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).