There’s a thing that happens to some autistic people (maybe all? I don’t know since I’ve not met all of you). It’s called selective mutism. Now, to begin with it’s a misleading phrase. It makes it sound as if we choose to be mute when it suits us. We don’t. I have no control over the times when my brain and mouth don’t connect, nor when my mouth goes into overdrive.
Let’s take the ‘snotty bitch’ scenario first.
There are times when I cannot make any words come out of my mouth. I can be sitting at a table at a social event with a perfectly nice person beside me and be unable to speak. Inside my head there’s a voice saying “Just say something, anything. Pleeease”.
The accompanying feeling is as if I’m pushing against a stretched-taut piece of cling film, or wading through treacle. There’s this tension of attempted forward motion against resistance and the resistance wins. It happens with strangers and close friends.
As a child I remember hovering at the top of the stairs at night, wanting to shout down to my mum, trying to make the shout come out and failing. It stuck at the back of my mouth. The ‘want’ versus the block in my throat is painful.
Another time, sitting around a campfire with friends playing word games, full of silliness and hilarity, unable to dredge up anything to add. It’s excruciating. There is nothing more lonely than being surrounded by people having fun and yet utterly on the outside, unable to connect to the fun. I’d rather be on my own than have to feel that.
Meeting online friends for the first time in-real-life and unable to summon any of my written eloquence. Unable to look at them, smile at them, or hug them. Locked behind my perspex screen that keeps all the terror and panic shut down. On the outside I appear serious, aloof, and unfriendly. On the inside I’m sobbing with the unmet need to connect.
So, what about the boring nerd?
If you happened to meet me on one of my more voluble days, you would tell me that I must be lying about my mutism.
I have no idea what the switch is that turns me into the boring (I’m assuming) nerd that you can’t shut up. For fifty two years I had the “Shit, I’ve done it again.” moments, with no idea what ‘it’ was. People’s eyes glazing over, or them simply walking away from me mid sentence or interrupting and starting a completely new conversation when I hadn’t even got to the point of what I was saying. Do I try and pick it back up again? Do I join in with theirs (and how the hell do I do that? I can’t read when I’m supposed to join in)? Or do I just shut up and go quiet? Usually the latter. The other two tend not to go very well.
Get me on a favourite topic and I will pin you to the wall with information. Information gathering, pattern recognition, and then synthesis of new perspectives are some of my skills, and I have a huge enthusiasm to share. The subject is fascinating, or thrilling, or shocking, depending upon the topic, and you really ought to know all about it. There are so many different angles and perspectives and to do it justice you have to consider them all. Don’t you see?
I’m beginning to learn that I don’t have to tell everything. I don’t have to give all the backstory. I’m not being dishonest if I omit all the detail (honesty is an unbreakable rule). I can tell myself to shut up. I can water myself down. And it hurts. I lose some essential part of me.
And I watch neurotypical people talking and think, “But they’re not listening to each other either. And how can they find all that small talk interesting? How can they talk for so long about nothing at all?”
I’m lucky in that I have a few jewels of friends who generally find my intense interests, well, interesting. Still, I’ve learned to ration myself (mostly). To remind myself to ask about their stuff, too. Some of the time it works.
There are also those dark times when I cannot imagine why they are my friends. I’m so serious, so nerdy, so heavy and, when the mutism kicks in, unable to join in with the fun stuff or maintain it for any length of time. Depression is a bitch.
There is some middle ground.
If the setting is ‘professional’, I drop into my role and perform. I can speak fluently and interact effectively. I know my stuff, I can draw parallels with the real world, and I can take that out beyond the current boundaries into something new that moves people on.
If the setting is social it’s so much harder, so my knack is to find a job or a role within that social setting. When I was a member of the PTFA I survived the twice-yearly fund-raisers by taking charge of the bar and serving behind it on the night. I could do that. I had the script off-pat, knew all the banter, and we made a fortune for the school.
The role could be as simple as we’re-here-to-support-Peter. I can do that; sometimes.
Another option is alcohol, which of course has its consequences.
When the stars allign and I’m with close friends or family that I can trust, and who find the same stuff as me interesting, I can drop into that sweet spot of chatting and laughing.
All of these come at a cost. Talking to people takes a lot of energy and I usually have to retreat later to somewhere quiet, with no people, and build up my reserves again. How long it takes depends upon the intensity of interaction, how much I’ve been able to drop into well-rehearsed scripts (teaching my yoga classes for example), and how well I know the people involved.
( A great analogy here is the spoons theory. Go Google it if you haven’t heard of it.)
None of this is intended to be whiny – my apologies if that’s how it comes across.
I want to be honest; authentic.
I want neurotypical people to catch a glimpse of what’s going on behind the mask; give us some space, don’t write us off, even be honest about what we’ve done to spoil the vibe.
I want other autistic people to not feel quite so alone or maybe have a moment of “Shit, that’s what’s going on!” if they’ve puzzled for years over what the hell goes on in that whole social thing.