Today I was chatting with a gentleman with Aspergers. An Aspie, if you will. In the course of our conversation, he told me a story that was quite shocking. ‘WHAT?!’ I responded in surprise. Instantly, he repeated the same story, verbatim, only louder.
That’s when I realised why he frequently repeats his stories to me eliciting a (thus far) unspoken response of ‘Heard you the first time. Heard you the second time. Will hear you when you probably repeat yourself a third time. How many times are you going to repeat yourself!’
It’s taken me years to figure out that, being an Aspie, while his ears physically hear my voice with its tones, pitch and inflexion, yet because of Aspergers his brain is not wired to understand the emotional meaning conveyed by my voice alone. If the 7-38-55 rule is true, this means that he is missing over one-third of the meaning in my communication with him.
Most of the time, he’s unable to differentiate between a ‘What?’ indicating ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you’ from a ‘What!?’ indicating surprise. Neurotypicals convey vast meaning by their voices alone. The words are secondary. To other neurotypicals, our voices usually make our meanings clear.
Not so to an Aspie. While physically hearing the pitch, the tone, the accent of our words, the actual spoken word is where they look for meaning, not our voice.
To an Aspie, one word may have many meanings. Like a walking human dictionary, they know the word has an a, b, c, d or even more definitions in the dictionary. They try on each possible definition to the words we use ‘for size,’ if you will, before deciding which definition or even definitions, plural, we most probably meant. To them, this is a mostly intellectual exercise. The emotional clues conveyed in our voice alone are, in whole or part, unavailable to them. This explains why they may mistake our meaning or take our words much too literally.
This can make communication with someone with Aspergers challenging and yet, strangely rewarding. In previous blogs, I’ve mentioned how they are born philologists.
The truth is that they may indeed be correct in ‘reading too much’ into communication by relating one word to another. Words are indeed related. The neurotypical mind is conditioned to only notice what we are supposed to hear per the rules of polite society, blinding us to what may actually be said or implied. Aspies super power is to be free of these strictures.
If you, like me, are struggling to communicate with someone with Aspergers, I suggest you come out directly and discuss it with them. Ask them if they understand inflexion. When I tried this exercise with the gentleman who inspired this article, we discovered ‘what’, ‘what’, and ‘WHAT’ all sounded exactly the same to him and, in his mind, had the same meaning: I hadn’t heard him. He needed to repeat himself, louder.
There needs to be give and take by both parties, something Aspies of my acquaintance find difficult. They are wired a certain way and cannot change. Try as I might, I find it difficult to change too. It’s hard not to say ‘What?’ for many reasons indicated only by the tone, pitch, emphasis and inflexion of my voice. But I’m working on it. At least now we know the root of the communication disconnect between neurotypicals and those with Aspergers.