Speaking of speech

It’s very common to divide autistic people into a ‘speaking’ and a ‘non-speaking’ group, and also to assume that the ability to speak implies the ability to communicate with speech. Those people who do so quite naturally place me into the ‘speaking’ group, since I’m most of the time able to produce understandable words, almost always strung together into sentences.

However, there’s a large grey area between being fully able to use speech to communicate and not having access to language at all, and it’s not linear either. There are many ways of communicating that doesn’t involve speech, and many examples of speech that isn’t functional communication. I frequently experience a lot of things that I call a difficulty or inability to communicate, that all feel very clearly different from one another, but that people who use the above categories tend to classify as either ‘speaking’ or ‘non-speaking’.

This is a deplorably simplistic view of what actually goes on, and one that can cause very unpleasant situations. Since I haven’t seen a lot of descriptions of what it’s actually like to lose speech, or to be able to speak but not be able to use that ability to communicate (and those I’ve seen always seem to be missing things), I will attempt to describe some of the different ways I experience those things. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of other possible ways, too.

When these things happen, they usually pass after a few minutes to a few hours, or when I’ve had a chance to rest and spend some time alone, but in the meantime they can lead to all sorts of strange and potentially dangerous misunderstandings. Some of them are also very difficult to clear up afterwards. Explaining that I couldn’t speak at the time is very easy compared to explaining that I was speaking but wasn’t (or mostly wasn’t) communicating.

Here are a few examples of what happens on the inside.

More than one of these may of course occur simultaneously and in varying degrees. They may interact with and replace one another. They may appear for no apparent reason and disappear the same way, although they’re often triggered by or at least made worse by stress and sensory overload. They are called ‘speech’ or ‘lack of speech’, but I think they should have better names.