I have an issue with verbal communication; sometimes my words fail me. I tried to describe the experience of “losing my words” in an earlier post when I first discovered it’s something that happens with other autistic people too. I’m not sure that I conveyed the pain and frustration associated with those experiences, though. After all, words are usually my friends. I can verbally express complex ideas and concepts. I write. Words are one of my primary tools for doing life as well as my friends — until my words abandon me, which is often when I need them the most. Sometimes it’s like my brain freezes and I can’t come up with any words at all. Other times, I have many thoughts, sometimes so many racing so quickly that I can’t “catch” one to speak. Other times, however, I can mentally construct what I want to say, but I can’t get the words out. It’s as though the switch from my brain to my vocal chords and mouth flips off and I can’t flip it back on.
Most of my life that has been not just frustrating, but in many ways frightening. I had no idea I was autistic and I did not know it was something other people experienced. Learning that I’m not alone has helped with that aspect, but does nothing for my own sense of frustration and even pain. I’ve learned over the years to cover and hide my loss of words in many situations, but there are times when it simply can’t be hidden. For example, when your partner is trying to have a serious and deep discussion about something, asks a question, and you can’t speak, there’s no way to hide it.
This week I was trying to describe how that felt to my therapist. I described what seems to happen. Then I launched into a litany of all the ways I excel with words and some of the different things I have done, even very successfully done, with words. Finally I said, “I know I should be capable of responding in those situations!”
My therapist said, “You should be? That’s a very harsh and judgmental thought. Try something for me. Say ‘I wish it was easier for me to speak in all situations.’ Go ahead.”
I did and she asked me how that felt, and if I noticed a difference. And, surprisingly (to me), I did. I hadn’t really noticed, but as I was describing my frustration over losing my words leading up to expressing how I felt it’s something I should be able to do, my chest had gotten tight and my shoulders tense and weighted. As soon as I said, I wish it was easier for me..., my chest felt like it opened up, my shoulders relaxed and I felt like a weight was lifted off me. The difference was dramatic and immediate. I really was surprised at the difference.
My therapist continued, “You’re pretty amazing. You were never diagnosed. You didn’t get any specific therapy for autism to help you. You learned, mostly on your own initiative, how to modulate your tone and inflection, you practiced expressions, you studied acting to learn body language, and you constantly studied interactions between people to learn a complex set of social rules. Most people pick all that up automatically. It doesn’t come naturally for you, but you still managed to learn a lot of it largely on your own starting as a pretty young child. You’ve also overcome some very hard and difficult experiences in your life without breaking. You’ve been with your wife for 28 years. You’ve raised children together. You’re successful in your career. You have friends. There are problems and ongoing challenges, certainly, but don’t lose sight of everything you’ve managed to do. Many people, autistic or not, don’t do as well as you have.”
She went on to explain, “Thoughts that you should be able to do something are typically tied up with shame. When you think that, you are saying there’s something wrong with you and thoughts like that are never helpful. They just weigh you down. Some things are hard for you and it’s okay to acknowledge that fact and wish they were easier than they are. But beating yourself up because it’s hard will just make it worse.”
And she shared with me a little cartoon image she had drawn to use when working with children. It was a drawing of a very angry looking and aggressive bee with the title, “Don’t Get Stung by the Should-Bee!” It may seem like something small, but I found it very helpful. And I’m certain I’ll remember the image of the Should-Bee going forward.
I don’t know if anyone else struggles with those sorts of thoughts, but I needed to write about my experience to better process it. And I decided to share that writing publicly in case someone else might also find it helpful. Stay away from the Should-Bee. He’s a mean one.