This week, I was out walking my dog when I came across a man I usually bump into and say “hello” to. Instead of the usual minimal communication he started to say “how come…”. Now, my brain kicked into overdrive at this point and made me think about the way I process language in a neurodivergent style…
I can’t help but pre-empt the question that’s about to get asked
When the man started to ask “how come…” my brain quickly scrambled around for all the different possible questions he could ask me. I thought about his tone and whether it was going to be a friendly question or a confrontational one. I thought about the environment we were in and the situation. Before he could finish his question I had already summarised all that information and predicted that he was going to ask: “how come some days you have a dog when you walk on a morning and sometimes you don’t?”. This is typical, most people do this to support their language processing, however…
As a neurodivergent person, questions take me off guard, especially when I don’t know the person. I’ve spent my lifetime predicting conversation topics, questions and comments so that I can formulate the correct response. People are predictable and when I know them I can generally predict the conversations we are going to have, including what I might get asked. With strangers there is the unknown and it’s a worry because I can’t rely on my scripts and perfectly formulated responses. Most of the time, I pass as having very good communication, comprehension and expressive language. This means I can talk and interact seemingly with ease, but that’s not the reality of it. In order for me to communicate effectively I have to do so much more work than the average person, it doesn’t come naturally for me or many other neurodivergent folk.
So, when the man actually asked me: “how come you always see the same people on walks, no matter what time you go out?” I wasn’t prepared for the question. My brain had already processed and scripted another response, which now needed to be re-formulated. In the split second I had to respond, I didn’t have access to the script I needed and thus said something I didn’t actually want to say: “it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”. Ridiculous was not the word I would have inserted into my script, had I been able to predict the question better or had more time to answer. I spent the rest of the day ruminating about what an unusual response I had given and reformulating scripts for a similar situation in the future.
During lockdown, I remember listening to a podcast, which talked about active listening and how many people don’t actually do it. Apparently, we aren’t present in conversations and rarely listen intently but more often are thinking about what we are going to say in response. I felt like I was rude and self-centred. I so desperately wanted to change the fact that I didn’t actively listen to people, instead I constantly have a running dialogue alongside of what I’m going to say next, checking my body language and facial expressions or thinking about my own experiences in relation to the speaker’s.
So, I decided I was going to become a ‘better person’. I was going to actively listen to people and then respond more naturally. I tried and I tried and (you guessed right) I tried. I wasn’t very effective at it no matter how hard I tried and that is in part having an ADHD brain, which pings off in different thought directions constantly. But also having to mask my autistic traits by constantly monitoring my non-verbal and verbal communication.
Neurodivergent people need preparation and processing time
Interviews are such a great example of this! I’ve spent my 26 years before diagnosis sweating profusely before interviews, desperately formulating scripts to questions no one had ever asked me before in my life. Including what kind of dinosaur matches my personality best (no, unfortunately I never got asked this). They were so uncomfortable and completely draining and I needed about a week to recover and sleep afterwards. I don’t have time to list all the ways that interviews are inaccessible for neurodivergent people but I will explain one aspect and that’s processing.
I process the world differently as an AuDHDer (autistic ADHDer). I process so much more than the average person and I’m unable to tune it out. I also store so much more information than the average person because of my areas of intense interest. My brain is FULL to the brim of information that isn’t stored neatly in files. The information in my brain, especially around my areas of interest is piled high and completely disorganised. When I’m asked something about my interest I have to sort through all the disorganised files that are in lots of different places and come up with the information I need and not just all the vast information I have. At the same time, I am processing the sensory world around me all at once. The sounds, sights, smells and feelings are constantly monitored.
This means, that when I’m asked a question I will flit between pieces of information without the listener understanding the questions. I am thinking about 500 different things all at the same time, whilst trying to remember my scripts and retrieve vocabulary I need. What comes out of my mouth is a load of information that isn’t structured into an understandable response sometimes and will confuse the person I’m talking to. Without processing time, I struggle to consider how much the listener wants to know and what their knowledge of the topic is. But, when given time to process a question, I can formulate scripts which help me to give all the information that I need and want to in a more concise and structured way.
Non-literal language is hard to interpret
I was always the last person to get the joke. Always. I would laugh when everyone else laughed and completely fake it and later process the joke and understand it. A lot of the time I have to repeat the joke over and over in my head and assess the situation and timing of the joke, alongside the non-verbals of the person after the event so that I can understand it. Sometimes, it can even take me months and the penny will finally drop (since we’re on the non-literal theme). Again, this is harder if I don’t know the person.
When I’m with my friends, I am usually pretty good at figuring out when they’re joking because there’s predictability and I have analysed their language and non-verbals over the years but this is not the case for unfamiliar people. If I’ve just met you, I will not get your jokes. I will especially not understand your sarcasm, despite the fact that I use it almost constantly myself. Unless I have a blueprint of all your non-verbals and communication style it will take me 100x longer to interpret what you’re saying both literally and non-literally.
I interpret the situation, not what you say
My analytical skills have saved me socially so many times over the years. I do not communicate and understand communication naturally. Social communication has never been natural for me, it has always been analytical. I interpret your non-verbals almost like a Maths equation rather than a feeling. Most people are born with natural understanding of what people are communicating non-verbally. I was not. I’ve acquired this knowledge through practice and by watching others. As a little girl, I did not understand the children around me and I was fearful of them because they were unpredictable, so instead I watched and I learnt. I learnt to predict human behaviour and respond to it in a way perceived as normal.
I almost have a spreadsheet in my head of what each aspect of non-verbal communication means and I team it together with my understanding of the situation and problem-solving skills. Most of the time I’m not listening to what you say with your voice but more with your body. Listening to what you are saying is uncertain for me because I can’t always process the language quickly enough or at all if you’re using non-literal and indirect language. That’s why phone calls are so difficult for me.
As a Speech and Language Therapist my skills in observation and assessment are advanced because I have almost been in training for the job my whole life. I pick up on everything a person might be doing and interpret each single behaviour, interaction and non-verbal cue to quickly put together a picture about how much the person understands, how they communicate and where their strengths lie. I’m good at this because for much of my life my survival has been dependent on it.
Following instructions isn’t my comfort zone
When I was seven years old we went on a family skiing holiday. At the ski school I copied everyone else when we were given instructions, just like I did at school and for that reason my understanding of language wasn’t questioned. But one day, I was given a specific instruction by one of the instructors and the facade came crashing down. Because I was processing the lesson, the sensory world around me and all my social demands, their instruction went into my ears but didn’t process in my brain and I had to rely on my problem-solving skills. The instructor pointed to the base of the ski lift and said something that sounded like “Tony”. Now, in my little, autistic and developing brain I put the pieces together and concluded they wanted me to go and pick up the cardboard cut out of my parent’s friend Tony because it had fallen over.
It’s fair to say, the instructors were perplexed. Why had this little girl just gone to the ski lifts, picked up a cardboard cut out of a man and stood him up, before coming back to them with a proud smile? Especially when the instruction was likely to be something like “can you go over there and bring the ski boots to me?”. At this stage of my life I thought that everyone knew the same people as me so really the ski instructor should have known who Tony was. I still think about this experience all the time and feel embarrassed of it.
Auditory Processing & Working Memory
That feeling of things going in my ears but not registering in my brain has a name: Auditory Processing Disorder, and it’s something a lot of ADHDers experience. Sometimes, especially when given instructions it’s like the words sit in my head for a millisecond and then they’re gone, never to be seen again. It’s so incredibly frustrating! This is the reason I need subtitles on TV.
Oh, you thought that was all the barriers I face to following instructions? No, no, no. Let’s say my brain manages to process the information, well then I’ve got to actually retain and manipulate the information (working memory). So often, I understand the words you’re saying but I can’t remember them and I’ll end up doing one of the three things you’ve asked of me.
So, the way I process language is very different to the norm. It’s something that costs me a lot of energy and concentration. It’s been a source of great embarrassment and stress at times and it’s put me in a lot of compromising situations. Understanding neurodivergent processing and language comprehension is so important, especially so that we don’t over or underestimate a person’s ability to understand and access things. Reasonable adjustments and support from our communication partners are so important to allow neurodivergent people the access we deserve in the world.