-capacities which can stand out.
      My sense is that autistic (and other persons) have exemplary potential when it comes to making the most of raw-data input; where that extends to exemplary reading of other human beings. Exemplary reading of others which will see our collective human world changed comprehensively, if and as children such as Emma reach their full developmental potential.
      The human world will change beyond all recognition as it comes to see itself in autistic mirrors; comes to accept and work-with how it is seen by its autistic constituency.
      So maybe I would invert the metaphor. Maybe an autistic constituency have their feet more firmly planted in life’s raw data.

      • “That can on occasion see her overwhelmed by input from collective life in relying on these symbolic forms.”
        Should read.
        “That can on occasion see her overwhelmed by input from collective life relying on these symbolic forms.”

        • It’s interesting that you say that you experience things similarly to me: “This chimes with my own sense and experience and conception of things fromobscurity.” And then go on to say: “My sense is that autistic (and other persons) have exemplary potential when it comes to making the most of raw-data input; where that extends to exemplary reading of other human beings.” To me, the two seem to contradict. I’m not saying that you definitely are contradicting yourself, just that it doesn’t make sense to me. Could you clarify?

          I will also plainly disagree with the second point I quoted you on. While some autistic people may have great potential when it comes to reading people, some don’t. I for one am deplorably bad at reading people. They’re like giant unknowns walking around: unintelligible, confusing, unpredictable, and tiresome. The raw data I mentioned is something that I’ll never be able to decipher; it’s simply noise that I can’t filter out and thus just avoid altogether. I think abilities vary immensely from person to person, and it is inaccurate to say that autistic people as a group have particular potential.

          • I don’t see the autistic as a group of people. I see the autistic as something in play in our collective life; just as what is social and societal is not a group of people, but again something in play in our collective life. In any individual the autistic and social/societal will be found in play.
            I choose to make others available to myself, be they more socially configured or more autistically configured. I’ve then had to work to make sense of the autistic aspect of myself and others; that eventually drawing me into working in the field of care and education of young people seen as autistic.
            I’m then very localised. What I think and say has only to be functional for the people I encounter. I’m never and not able to speak for a global group or community. I’m simply striving to make sense of what I encounter, from my own local starting point.
            In a school situation it is possible to see yourself, in an educational and care role, as modelling ways of “getting through” (for example: perhaps its better to argue with figures of authority; than to destroy your material environment across your frustration with the power they exercise). Modelling ways that might be alternate to the ways a child has taken up to date. Not every student can take up the ways modelled by all staff and peers; but it does become possible to learn new ways by selecting from the modelling on offer (I learn new ways to “get through” from students, and that each and every way; so it’s a rich, daily existential and psychic bazaar).
            In an educational arena “I’ll never be able to” tends to trigger a “perhaps you can” response; and that has to be seen as a bias. That bias may possess some utility, at least some of the time. In an educational and care arena it would be difficult to accept that a child could not develop out of experiencing others as “unintelligible, confusing, unpredictable, and tiresome”.
            I then believe that children configured and situated autistically, can exercise existential choice: can choose to remain or move on from where they momentarily find themselves developmentally; if and as they are provided support which sees their environing conditions becoming benign (benign conditions amounting to what Ari Neeman terms a genuinely inclusive society).
            I don’t believe that the autistic exists independently of how we view and understand the autistic. Faith (presumption of competence, presumption that a genuinely inclusive society can be secured) and mythology (in my case: the presumption that attention to the raw data of existence plays crucial part in the autistic; the presumption that this attention yields special potential for empathy) then figure in the autistic, just as much as it figures in what is social and cultural and societal.
            We humans, autistically orientated and not, have evolved to generalise and to exercise faith. We are hard-wired to generalise and to exercise faith. If we do not generalise, then we fall behind in collective life; a choice as to that being open to us. All generalisations then fall, eventually. All generalisations pose risks across their limitations. All faith eventually fries across the facticity which contradicts it.
            It’s then simply the case that: “For me, most people are like raw data. While I can see that the information is there, I can’t make sense of it – it needs to be processed first. And I’m not equipped to process it as fast as it comes. My systems are overwhelmed, and then most of the data doesn’t get processed at all”: well describes my own basic processing; and well describes how I discern the processing of the young people I support.
            Perhaps where confusion is entering in is with the item: “I can’t make sense of it – it needs to be processed first”.
            Where one literally “can’t make sense of it”: then the occurrence outcome would be dire. All raw data has to be processed: to yield perception; to yield the pragmatics of participation in collective life. Where the autistic kicks in, in my view, is where we can’t process “it as fast as it comes”: where I take this to follow from an autistic reluctance to dump raw data across adopting social/societal/cultural symbolic expression and shorthand for that raw data. The consequence of this autistic attachment to raw data is that realtime complete processing of input becomes not possible. We can then get overwhelmed, as what is social and societal tugs at us to participate in its project. Then “most of the data doesn’t get processed at all”.
            It’s that final phrase of yours that most chimes for me. I don’t think that we who are autistically attached to the raw data of existence, lose that raw data. We may fail to process it fast and completely enough to stream it (as perception and understanding) into any (immediate) participation with our contextual collective, but we retain and process it off that grid. I take this to be the realm that Daniel Tammet refers to as the “aesthetic”. I term it my autistic emotion. Processing there is much faster than when interfacing with what is social and societal (because it can proceed across autistic presumptions and frames of reference, and does not have to negotiate the meta-conditions of social and societal understanding). In Freudian terms I think we there deal with an autistic subconscious and unconscious. If and when we then act out of that autistic subconscious and unconscious, our more allistic cousins can find us somewhat inexplicable and unreasonable. But I believe this does leave us with especial potential to be empathetic, and with especial potential to read others in useful ways.

            I hope this makes some sense. It was presumptious of me to so phrase things as to leave open the suggestion that my thinking subsumed yours or subsumed your experience and occurrence. For that I apologise.

    • From Obscurity – Thanks for your comment on this. I was going to respond to Emmapretzel’s comment – “…I’m always a bit wary of explaining autistic differences in interpersonal or social tendencies as somehow “more genuine” or on a “higher plane” than those of NT people.”
      Upon rereading her comment I thought she might mean it specifically as a preface to her personal experience and not as a comment to mine, so I didn’t.
      But I do want to write you back here just to say that when I wrote, “I have the same thought, but use the words a “higher plane,” which has the same meaning. We both believe Emma is capable of a more sensitive and intense understanding of people than we are.” I was writing from a very personal and specific point of view and not as a general comment about two neurologies and all the people who may or may not fit into them.
      I complete agree with both you and Emmapretzel regarding stereotypes. Any generalizations will resonate with only some and not ALL of any group of people. I hope this clears up my intent with the wording of that… And thank you again for commenting with your experience of all of this.

      • Thanks for your clarification, Ariane. I certainly don’t doubt that Emma is quite sensitive to those around her, and I look forward to reading more of what she has to say on the subject, if she wishes to elaborate on it.

        I should clarify too – while I was addressing my comment to your statement (and you’re right, I did take it more generally than you meant it – sorry about that), I was also speaking to all of the other commentors and the autism community in general. There seems to be many very well-meaning people who try to counteract the stereotype of autistics as non-empathetic by saying “but look at my autistic child – they’re so sensitive to other people”. While that’s true about their child, it’s not globally true about all autistic people. As you say, “Any generalizations will resonate with only some and not ALL of any group of people”. Non-empathic autistic people like me can feel pretty left out amongst all the clamour of “but autistic people are empathetic too!”. It’s important, as a community, that we always remember to emphasize the “some”.

        [I meant to reply, but it looks like I just posted it. So I’m replying here again. Sorry for the clutter!]

  15. Thanks for your clarification, Ariane. I certainly don’t doubt that Emma is quite sensitive to those around her, and I look forward to reading more of what she has to say on the subject, if she wishes to elaborate on it.

    I should clarify too – while I was addressing my comment to your statement (and you’re right, I did take it more generally than you meant it – sorry about that), I was also speaking to all of the other commentors and the autism community in general. There seems to be many very well-meaning people who try to counteract the stereotype of autistics as non-empathetic by saying “but look at my autistic child – they’re so sensitive to other people”. While that’s true about their child, it’s not globally true about all autistic people. As you say, “Any generalizations will resonate with only some and not ALL of any group of people”. Non-empathic autistic people like me can feel pretty left out amongst all the clamour of “but autistic people are empathetic too!”. It’s important, as a community, that we always remember to emphasize the “some”.

  16. I love the way you stated this. I get Emma.
    Personally, being very aware of peoples feelings was often overwhelming. Eventually my life led me to making “Meebie,” the toy that helps kids express, learn about and get comfortable with emotions – away for kids to communicate without the necessity of words.
    Emotional health/understanding is scathingly underrated in terms of it’s impact on our overall health, ability to learn, and relationships.
    Emma is fortunate to live in a family where her gifts are honored.

  17. Pingback: Distilling communication methods | Mama Reverie

  18. Wonderful post! The concept of words being a generous gift to us on the outside vs. a desire really re-frames how I think about communication with my non-verbal toddler.

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