Typing and Public Speaking – not just for auties?


I just found something a non-autistic man wrote to me about public speaking. He said that he was amazed I could do that, because he could just not stand up in front of an audience and give a speech. I have heard that the fear of speaking in public is one of the most common human fears in general.

It reminded me of something I noticed that was different between when I spoke out loud and when I used a keyboard to communicate. Speaking out loud, even when I had the capacity to sound like quite the chatterbox (which was often the result of a sort of inertia where once I started I could not stop even as it got more and more uncomfortable), has always been difficult for me. It has always resulted in physical pain, overload, confusion, and loss of other abilities including comprehension abilities.

When I was 13, I was part of a group called the Junior Statesmen of America. I don’t even remember how I got involved, I just sort of bumbled into the meetings and then into a conference that was being held very near where I lived. I have vague memories of lots of high school students getting drunk while I stood around puzzledly watching them vomiting on chairs and the next day showing the same signs of overload that I always had without a hangover. Anyway, they allowed people from the audience to stand up and join various debates. Speech was beginning to be obviously intermittent to others at this age, but I knew nothing of overload or of the pattern of why it was becoming so intermittent.

At any rate, at one point I was first in line from the audience to talk during a debate. For some reason, they tried everything they could try to skip over me and let someone else talk, before I even got a chance to say anything. But that got resolved. So I stood in front of the room.

I had the entire general pattern of what I wanted to say in my head. It was there. The problem was there were no words in it, and in that situation, even the slight extra stress of standing in front of an audience prevented me from coming up with words. I bumbled and muttered a little bit. The audience started shouting insults at me. And I sat down humiliated and confused as to why I could not speak.

When speaking came up in classes on the topic, I was sometimes slightly better than that but not by a lot. I delivered speeches in a scattered sort of way while staring at the ceiling. I got lowered marks for this. Because of all these things, I never really viewed myself as someone who could be capable of public speaking. I didn’t have the body language, I didn’t have the words, and I didn’t have the confidence, as far as I (and my teacher) was concerned. And keep in mind this was all when my speech was pretty much at its best on a superficial level (it was cutting out but when it was not cut out it sounded pretty good).

In 2002, I attended a conference called the Community Imperative. This was after the shift from part-time use of a communication device to full-time use had already occurred. I learned a number of things at the conference. Shortly after the conference I sent a whole list of those things to some of my friends. It included:

6. I am better than I thought at speaking to large groups, when typing. My previous problems with it appear to be speech-related. I was shaking hard the first time I did it, but after that it was surprisingly easy.

Basically, while I might still have some element of fear overriding language production while typing, it doesn’t always override things so much that I can’t type a coherent sentence or make a good point.

Which leads me to think that, even during the periods in my life where I did speak in everyday scenarios, I would have found typing a better way to handle public speaking. Which in turn leads me to wonder how many other people — including non-autistic people who just happen to be very shy — would find typing easier for public speaking purposes.

Bev in a recent blog entry called Let’s Have a Conversation said:

This blog is for people who know this to be true, or are at least trying to get it: sometimes, for some of us, talking is not possible. Sometimes it is barely possible and uses up energy that could be spent more productively in other ways. Sometimes talking hurts. Fortunately, there are many other ways to communicate. I believe that nearly everyone can benefit from at least one of them.

I suspect the “barely possible and uses up energy that could be spent more productively in other ways” thing could apply to a lot of people who have trouble handling public speaking. Public speaking puts just enough pressure on a person that something already difficult can become impossible, and for some people the pressure is so intense that even a lot of ordinary things become impossible (such that even a person who didn’t really have much trouble speaking could have trouble with it when put on the spot). I had no idea I could do public speaking until I got catapulted into a situation where I had to do it using a keyboard. Then I found that despite the fear involved it was surprisingly easy.* I wonder how many other people’s aversion to or sense that they are not good at public speaking is in part because of the complexity of the (oral) speaking aspect of it.

* Perhaps “surprisingly easy” should read “surprisingly possible“. I still find public speaking exhausting and grueling, and I don’t know a whole lot of people who don’t, but however overloaded I am by the time it’s over, I can now do it, and do it effectively, which is not something I used to be able to do (even simply in terms of the ability to get the words out).

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.

22 responses »

  1. My dad (who was a teacher and used to speaking publicly) once told me that if it was a case of nerves when speaking publicly, to imagine that everybody in the room bar one person was an apple, or a banana and to direct the speech to that one person.
    The vicar at the church we went to later said pretty much the same thing (must be a favoured tactic) and that all his sermons were directed at one old woman who sat at the back. This actually resulted in me going from starting to daydream during the sermons and then trying to stay focused on the sermon, to letting my self fall into a complete daydream (in which I was completely unaware of anything around me) on the basis that if the vicar wasn’t speaking to me, it didn’t matter if I listened to him. I did stay focused for my dad’s assemblies though (yes, he was a teacher at one of my schools).

  2. I have had a lot of the issues you describe with the scattered speaking and cutting out when giving presentations for classes. I have had instructors at my university interrupt to tell me I was taking too long, and others remind me that I must stop using filler like “umm” or “ahh,” despite being openly autistic there. Presentations for groups of people who are there because they want to hear an autistic person’s perspective are much easier. In these cases, I consider my autistic communication style to be a part of the presentation; so far this has worked for me.

    The idea of using a keyboard is very appealing and something I hadn’t thought of doing.

  3. Speaking out loud, even when I had the capacity to sound like quite the chatterbox (which was often the result of a sort of inertia where once I started I could not stop even as it got more and more uncomfortable), has always been difficult for me.

    Regarding the “chatterbox” thing: wow, does that sound familiar. Depending on who has known me and when, I’ve either been “the girl who never talks to anyone”, or “the girl who won’t shut up”.

    And sometimes when I am talking, it does feel very much like being “stuck”, and when I get the “stuck” feeling it’s usually only a matter of time before I start babbling out stuff that isn’t even tangentially relevant to the situation at hand (or that contradicts itself every other sentence).

    The “stuck speech” thing is actually yet another reason why I would like to use keyboards more — I tend to actually finish sentences when typing, and I’ve got a much better sense of when a linguistic pause should occur. I’ll bet the idea of communication devices for people who sometimes can’t stop babbling doesn’t occur to many people!

  4. Oh, and another thing regarding the “being stuck” thing: if I am overloaded and expected to speak/respond in realtime, what has tended to happen ever since I was very little is that eventually I will just start crying.

    Not because I’m sad or scared — as far as I can tell, it’s a purely physiological reflex. When that happens, I get into a state where I can look perfectly fine and go about doing things, etc., unless I am expected to speak.

    It’s the trying-to-speak part that produces the crying reaction.

    Now I am wondering if maybe my body/brain have been trying to tell me all these years that when I’m in that state, I shouldn’t try to talk because those resources are needed elsewhere!

  5. I always had a fear of speaking in front of, even, small groups. In my senior year of college, all students, including chemistry majors, were required to take this class where we sit around a large boardroom table and discuss the current happenings. I never spoke up. The only way I passed the course was to write an essay on why I didn’t speak up. Essentially, I took to the pen.

    Today, I teach communication skills and the one thing I always recommend is to join Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org). In Toastmasters you learn how NOT to be scattered while building confidence.

    The way to transcend the fear of public speaking is to understand what fear is and how it physically changes the body. Much of the fear is based on the unknown. I teach about transcending the fear, but you can learn by doing in Toastmasters. Please consider joining a Toastmasters club.

  6. I have had instructors at my university interrupt to tell me I was taking too long, and others remind me that I must stop using filler like “umm” or “ahh,” despite being openly autistic there.

    I had one English teacher who made me stop any time I used any sort of filler word. The result was that I could barely speak. She considered this an improvement, and she believed that it was because unlike before I was thinking. While I was not diagnosed with autism yet at the time, I was in the process of getting neurologically evaluated for periodic shutdowns (including speech), and I was already bullied by some of my classmates about those shutdowns. She did not help matters one tiny bit, I still remember those same classmates laughing in a superior way whenever she stopped me from talking (and I also remember wondering why they did that, because some of them claimed to be my friends). When I hear teachers brag about doing that to their students it pisses me off, it’s pure prejudice that says that the only reason a person can have trouble coming up with words, or use filler words, is “not thinking”.

    One time when I had worked very hard to figure out how to say something, and said it more accurately than I normally could, she didn’t pay attention to any of the content of my speech, she just congratulated me for not using filler words (which wasn’t even true, I used several).

  7. Regarding the “chatterbox” thing: wow, does that sound familiar. Depending on who has known me and when, I’ve either been “the girl who never talks to anyone”, or “the girl who won’t shut up”.

    That sounds really familiar to me. I remember some people not believing the “never shut up” thing because they considered me so “quiet”, and vice versa.

    And, yes. The stuck feeling, with me, tended to result in a mounting sense of pain and overload, all context disappearing entirely, an unpleasant sensation in my throat, an increase in visual/auditory/tactile “white noise” (usually seeing orange blinky light, a ringing sound, and tingling on my skin, all of which are signs of overload for me where I think I start perceiving “static” or something) and so on and so forth, but still not being able to stop, and usually managing to greatly offend someone somewhere in the process.

    I used to liken it to being a bulldozer that couldn’t switch off, but when I tried to tell people that, they said I was just making excuses.

    It can happen to me while typing, but it’s much less likely, and for some reason some people bring it on faster than others. And it’s one of the reasons I say that a few days of a conference will now do to me, in terms of perceptual state and overload, what a small amount of speaking used to do.

  8. I’ve heard some parents of ‘selectively mute’ kids say their child never stops talking at home, and they’re baffled that their child doesn’t talk at school. In most cases it’s primarily fear (I knew a girl in this one program who in any new situation would hide her face and refuse to talk for several minutes, who certainly seemed scared), but some selectively mute kids might be autistic-like and have that sort of mix of things.

    It would be great if there was some kind of video showing this. Don’t know if there is such a thing. Maybe I should do it – though I don’t vary that much, I could maybe record myself talking to an adult, a child and a teenager, since I have very different ways of talking to each.

  9. One “piece of advice” I remember being invariably given, every time we had to give an oral presentation in class or act in a play or anything else, was along the lines of, “Move your head around while you’re speaking. Glance from one person in the audience to another. Pick out random people and make eye contact with them, then move on to someone else.” We could never understand what purpose this was supposed to serve, since most of the time when I listened to someone giving a speech I hardly ever even looked at them directly, and most of the time nobody gave an explanation for why you were supposed to do this. Once or twice we were told something like “This makes the audience feel as if you are personally engaged with them,” or “it makes them feel like you are personally talking to them.”

    And I really have to question why this is emphasized, especially since we’ve met non-autistic people who don’t always find it easy to make eye contact in every situation (and it really is more of a cultural thing than an innate instinct). And I think everyone is well aware that when someone is giving a speech to an audience, the speaker is really addressing the audience in general and is not “talking personally to you” unless they’re answering your questions, so I don’t see what the point is in trying to pretend otherwise.

    In any case, we could never juggle all these elements at once, and even when we were younger and found it easier to speak in front of a group than we do now, we were always getting bad grades on oral presentations and so on. People would give us weird “advice for next time” like “don’t just read your report off the paper” and “just because you have a timeline doesn’t mean you have to march all the way through it.” Okay, so– if we’re not supposed to just read the report off the paper, what do we do? Make up a song and dance routine to “keep the audience interested” or something? I thought we were being graded on content anyway, not on the theatrical aspects?

    which was often the result of a sort of inertia where once I started I could not stop even as it got more and more uncomfortable

    Yeah, I think I know what this is. We sometimes get this with writing, and we used to get it more often with speech.

  10. If I was making a public presentation I would much rather use a keyboard than speak.

    About 9 years ago I did a 30 to 45 minute presentation to about 15 to 20 people at a Quaker adult education college, on historical research I was doing there. I was very nervous, but I read out the text of my presentation without looking at my audience.

    When I was at university in the early 1990s I read out presentations to seminars of no more than about ten students and the tutor.

    Getting drunk and vomiting on chairs is not how I would expect the Junior Statesmen of America to behave.

  11. Getting drunk and vomiting on chairs is not how I would expect the Junior Statesmen of America to behave.

    Well… the contingent I went with, at least, were mostly very rich high schoolers with about the maturity one would expect of high schoolers (and the lack of respect towards janitors typical of rich kids). I don’t know a lot about the other people there or what high schools they came from. I don’t even know a lot about the JSA in general.

    I saw a lot of drinking there, and a lot of drunk and hung-over people. I’ve never been drunk myself (the only time I ever had alcohol was a sip at Communion once, and I detest the smell), but from what little I’ve seen, most teenagers don’t seem to know how to drink moderately enough to avoid puking a lot.

    I felt after awhile like the only sober person there. I am not sure whether that is accurate or not, as people inaccurately presumed I was high based on the speech-cutting-out thing as well as my general reactions to overload, so it’s possible a few others who appeared to be so were just overloaded like I was. But judging from the amount who admitted to being drunk or high, it was a lot of them.

    All in all, I would not have wanted to be the person whose job was to clean up that ballroom.

  12. Chattering non-stop – I get that way sometimes. There are some people in my life who have been granted permission to interrupt me when I get going and am obviously babbling. I can’t stop when it’s like that, even though I know I should. So I need someone else to “turn me off”.

    Public Speaking in general – I used to think I was awful at public speaking. In grade 8 we did a speech competition thing (everyone had to do it), and I didn’t do anywhere near as good at it as I’d wanted to. But somewhere along the line, I’ve become a good public speaker. As long as I know the subject I’m speaking about and have the speech part written out word-for-word, I am very capable. I can even answer random questions (as long as I know my topic). The problem, for me, has never been fear of being in front of people or anything like that (stage fright is not something I’m familiar with, though meltdown due to overload in a performance situation is)… it’s been a general lack of confidence in my ability to communicate effectively with my voice.

  13. I’ve never been drunk either (and I’ll be 29 next month). People seem to think this is just as weird (if not weirder) than not having a drivers’ license “at my age”. I don’t really see why, though. I don’t want to be drunk — it never sounded like a fun time at all to me! (I’m very emetophobic, for one thing.)

  14. I am so glad other people like me are experiencing the same problem with public speaking. I get so weary of non-autistics saying I should be able to handle public speaking just fine because I don’t experience emotions the same way… *sigh* Such ignorance. Anyways, I can engage in public “speaking” if I am able to READ what I’ve written down; spur of the moment speech is impossible for me, and I always end up a stuttering, stammering, red-faced mess. As has been mentioned before about “filler words,” I got into trouble in junior high school for walking out of a class wherein my teacher was openly mocking my inability to speak a sentence without stammering or adding “um.” Apparently, the fact that a person is smart is supposed to translate into awesome public speaking ability, as is the ability to write well. (This same teacher accused me of plagiarizing three times that year, simply because I wrote better than she did.)

    I really do think that my struggles with all kinds of speaking are the result of difficulty of putting what I SEE into words. I really doubt that most people understand exactly how taxing it is. I think nerves play a role, especially now as I have begun to get physically ill whenever some kind of public speaking performance is requested, but I also think that the nerves are a result of a lifetime of mocking at previous attempts at public speaking.

    I am working on it, though.

  15. ….oh, the other thing we were always told, regarding our speeches and oral presentations, was that we talked incomprehensibly fast. I’m not sure if this was something which happened just out of nervousness, or was some kind of effect of the antidepressants we were taking through most of high school and several years of college courses, or a combination of both. (We actually had more people on the side of “never saw us talk” than “never saw us shut up” after a point, but we started to frequently babble a lot of silly things after we’d started taking them, and the fact that we were talking so much in public, regardless of content, was somehow viewed as a sign of “how improved we were.”)

    We also developed this sort of personal idiom as it became harder and harder to come out with any kind of speech that meant what we were really thinking in the presence of other people– it was a sort of hyper-speed nonsense talk with a lot of jokes and quotations from other people mixed into it. In fact, there were a lot of situations in which we’d get a kind of uncontrollable compulsion to make a joke or say something silly, even when it wasn’t very funny. It seemed to be a sort of triggered reaction, in the same way as when teachers asked “does anyone know the answer to this question?”, we’d often blurt out something uncontrollably regardless of whether it made any sense, but… we never quite figured out the exact circumstances of what elicited it.

    …and the fact that we know that certain kinds of triggered reactions are still there– like the blurting out whatever comes into our head when asked certain types of questions– and we can’t always control them at all times, makes us really wish we could type more often so other people wouldn’t have that control over us.

  16. “….oh, the other thing we were always told, regarding our speeches and oral presentations, was that we talked incomprehensibly fast.”

    I used to talk extremely fast as well, to the point that people usually had to look to my mum for a translation. I wasn’t nervous and I’ve never taken any drugs, so I think it was just the way I talked, My mum taught me to slow down and I think I have a standard speed of talking now, although I do sound about six :{.

  17. I gave a speech, for extra credit in my Speech class in Winter Term 2006, on how many things that are desirable for a speaker to do, such as making eye contact, looking around the room at different members of the audience, etc……was challenging for me as an autistic person. My face doesn’t really move a lot………I had to actually write in my notecards “smile here, turn head left here” so I would remember to do it.

    It was very odd for me to write that but I knew it was the only way to remember and get a better grade………


  18. I’ve got that inertia thing too…can’t start and when I do can’t shut up. And the chattiness tends to be so fluent no one believes that really, there is an issue STARTING (like, if I have to be social at 9 AM I start gearing up in the shower). Bah. I may have to refer my neurologist to this post, since he doesn’t “believe” in speech-inertia.

  19. I am considered to be good at public speaking – as long as I have what I am to say previously written, memorized, and with safety notecards in case I forget something. I also usually have to practice it over and over. The longest, though, that I have had to say was about ten minutes. I have difficult time imagining giving a 40 minute presentation. But then, I have not done it.

    Depending on who was around, I remember, at school, my peers and teachers would never think me a chatterbox, as I rarely spoke any more than absolutely necessary, sometimes not even that much. I talked a lot more with my dad, but I had the whole school day to plan just exactly what I would say. Unfortunately, this had the side-effect of countless incomplete assignments from elementary until high school.

    I used to be known for talking extremely fast, particularly in the morning before school with friends. More consistently, I am known to talk especially loudly, though I don’t notice it particularly.

    More when I need a keyboard is when I need clarification on instructions, when I am overwhelmed, as I get in most crowds, and anytime I need to come up with spontaneous speech. Without a keyboard, when saying spontaneous things I don’t have prepared stock phrases for, then I use all kinds of fillers, and pause for very long periods of time.

  20. I was a Junior Statesman in high school…and I can remember my first debate. Research, lots of prep…and after that, I had a crazy adrenaline rush that left me tired. My mind and thoughts raced my voice speeded up, and to this day my husband would say that I still talk too fast.

    Booze and vomiting in your chapter, eh? Talk about being statesmen-in-training! LOL

  21. hmmmm……Booze and vomiting at such a young age…..could that explain the current governmental mess? I mean….if they start that so young…..who knows what happens to their brains…….

    the b&v issue sure has gotten a lot of attention here……

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s