Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Language

"Aren't you just a social butterfly?" said a friend who was visiting me at college one day. Over the course of the day that she was visiting, I had said hello to a lot of people, and they usually said hello back. This was, I suppose, my way of proving how "social" I'd become. There is, however, a lot more to social interactions than saying hello to someone. It's only the outside that a visitor gets to see.

I called a DJ on a Baltimore radio station once to request a song. As it was right before Thanksgiving, he asked me what I was doing for the holiday. "I'm going home to have dinner with my family," I said. After touching on the fact that most Thanksgiving family dinners could be awkward, he said to me, "But I'll bet you don't have any of those problems, you're so conversational!"

Conversational? Social butterfly? As someone who struggles in most situations and has Asperger's, those are not words I expect to have applied to me. Yet, it's true.

What it seems to come down to do is the difference between functional and social, or pragmatic, language.

When I'm stressed or am groping for words, fancy, formal language comes to mind much faster than anything else. In fact, I really don't know how to put a lot of things plainly. The harder it is to talk about, I think, the more I rely on dictionary sounding ways to say things. This often turns people off, and I hate it - but I really don't know how else to say it.

It's like when someone's learning a foreign language,a lot of what they say will sound formal and pedantic.

It's something that has vexed, perplexed and upset me for as long as I can remember - in some ways, most I think, it is at the very crux of my problems in interacting with the world and with people. As a child, teenager and college student, especially being around other people my age, what frustrated me beyond belief and to the point of tears, especially in college when I wanted so badly to fit in and make friends, was that I could not for the life of me figure out how to sound "casual."

It's something I've always envied about other people. They sound casual. They speak what to me sounds like a kind of social slang that for the life of me I can't even start to envision or imitate. It was especially evident when I would listen to groups of people my age talk.

It was very painful to do actually because like I said I would just be jealous beyond belief of the way their conversation flowed so easily. There is a real difference, I have found, in the ability to communicate - to functionally use words to get across a set of
ideas - and the ability to communicate in a social way - to have a control of nuances of words, tones of voice, and other parts of language used to communicate effectively in a social way. This is the difference between functional and social/pragmatic language.

There is no doubt whatsoever that I can do the first one. If I were to take a test of communication skills that were based solely on the ability to use words to communicate ideas, I'd probably come up extremely high. But if I took a test measuring my ability to use communication appropriately in a variety of social settings....I'd come up very low. And that is very frustrating.

It reminds me of hyperlexia in a way - that's a term often used to describe something that is common in many young kids with AS, and it means this: these kids can read very, very fast, and they read everything. They are obsessed with language and everything verbal. But they have very little *comprehension* of what they are reading, and often need a lot of extra help in reading comprehension and learning how to use their verbal skills appropriately.

I am great verbally but can't read the hidden messages. So that's why I so often feel shut out from a conversation, or ask too many questions about what someone meant, or to clarify, or misinterpret, because I'm missing a lot of the messages that go behind it. Sometimes I'll have a conversation with someone and from an analysis of what was said, I feel, this should have been a good conversation, we covered a lot of interesting things.

But I feel no sense of connection with them, and there wasn't the flow I would have liked. I find that just about the most frustrating thing in life - that I have all these skills to be able to communicate with people, but very few to no skills to actually feel close to someone or get the emotional satisfaction out of conversations that I would like.

I think that explains though why in college I could have really deep long conversations with someone once..... but then never be able to develop them into friendships. It used to frustrate me to no end and I spent hours in college crying over trying to figure out why I couldn't do it. Why could I talk to someone for 2 hrs once by chance, but never develop a friendship with them or anyone else? I just couldn't figure out how a friendship worked. It killed me. But I realize now, the skills needed to talk to someone about a specific subject in a specific setting in one time limited circumstance, are different from the very nuanced skills needed to develop and maintain a friendship.

This is why Aspies often sound as like they are "human textbooks" when they talk. They are most comfortable in the world of facts and concrete words. They may have learned most of their language from books, instead of from practicing it in social situations with other young kids like most non-autistic people do. So instead, the language will often come out quite stilted, formal, and, well, like it's from a textbook. Because it very well may be.

Someone once told me that I communicated fine, when I said that I needed to work on my communication skills. "There is nothing wrong with your communication," they said. Why, then, I thought, did I have so much trouble making friends? Why did I seem to turn people off so quickly? Overwhelm them so fast? Why was it so hard for me to keep a conversation going? Why was it like pulling teeth to know what to say? Why did everything come out so *wrong*? I didn't know how it came out wrong, but I knew it came out wrong. I could see it in people's faces. This is a feeling I dealt with all my life before I got diagnosed with Asperger's - not knowing why the hell I felt so DIFFERENT. Not having words for it is the hardest thing of all.

Functional versus social communication. Why is it important? Because one just helps you get by, and the other helps you connect to the world. How can you develop social communication i n someone who doesn't have it? Practice, therapy, or simply being resigned to socialize with other Aspies who understand and employ a more literal form of communication (or non-Aspies who are patient enough to see past your differences and try to understand you.) Trying to have what you can't conceive of will drive you crazy faster than anything you can even imagine, so in the end you have to be happy with what you have and make the best of the skills you do have. But it never stops being frustrating.


  1. I was hyperlexic as a child, especially from ages 2-5, though my comprehension still lags behind my ability to read.

    I think I lack more than pragmatic language when I'm speaking... I have trouble forming my thoughts into words at all and speaking them. But I get what you mean about lacking the nuances and the application, and I think it's true.

  2. Your comment:

    "Someone once told me that I communicated fine, when I said that I needed to work on my communication skills. "There is nothing wrong with your communication," they said. Why, then, I thought, did I have so much trouble making friends? Why did I seem to turn people off so quickly? Overwhelm them so fast?"

    My comment:

    I think you hit it on the head there. People are overwhelmed with the intensity of some conversations. Rather than it being a low key and casual conversation, they're thrust into an intense thought pattern and they need to concentrate and think and it's just flat tiring sometimes.

    It's similar to attending a university lecture about something you really need to understand versus listening to an authour reading from her book. Something you can relax into. That's what most casual conversations are for people, relaxing.

    Peter Haynes

  3. Very thought provoking, Peter, as usual.
    Interesting concept. I have always considered convos a way to have emotionally meaningful discussions. I have had so few conversations in my life that are actually relaxing, it's almost not in my vocabulary. But I would really like to. ...I have enjoyed those I've had. *wonders what it would take to have more or if it's possible* I almost feel like it takes an entire different language to have a conversation that is relaxing. I am not sure what that would encompass. I once knew a guy that shared my dry sense of humor and we had senseless convos about nothing, that were funny, and enjoyable to me. I have seldom found someone who matches my way of thinking enough to be able tohave such conversations, though. To have conversations that are relaxing, you need to be talking to someone with a mindset similar to yours, is what it comes down to maybe.