The funny thing about communication.


Joel wrote about how people think about him when he’s using a communication device versus when he’s speaking, in You Must Not Want Company. One remark made was that when someone’s using a communication device, they obviously want to communicate or they wouldn’t be using it. I wanted to write a bit about when I’m communicating but not speaking or using a communication device.

I’ve had a few different friends remark that they were sort of amused by something about me. That was, that they could go for half an hour to an hour of having a conversation or other interaction with me, before noticing that I wasn’t actually talking or typing at all.

One of them was a friend where whenever she visited me (we lived near each other for awhile, now we’ve both moved away) we’d just sit there for awhile without talking to each other, but certainly greeting and interacting with each other. Another is a friend I now live near, who commented recently to someone else that she’s often shocked when she notices that she’s been carrying on a long conversation with someone who isn’t saying anything back, and that it feels totally natural.

It feels totally natural to me when it happens, too. It’s less tiring than coming up with words is, that’s for certain, or than listening to words. It doesn’t cause that awful feeling of exhaustion, pain, and pressure that entirely word-based interactions eventually and inevitably cause. It allows me to actually participate in non-verbal communication rather than being blocked out of it by language (and yes, one tends to block out the other, either way). And the interaction feels a lot more meaningful to me.

Another situation is when I truly can’t move, or can’t respond in other ways (even if able to move). I am automatically fearful when that happens, because some of the worst interactions in my life have been when this has happened, whether this be the kid in college who used to hurt me to try to snap me out of it, or the psych ward staff who used it as a bizarre excuse to tie me down and scream at me (question: When someone is so stiff that you can pick them up by their hands and the rest of their body stays rigid in a sitting position, why do they need to be any further immobilized than they already are?).

I have had two surprisingly good experiences with this recently. One of them was at AutCom last year, when I was exhausted after giving my talk, heading into another bad migraine, leaning against a wall, and not frozen but not able to respond or even focus my eyes properly. The staff person of one of the other attendees came up to me and talked to me, and I realized it was one of the first times that a stranger had talked naturally to me when I was like that, as if they were fully aware I could understand them. That meant a lot to me. Another was after those darned fireworks, when my friend explained to my other friend that freezing like that did not mean that I was unaware of things, but rather than I was likely more aware of things than usual. That’s something a lot of people never understand.

Joel is another person I’ve had a lot of fun with without necessarily talking all the time. Although the two of us can type up a storm together too. (When we first met, we put a laptop on a table, hooked an extra monitor and keyboard to it, and typed back and forth on it for hours.)

I wonder what it is that makes the difference between the people who experience enough communication from me that they forget that I’m not typing or speaking, and the people who forget that I’m there at all because I’m not typing or speaking.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

14 responses »

  1. A few months ago my older son was invited to a birthday party and I went with him. All the other parents gave a brief and polite “hello”, I probably came across as standoffish because I find it extremely difficult to approach someone./ The person who sat next to me, showed me her drinking straws (which I have a thing for myself with the bendy bits) and who listened as I waffled on about different straws and the history of the straws and what was good about straws in my mind) and who smiled and made me feel at ease rather than out of place was a non verbal autistic 16 year old daughter of one of the mums.

  2. Some modern physicists believe that Western thought has negated a form of communication that the Native American seemed to be aware of…a synchronicity of nature beyond the typical 5 senses.

    “The similarity was noticed as soon as physicists and Indians discovered fundamental properties in their respective favorite realms: everything that exists vibrates; the only constant is flux; everything is interconnected, in a part/whole relationship. “

    It’s not “extra-sensory”, it’s a sense that we typically ignore. Although my “social skills” may be poor, I do get a sense of people beyond their words/actions that I don’t believe is recognized as a social sense, although it is. It’s a another form of communication that I find gets in the way of typical social manners.

    I don’t feel like I’m making much sense, but I feel that I immediately judge people in a manner that is intuitive, and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what they say or do.

    I trust it very much.

  3. I tend to be skeptical of anything that generalizes about “Native American” cultures that broadly. It’s kind of like generalizing about Italians, Sami, Ukrainians, and Germans as if they all share a particular set of cultural traits because they’re all European.

  4. I’m going to sound like a fool, but I’ve been thinking about this lately, and have been wondering if what I think we’re talking about here – a much deeper form of telepathy, no? – is one that only folks on the spectrum share. Do NTs have this at all? Everyone has a form of telepathy, yes, but nothing so deep as to be able to understand a shocking amount of information about the other person, as I think Amanda was describing in “Dialects of nonverbal language”:

    As I continue to live my life and expand my ability to be normal (which still isn’t much), I can’t stop thinking about this.

    It makes me question any and all ‘seers’ and ‘gurus,’ even those monks who live solitary lives. Are these folks on the spectrum and just don’t know it?

    Am I drinking too much hippie juice?

  5. Am I drinking too much hippie juice?

    Hehehe. Maybe.

    Nothing I’m talking about here actually requires telepathy. Just a combination of (in the case you’re talking about) commonality of body language and good pattern recognition. I’m sure that could look ‘telepathic’, the same way I’m sure it looks ‘telepathic’ to many autistic people when non-autistic people read each other and send messages in certain ways that we’re (at least at that point in time) missing completely.

  6. It’s hard to say, since those of us who are NT have never gotten to try being autistic, and vice versa. I get to a place with very close friends and boyfriends where nonverbal communication is extensive, informative, and very emotionally comfortable. For example, one big tradition in my family is for all of us to sit together in a room and read. Even though we’re not talking or even looking at each other, the presence of family members makes it a warm, comforting event (in addition to getting to enjoy your book :)

    But I have no idea if it’s even close to what you folks describe.

  7. I’m sure we all at least have communication systems that are entirely sufficient for the kind of interaction we instinctively want/need. If only some of us had the opportunity to put them into practice!

  8. Amanda, i think it’s worth pointing out what you have explained and we have discussed at various times, that some things that get *called* telepathy from outside are often a combination of intuition and social pattern-matching. (have i got the terms right?)

    i wonder if the native-american thing about nonverbal communication could be a regional cultural value, though? like we could say, maybe, that europeans tend to value moderation more than americans, or that americans tend to value convenience more than europeans do.
    i remember reading something that reminds me of this. it was in a police novel set in the lands of one or more of the southwestern USA tribes. the writer isn’t indigenous, but he is apparently good at getting inside the mixture of cultures over there. he has won awards from the navajos & others for being a friend/embassador of their cultures. in this one scene, the indian detective character was not making any “listening noises” that his white colleague expected, and so he was accused of not listening, when he was really listening like anything. then there was another scene where the native american guy was with an older guy from his tribe, and they understood perfectly, in the silences, that the other was listening/thinking/etc. ok this is really detaily, but i thought it applied somehow. i wonder if you have any indigenous readers who might want to comment re: whether this is a general cultural thing or not?!

  9. PS: ok maybe in fact that anecdote was totally different from what was discussed in the 2nd comment, but for some reason it seemed to apply anyway. maybe just me being random…

  10. I used the native American example because they are seen, albeit stereotypically, and distinct from Europeans. Their genetic pool is very distinct, probably because it led to their survival in circumstances far different from that of Europeans. One thing I remember a professor saying was when she taught at a reservation, their sense of time was very different.

    I believe because they were intimately connected to their environment for thousands of years, they developed attributes unique to that environment.

    The reason why I brought up telepathy, not in the sense we typically think of (ala “The Time Zone”) is because I have always wondered what Einstein spoke of when he said telepathy was faster than the speed of light. A bit of an obsession, I guess. It’s always been in the back of my head since I read of it a couple years ago. I am a very spiritual person, with a profound belief in the Almighty…so it makes me a little queasy to bring up things that smack of the occult. A lot of what I came across while researching telepathy did, and kind of turned me off.

    But the bible does say that we are spiritual beings, it speaks of the opening of the “eyes of our hearts”, and other such notions that are not typical language.

    I wonder how many of our gifts are left unopened because they don’t fit the ideas of our present culture. What gifts does the autistic person have that compensate for the unease with language?

    Maybe I think too much…

  11. On the subject of non-oral communication, my personal opinion is that there’s a lot more chemical or pheromone communication among humans than anyone recognizes. I think this may explain some of the more mysterious patterns we find ourselves in, especially regarding dating.

    One study I saw indicated that women who were given the sweaty t-shirts of six different men could “guess,” with much-greater-than-chance accuracy, which t-shirt belonged to their partner. When they do genetic studies, it turns out people have a greater-than-chance likelihood of partnering up with someone whose immune system complements theirs genetically (which has evolutionary advantages for the offspring). And then there are the many anecdotes of people who are mysteriously attracted to others who have characteristics that don’t become apparent until later. One friend of mine, a man, only gets asked out by bisexual women. I have many female friends who always wind up with men who cheat. Etc.

    This is kind of rambly, and off-topic, but it’s one of my favorite seldom-talked-about issues.

  12. Most people definitely have no clue how much smell they use on a regular basis. There was another study I think where people wrote beforehand that they would not be able to tell the gender of the wearer of a shirt by smell, but they were. I used to tell family members apart by smell. (And could smell whose butt had last been on a particular seat, etc.) And I can definitely at times smell a difference in humans and animals with mood and such. (I once walked into a veterinarian’s office that reeked of terrified animals, and was tempted to walk straight out again. Should have. That vet was awful.)

  13. Rose, I think what Einstein probably was referring to when he used the term “telepathy” is a counterintuitive prediction of quantum mechanics, where some event may appear to cause some other event instantaneously at a distance.
    See, for example, .
    I’ve heard the word “telepathy” used in this sense, but only rarely.

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