I know that there are many people who don’t speak with their voices, but instead rely on written or screen-based or other methods of communication. I know that there are others who only lose the ability to speak in certain situations and fall back on those other methods at those times. Me, I’m good with words. Words are my stock in trade. If I’m good at anything, it’s at using words. Granted, I’m much better at using the written word, but I can’t remember ever having lost the spoken word either. I can’t think of a situation where I would be unable to speak, not even in a meltdown. (If what I have can even be called a meltdown, but that is for another post. The only reason I might not be able to speak is that it’s a bit tricky to get your words out when you’re sobbing.) There are moments, though, when words are temporarily out of reach for me. Something happened at the office today that made me think about how and why that happens, and I will try to explain it to you here.
This is what happened:
I’m in the office, when A’s phone rings. A, who is in the office with me, is talking on the other line, so I transfer the call to my phone. It’s B, who is on reception on the floor below. She wants to know:
“Does A have the key to the basement?”
Now you might think that this question is straightforward to answer, with either “yes”, “no”, or, since I can’t look into A’s pockets, “I don’t know”. My brain however starts whirring away with all kinds of other questions. First of all, why does B want the key? She’s supposed to be on reception, not go into the basement. Perhaps she needs the bathroom? Is she going to ask me to cover her for a few minutes? Also, what does she mean by THE key to the basement? There are several keys to the basement: I have one, A has one, one or two other people have one, there is one on the general manager’s bunch. You see, B’s straighforward question is actually highly ambiguous, and I don’t know what she means. She’s on the phone and expects a quick answer. How many seconds can I take to deliberate before it starts to look weird? Eventually I blurt out: “We all have basement keys. What exactly is your question?”
Thankfully she now explains in greater detail, and it transpires that A took the basement key that is kept at the reception desk, and B wants to know if he still has it, so it can be returned to its normal place and doesn’t go astray. Problem solved, question answered. But not before taking a detour via puzzlement and misunderstanding.
This little dialogue got me thinking about why I sometimes need longer to answer a perfectly simple question. It also reminded me that during that pause I am really lost for words. I tried to analyse what goes on in my brain when that happens, and I think it’s something like this:
Someone asks me a question. Either it is worded in such a way that it is ambiguous, or at least my brain perceives it that way. Either way, I can’t come up with a quick answer, because my brain is now trying to do several things at once:
a) trying to guess what the question meant and coming up with several possibilities
b) trying to formulate counter-questions which will hopefully bring clarification
c) trying to find answers to all the possible meanings guessed at under a)
d) trying to weigh up which meaning is most likely to be the correct one
These are all going on at the same time – they are not orderly steps to be taken towards a resolution (“try a), and if that doesn’t work, try b) etc.”) No, all of this is swirling through my brain, and because my brain is analytical and detail-oriented, they all splinter into a mass of details. If those details would line up neatly, they could move from my brain into my mouth like a little train and become spoken words. However, they don’t do that. No, they swirl around and then crowd together into a tight ball, like a shoal of sardines under attack from hungry dolphins. Or perhaps they all rush towards the door of my mouth, bunch together and get stuck in the doorway. I’m sure I could come up with other images, but you get the point. I open my mouth, and nothing comes out, because the words are stuck.
Fortunately, for me this situation doesn’t last long. How exactly it gets resolved I can’t tell you. Perhaps one of the thoughts can somehow detach itself from the tight ball and float to the surface, where I can grab it. Perhaps I am even able to take some control and deliberately fish one of the thoughts out. I’m not sure what exactly happens at this point, but I’m usually not stuck for long and the situation resolves itself.
I think one of the reasons I get stuck is a desire for precision. I always marvel at how other people confidently navigate the vagueness that is a normal conversation. I often listen to my colleagues talk in the office, and half the time I don’t know what they are talking about, even though I have listened to the whole conversation. But somehow they all know what the others mean. I don’t know how they do it. I always have to ask “so, what exactly…?” The good thing is that nobody seems to find this weird or annoying. I think they just put it down as “that’s the way Little Sparrow is” and wonder no more about it. I get on very well with my colleagues, and we all work well together, so on the whole, whether this is autism or not, it might make my life slightly more complicated, but not actually difficult. Lucky me!