How (not) to ask me questions.


This post is in the spirit of Eyeballs eyeballs eyeballs. Picture the person in strong/bold letters as talking very rapidly and very loudly with only the shortest pauses in between.

DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’? . Let’s see… “cat”, “do you,” what is she… how do I connect these to meanings… YORSAENWIHCHDUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’ (head goes blank again, blank look must be on face) KAEH’ KAEH’ (WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND START SLASHING HAND ACROSS IT) (okay what was she saying again, something about cats, why cats?) DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH SUHMPEEPUHLLAYIK DHAIRSAENWIHCHKAE’ DIHNDHUHMIDUHL
“do you want”… “some people like”… argh why won’t she give me a minute to think? SUHMPEEPULLAYIK
why does she drive out any words and meanings I’m figuring out by piling more words into this? (IMPATIENTLY WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND SLASH HAND ACROSS IT) KAEH’KAEH’LAYIKDHIHS …argh. Just say yes and she’ll stop.


She’s holding a sandwich on a plate. She says, “Do you want it cut?” I sit there looking confused, finally having figured out that these are words and that one of them sounds like “cat”. Within half a beat of me figuring that out she says, “Your sandwich, do you want it cut?” This drives all the interpretation out of my brain and I have to start over. While she’s saying it I’m just barely getting meaning out of the first sentence. And as I slowly progress in understanding them, she keeps interrupting it. “Cut! Cut!” She mimes cutting through a sand with her hands. “Do you want it cut? Some people like their sandwiches cut in the middle.” I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on, having so far only managed to retain the idea that I’m being asked a question. She mimes cutting again. “Cut. Cut. Like this.” Etc. I figure out she’s asking something, that it’s in a yes/no question pattern, and that if I say yes she’ll probably stop throwing words in my face.

The problem is that a question has urgency about it. It has “you have to answer this” somewhere in it. It turns on this whole program in my head devoted to giving random answers to questions to get them to stop. And then a lot of people will barely wait a single moment after asking a question, to go on and ask more of them. They don’t realize that as they’re doing this they’re just throwing on more and more language to process. And that each time they ask a question, the message I get in my head is “Urgent, urgent, needs response, now need to figure out how to respond,” and I have to then backtrack and figure out what the question is if I don’t want to just give a random answer (I have a bunch of templates stored in my head for question types that have easy enough answers to randomly pull out to get people to stop asking them). And then halfway through my figuring it out it gets interrupted by another message of “Urgent! Urgent! Answer them!”

So the end result is a huge pile of urgency in my head and no comprehension until the person has finally shut up and gone away.

And text is only slightly better than this. If you expect me to rapidly process a question, you’re expecting that it’s a really good day for language processing. If you keep asking them over and over, you’ll just add to the stuff to process, not make it easier to answer. And there are a lot of people whose style of question-asking seems to be along the lines of stacking questions on top of each other. Sometimes it’s assorted variants on the same question. Sometimes it’s slightly or even majorly different questions asked two at a time and leaving me wondering which one to answer — “Do you want to do something do you want to go to the park?” is one of my least favorite question styles. It’s like a run-on question.

I noticed some time a year or two ago, that I do a lot of my communication with staff people without relying on the language content, and that one of the problems with new people is the amount of language I have to produce and understand in orienting them to the job. Someone who’s been here awhile will hand me something, and say what to do with it, and I won’t even hear them saying what to do, I just know from routine that it’s always what I do with it and the words don’t matter. Even if the words are something I have to answer, I find myself often able to give yes/no answers without having a clue what the person is saying. I noticed that a huge amount of the time people are working for me, they have no idea that I am not hearing the majority of the words they’re saying. I just know all the motions to go through and all the responses to give and I do it largely based on where they are positioned, where I am positioned, how each of us is moving, and what objects are being handed around.

And when people — strangers or just people unfamiliar with me — do notice that I’m not noticing what they’re saying, they seem to have a tendency to say something in a snippy tone along the lines of “Do you have a hearing problem or something?”

Note that I can often figure out what people are saying, sometimes even quite quickly. But it takes a certain level of effort, focus, concentration, energy, and ability to do that on that particular day. It helps if the topic is very familiar. And none of it ever feels natural or easy.

The problem is that explaining my incomprehension to others is so familiar that I can do that, and most of the responses, by rote, leaving them with the impression that their questions and responses are somehow all being understood when they’re really not.

I also do understand a whole lot of things with a delay. I now understand the entire conversation this person had with me half an hour ago. And there are still vivid memories as far back as 25 years ago that I am still trying to figure out the words to. I go over and over the sounds in my head and try to put them together into something meaningful. Often one day I’ll just spontaneously realize what someone said to me when I was 3 years old.

There are also times when there’s no comprehension possible, including no awareness that the words are even something that ought to concern me any more than white noise would. All of these different things are largely the same as the auditory version of the way I explained reading to be in my post titled Safety Hazards.

But at any rate — the best thing to do with a question is make sure I’m paying attention (and this doesn’t have to mean “looking at you”, it means focused on understanding what you’re saying), then ask one question (not a double-decker question either) and wait for an answer. You might get a quick one or a slow one, but the more you throw words on top of words, and the more pressure you put on, the more you slow me down. And the more likely you make it that I’ll give an inaccurate scripted answer if I answer at all — which isn’t fair to either of us, so I try hard to suppress that. If the interaction is over something where you can hand me an object that’s capable of prompting me in the right direction, all the better.


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.

48 responses »

  1. What a helpful reminder, thank you. I know I have a tendency to use too many words. I’m getting better at pausing, waiting and counting to give them a chance to process. I shall try harder.

  2. I am going to blog about this and send them here. I get so frustrated at my family when they speak too quickly and then keep repeating the questions when they don’t get an answer. Learning to wait up to 20 seconds was one of the first things I learned about autism. Thank you for you post.

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  4. Communication definately increased with my son when I started waiting quietly and patiently after asking him a question. Oddly enough (or maybe not) I have some processing difficulties myself and have simply learned, over time, to compensate as much as possible without really even realizing what the problem was. You’d think I would have known right away that he would need that processing time, but I didn’t.

  5. Yeah, I think a number of us parents may recognize ourselves in this one. Often what I need to do is to avoid setting up situations where I have nothing to do but wait for an answer. I remember the time my husband said, “Just put what we have to drink on the table and then we can pour his drink when he asks.” Such a revelation.

  6. This happens a lot for me. When I was as young as fifth grade, I remember having come up with a line to say to anyone when this was happening, to say, “The faster you push me the slower I go”. Unfortunately, this was taken mostly to mean that I would be INTENTIONALLY obstinate when someone tried to make me do something faster, whether it was writing something down, leaving the class, or getting into a group.

    In fact, this happened just today when my parents were trying to ascertain the problem I’d had with my computer battery, and my dad said what he thought it was, and I nodded, and then a minute later asked him to repeat it, and this time I realized that it was wrong what he’d said. So I spent another 10 or 20 minutes trying to come up with a sentence, and finally typed out what the problem seemed to be. Fortunately this was with my parents and not one of the high school staff, who would’ve rushed me and prodded me with words, as they did one time when it started out as just me taking longer to log off a computer, but with a bunch of people crowding around me and shooting words at me, and I ended up going into meltdown, and what one of the school officials said that I didn’t understand until later was “you don’t get to do this”.

  7. What you have written is very much applicable to conversations with people who are hard of hearing, and where sign language is not being used.

    I would have thought that text would have been a lot better for you than speech, because it usually allows time to process questions. By text I’m thinking of online communication, but not instant messaging.

  8. Some of what you do to get by when you don’t actually understand what the other person says sounds a lot like what some deaf people on line have occasionally called “social bluffing.” I use something similar as a deaf person myself to get through routine interactions. For example, I know in restaurants that often the first question a waiter will ask is whether I want something to drink, so unless I think I’m seeing a cue that they’re actually asking something else for a change I just say, “water please” (or a specific soda) to the first question they ask even if I don’t understand it.

    Melody, sounds like this post (and your comment) should be required reading for the staff in your school :-(

  9. Philip: By text I mostly was referencing realtime chat and the like. Because that’s the most equivalent situation to the auditory version of this.

    Everyone who’s brought up being deaf or hard of hearing: Yes, I imagine the process can be very similar in some ways. The only difference, I imagine, is that for deaf/hoh people of the sort who’ve always had some kind of language exposure (and I know that’s not all deaf/hoh people by a longshot), there isn’t the problem of having trouble with something fundamental to language itself, rather than just the parsing of it.

  10. I am not the first to say you did not come with a manual but I am the only one who would have noticed if you did….;) It sounds though like a manual would be a good thing to have for new staff. Once they understand some of these things about not using too many words…phrasing things a different way to avoid lots of questions…waiting a length of time for a response…cueing with the way something is presented…things could go smoother…I appreciate your writing this because I sometimes forget and ask questions too when I
    haven’t been around you for a while…and I think for others with Autistic children or friends or
    students it is good to be able to read this here in case it applies to them.

  11. Yet again, I have milder issues of similar type, but for me I think it’s mostly being hard of hearing, complicated by NLD problems in producing a quick response.

    My big annoyance is when I don’t understand something, and the person keeps repeating the same exact words, sometimes faster! Like most HoH folks, I have particular problems with certain phonemes — for a given environment and speaker, if I didn’t get the word the first time, I’m not likely to get it the second or third time!

    For the record, the proper technique for dealing with HoH people, is (1) as with you, wait a few seconds for comprehension and response, and (2) on the second or third try, to rephrase with different words. (Second try if you already know they’re HoH, third try for unknown persons who seem not to understand you.)

    Shouting or “exaggerated” speech is right out….

  12. I actually have real problems sometimes if they use different words. I often say “repeat” and then they rephrase and I say “not rephrase, please repeat”. Because if it’s new words I have to start the work of processing over entirely from scratch.

    Sometimes I do want people to rephrase, but a lot of the time I really want it repeated, and if they rephrase it makes it more work for me.

    Other times I say “what did you mean by that?” or something and people repeat it and I say “not what you said, what does it mean?”

  13. Hmmm. OK, that’s tricky. Is it possible to work out a routine that would let (normal) people deal reasonably with someone whose handicap is uncertain?

    Admittedly, HoH folks can often use the classic “can’t hear you” sign (hand cupped to extend ear). It seems to me that the really sucky part for you is when you can’t tell people what’s wrong. (I do have speech impediments, but they’re pretty minor. Mostly, people think I’m from a random country they’ve never been to.)

  14. A lot of people don’t realize that repeating and rephrasing are totally different things. Repeating gives them another chance to process the same material. Rephrasing gives them different material communicating the same concept. Some people are having trouble mostly because what you said wasn’t processed completely and benefit most from straightforward repetition. Others are having trouble understanding you despite having processed what you said as best they can, and need it to be rephrased in a form they can process better.

  15. Another difficulty is that, even if the person understands the difference between “repeat” and “rephrase”, they may honestly NOT REMEMBER the exact phrasing they used the first time. That means they might be genuinely UNABLE to “repeat” with the desired level of precision.

    As a deaf person, some of the time I want people to rephrase (if I lost the whole sentence and am not likely to improve my understanding of it no matter how many times I see it). But sometimes I actually want them to REPEAT (if I got most of it and only missed one crucial word on which pivots the meaning of the whole sentence). But I had to learn after some frustrating conversations when I was younger that some people just CAN’T even if they grasp why you want it. (Of course sometimes they don’t grasp why, or sometimes they even refuse to repeat because they’re convinced it wouldn’t possibly help–even if you explain to them why their conviction isn’t always true! But sometimes they just CAN’T.) So personally I no longer push people to repeat even if it might help.

    But, yeah, people ought to at least be able to grasp the difference between “what did you SAY” and “what do you MEAN”. I sometimes run into the same confusion in both directions, when sometimes people think I need some really simple concept “explained” to me in a really patronizing fashion when I simply needed them to REPEAT (or rephrase) something or write it down. And other times they think I’m asking them to repeat (or rephrase) when I’m actually trying to get them to explain something. This confusion occasionally happens even when I think I’ve been pretty clear about which I want!

  16. Ettina: Yes, yes, yes.

    I definitely benefit most when the person simply repeats what they said in the first place (and I often find myself getting frustrated when I ask, “But what did you *say*?” and someone refuses to repeat what they said before, and keeps insisting on rephrasing because they think the first configuration didn’t sound smart enough or something), but I know that others do have an easier time if the phrase is said “better”.

    It’s often hard to tell which is best for a particular person. That’s why it’s soooo important for folks to first be willing to just wait a dang minute and see.

    Often, I suppose, people are very quick to rephrase/repeat themselves because they’re uncomfortable or embarrassed at getting a blank look in return for what they’ve asked. (I know I don’t feel terribly comfortable getting a “wtf?” look after I’ve said something, especially if I’m in doubt as to whether it sounded sensible.) I have known a few people who are really, really good at looking thoughtful enough to buy them time while they prepare their response, but Lord knows I have a hard enough time processing and then coming up with a response to even *begin* to have control over what my face is doing in the meantime.

    I think giving everybody a couple more seconds to respond is about the best practice one can adopt when it comes to give-and-take conversation. It’s more considerate to *everybody*, I think, whether they have processing delays, comprehension delays *or* speech delays. Or even if they don’t have any specific delays at all — it’s just the right thing to do, in nearly every situation, to give a person a chance to speak.

  17. David — I’ve de-spam-trapped it.

    One very frustrating conversation that I often have crops up when I attempt to explain why I can’t understand something someone’s saying.

    “Oh you can understand just fine. You understand me just fine right now.”

    I’m often sorely tempted to reply, “That’s because I’ve had this conversation so often I’ve got it memorized. I don’t need to hear what you’re saying.”

    And I can’t say I’m hard of hearing, because I’m not (although I’ve been listed on forms that way from time to time, presumably as some kind of shorthand for auditory processing problems), nor am I deaf. My actual labels in the hearing department are hyperacusis and CAPD. But I’ve gotten to dislike some of the concepts behind the label of CAPD (particularly the notion that all the things that cause my “CAPD traits” are auditory-specific — especially since I had the same exact problems when I tried to learn and understand sign language, and can have comprehension problems with text as well), so I rarely use that term for it. Generally I’ll make some comment about receptive language if anything.

    But it’s very difficult to explain to someone the hugely complex set of reasons behind why I might have trouble understanding what they’re saying. And I think it would be difficult even if I had an easy time putting things into words — it’s too complicated and too far outside most people’s experience.

    Of course then I get the opposite situations, where people assume I’m hard of hearing and talk so loudly that the noise drives out the meaning. And often the more trouble I have understanding, the more their voices approach the level of screaming at me.

    Does that actually help if you’re deaf/hoh, or past a certain point does it just introduce too much auditory distortion?

    BTW yeah, whoever mentioned the thing about it being hard to remember is right.

    Also, a problem I sometimes have, is that I’ve got so little energy to spare, that repeating something really would cause serious problems for me, or be impossible.

    So I ought to be a bit more patient with people over that.

    Also I have this really bad habit, when my communication device mispronounces a word, of getting way more stressed out about it than I ought to. And then if someone can’t understand it because of that I get really stressed out.

    Earlier today I had another conversation where I had to get someone to repeat something five or six times before I understood it, but at least he’s used to me.

    And come to think of it, it took me a long time before I (a) figured out how to ask what people meant, and (b) figured out it was okay to ask what people meant. And then (c) actually put that into practice on a regular basis.

    People who were not used to me asking those questions sometimes reacted in terms of, “Well you can understand me just fine, you always have, so why are you asking this.”

    And I had to explain, “No, I couldn’t understand you just fine, I just didn’t know how to ask, and even when I did know, I didn’t feel like I had any right to ask, so I just let you think I understood you because I thought it was required of me and I didn’t know what else to do.”

    Which some people seemed to get and some people never did.

  18. Re your question for deaf/HOH people — no, shouting doesn’t help us either. Usually it only INTERFERES with comprehension:

    1. The big reason (at least for me as a deaf person who relies more on the visual channel) is that people move their lips differently when they’re shouting than when they’re speaking normally. A person shouting is always MUCH harder to lip read than someone speaking normally.

    2. If a deaf or HOH person benefits from amplified sounds at all, then they will most likely be wearing a hearing aid. The hearing aid should already be doing whatever amplification they need. Usually any amplification beyond that either will hurt their ears or simply start to distort the sound. Plus, it’s impossible to lipread. Which is worth mentioning twice because, for anyone with enough of a hearing loss that they depend at least as much on visual cues (or more) than on auditory cues, that’s the deal breaker.

    I’m lumping together deaf and HOH here because some of our issues are similar enough that you often can get away with it. But there are sometimes key differences. So I’m guessing maybe a HOH person might be focused a little more on the auditory side of things and how much shouting just doesn’t help make the other person’s speech become any CLEARER.

  19. Does that actually help if you’re deaf/hoh, or past a certain point does it just introduce too much auditory distortion?

    If they were actually mumbling to begin with, switching to a full voice will help. Shouting, almost never, for the reason you describe, and more. (Shouting distorts phonemes. Also, people usually speed up when they shout.) And if they staarrrt taaaalkiiiinnng reeaaally sllloooowwww (start talking really slow), that’s just bad — major distortion, plus I depend on speech rhythms for clues.

    One trick I’ve learned is to return the phrase with the problem words marked, like: “you want me to something a cat?” (That is, I’m saying “something” for the verb I missed.) That at least tells them which words I’m having trouble with, including the words I didn’t realize I misheard.

    It’s also OK to tell people “give me a moment” — that goes well with the blank look.

    And yes, most people are lousy at pantomime, but if they actually point to the relevant object(s), that’s a clue.

  20. Another comment in the spam filter. I generally don’t assume it’s stuck until somebody else’s later post shows and mine doesn’t.

    Is it my imagination, or is your spam filter getting more aggressive? Two in a day, and this time I was watching for potential “dirty words”.

  21. Shouting slightly helps some HOH people – I’m thinking of my elderly neighbor here. I suspect it’s mostly mildly HOH people who don’t use hearing aids and communicate verbally – which is pretty common with age-related HOH.

  22. My grandfather was like that: nearly completely deaf due to war injuries (not just when he was old, and also completely blind by the way), but he always refused hearing aids. So he had people shout at him to have some conversation. Some voices were harder for him to make out than other voices, and then shouting didn’t help a whole lot (though it helped a bit). My father had a voice that was comparatively easy for him to make out, so even if my father just spoke loudly, not really shouting, he’d be able to hear him better than others. I think his voice was sharp where a lot of other people’s voices were fuzzy around the edges.

  23. You did a wonderful job describing what I’ve been trying to explain to people when talking with my six year old son. There are times, especially hightened anxiety times, where the fewer words- the better.

    If my son is approaching overload and someone keeps talking, he gets upset, angry, and has become physically aggressive. I usually have to let people experience that one for themselves because they can’t seem to grasp that there’s so much work in the processing area going on.

    Then again, there are people who continually persist, and I have been known to just say, “Shut up, stupid!” ;)

  24. I’ve just gotten David Harmon’s comments out of my spam filter.

    It does seem to be picking up more legitimate comments lately, even though it claims to learn from things if I click “not spam” on enough of them.

    It seems to like particular people a lot regardless of what they post — it likes andreashettle a lot too, so much that by default when I’m randomly searching my spam filter for common keywords, I search her name.

  25. Do you mean to say that the spam filter likes me … or do you mean to say that it likes to ANNOY me? ;-) And, apparently, David Harmon! And you above all, since you’re the one who has to venture into the WordPress dashboard on rescue missions!

  26. Looks like the spam filter caught me again. The irony is, my last comment was in precise reference to that spam filter … maybe the filter is sentient and didn’t like what I said :-)

  27. At least your last name is easy to search on. Your first name comes up on a lot of porn-related spam for some reason.

    The other interesting thing is the spam filter is not always catching the spam either.

  28. If you’re keeping a list of those “favored” by the spam filter, put me on it too… there’s at least one more of mine stuck there.

  29. I thought of this post today, when my autistic son chided me for asking him a second question before he had answered the first.

    His ability to express himself sometimes truly awes me.

  30. So apt, so beautifully, clearly articulated. THANK YOU for stating this so incredibly well. I hope you know how helpful this is — how validating for others coping with this day in and day out, and how useful it is in helping others “get it” — and how grateful people are that you spent the time and energy to craft this for us all. Really, really — thank you! :-)

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  33. Pingback: How (not) to ask me questions. | Walkin' on the edge

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