An interesting thought came to mind while I was doing my morning exercise bike ride. I was on Twitter, and some folks were talking about how their kids “lost words” (i.e., became non-verbal) at such-and-such an age. Some of them “got their words back” when they were older, and then they had very advanced vocabularies. But the distress over the idea of kids stopping speaking at a certain age was palpable.
For the record, I don’t believe I ever went 100% non-verbal for extended periods of time when I was a kid. At least, not in the stereotypical way, where a neurotypically developing toddler who used to chatter a mile a minute suddenly stops speaking and doesn’t use words to communicate again for years on end.
I have always had issues with selective mutism. In certain situations — especially when overwhelmed and distressed — I will “clam up”. Literally. I’m like a clam, my verbalizing clamped shut tight like a clam just pulled out of the sand. Part of what’s happening is that I’m working overtime to block out any extraneous external stimuli that are interrupting my thought process. Part of what’s happening, is that my thought process has absolutely nothing to do with words. I am deep in a process that is visual and spatial, with colors and feelings and shapes and images all churning in my mind. Concepts, for me, often take a shape — a figure, like a person standing at an open door, or a cat scratching behind its ear, or a tree waving in the wind, is a sort of “conceptual container” wherein a lot of different ideas and concepts dynamically abide and interact with each other, making it possible to merge ideas that words can’t easily combine.
And the thought occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, we’re not actually “losing words” when we stop talking for a while. Maybe, just maybe, especially when we’re kids, the non-verbal phase is actually a very important integrative time for us, when we’re developing so rapidly in visual-spatial ways, that words cannot possibly summarize or effectively communicate what we’re thinking. Maybe, just maybe, we need time to integrate what we’ve learned, thus far, and we need to sort it out in our heads. Maybe, just maybe, we need that non-verbal space to develop our non-verbal processing. Which of course means that we’re not talking, while we’re doing it.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing. There’s a whole lot going on inside our autistic selves, when we’re not talking. And when people around us get so upset and nervous, it actually adds to our stress. When I’m non-verbal, I actually feel wonderful. It feels like everything is flowing. It’s just such bliss, to be able to let the concepts and thoughts, feelings and impressions, all swirl together and sort themselves out. It’s like butter — buttah! But then people around me get upset that I’m not “using my words”, and I’m pulled back into a kind of thought process that isn’t comfortable for me — most of all, because I have no confidence that A) I’ll be able to express just what I’m feeling in words, or B) the people I’m trying to communicate with are going to understand exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s a losing proposition, this verbalization business. On both sides. But I’m so sensitive to the anxiety of others, that I feel compelled to speak. Or, if I simply can’t do it, I may melt down. Freak out. Withdraw. Because I’m trapped by the insistence of others. And if I don’t comply, their insistence may be accompanied by the excruciatingly painful physical contact of a light touch, which feels like I’m being beaten. So, I’m trapped. In a very real way.
And when I was a little kid, it was the worst. Because I didn’t have the right to refuse. I didn’t have any way to retreat from my surroundings. So, I resigned myself to the experience of being hit, pummeled, beaten, on a regular basis. NOT because I actually WAS beaten by anyone who wanted to hurt me, but because the lack of awareness of others turned their attempts at physical contact into the equivalent of assault.
As an adult, when I go non-verbal, I can excuse myself and come up with all sorts of redirections, as well as remove myself from hostile situations. As a kid, though… not so much.
Anyway, back to the up-side of non-verbal activity.
Can I just say, going non-verbal is just so wonderful at times. It feels wonderful, as my thoughts and impressions and different ways of thinking are allowed to stretch and expand and just be… And while I can only imagine what it’s like for a little kid who goes non-verbal, it strikes me that the autistic impulse to take a break from language for a while might actually be a very good thing.
Because think about it — if you’re a non-verbal / picture / images/ visual-spatial thinker, you’re going to use different parts of your brain to process information, than if you’re very words-oriented. I’m not a neuroscientist (officially, anyway) but I suspect that that part of the brain may actually not be ready to develop, until you get to, say, 18-24 months or thereabouts. Hmmm… I’ll have to do some research on that.
And if you’ve been immersed in a language-centric environment for the first 1-2 years of your life, which may not feel all that familiar or comfortable to you, anyway, when your brain is finally ready to develop visuo-spatially, then Woo Hoo! it’s time to party! And when you can actually conceptualize with your newly developing visual-spatial brain, it might feel like such a relief, that you can’t be bothered with using words anymore. Plus, if that part of your brain is developing, you need to acquire the skills to use that amazing power — which really is pretty amazing, when I think about it. I can process more, get more done, have a far richer and more elaborate life, than the vast majority of people I know… because I think in pictures and I process information very differently.
So, not only is it a relief to be able to conceptualize visually and spatially, but it’s also a skill you need to focus on and repeatedly use, to develop it fully.
And that means you have to make some sacrifices along the way — like words. But if those words don’t actually mean much to you, anyway, because your thought process is very different, then it’s no great sacrifice for you.
But all the while, people around you are getting more and more distressed that you’re not talking. They’re pissed off at you. They’re pissed off at themselves. They’re confused and afraid and are so terrified that THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU. Meanwhile, you’re having a wonderful time in the thought palace of your mind, figuring things out, studying the world so you can better interact with it.
But everyone around you is getting all worked up… And you pick up on that stress. You internalize it. And you start to think that you’re broken. Damaged. Deficient. Incapable. Stress ensues. Incredible stress. Why should you try to talk, anyway? If the Preferred Mode you love and excel in is clearly not acceptable and is a sign that you’re messed up, how can you possibly handle the Secondary Mode that makes you nervous, is full of shortcomings and inaccuracies and inefficiencies, and cannot communicate what you truly mean, anyway?
And I wonder if the stress of not being allowed to just develop your visual-spatial thought processes in peace, might actually prolong the development process. We know from plenty of research that stress affects learning. It affects adaptability. And the stress of parents of autistic kids — which the kids totally pick up on and often internalize — just slows everything down. If there were less stress, less pressure, on non-verbal kids to USE THEIR WORDS, might they actually develop their visual-spatial faculties more quickly, and then be more comfortable in whatever mode they chose — including words?
I’m not advocating taking the pressure off, to make non-verbal kids verbal. I’m suggesting we could chill out, so that kids can develop their full-spectrum abilities and unique ways of thinking… so they can learn to use whatever mode they want, however they want, and shift seamlessly between the modes that suit the situation best.
Just a thought… Maybe, just maybe, autistic people need to stop using words, so we can start using the other parts of our brains that so often go unrecognized as the Very Good Things they are.