Communication, Intelligence, and Autism
by Eden of @the.autisticats
Yesterday was the first day of my senior year of High School. I’m mostly taking humanities courses, including AP Chinese, AP Literature (Lit), and AP Government and Politics (Gov). My teachers from last year recommended that I take those courses, so I chose to do so. I think I’m capable of handling the workload, or I wouldn’t have selected the classes. Yesterday, however, I was reminded of the reasons I was initially hesitant to choose those courses.
At this point it would be useful to notify the reader that I have two main academic accommodations, for my autism and ADHD. The first accommodation is time and a half on all major assignments like essays, tests, and quizzes. The second accommodation is permission to type assignments on my school-issued chromebook, instead of handwriting them. I need time and a half because of my delayed processing speed, and I need to type things instead of handwriting them because it’s extremely difficult for me to match my hand’s motion to my thoughts. As in, I can’t focus on the fine motor skills and coordination it takes to write at the same time as I’m focusing on what I want to say. So my handwritten work tends to be disorganized and disjointed, lacking cohesion and the necessary details to support my argument. My typed work, however, flows much more nicely and is much more understandable than the jumbled mess of ideas I produce through handwriting.
I think this is similar to many nonspeaking autistic people’s experience of the fine and gross motor skills required to speak. For many autistic people with poor motor control, it is impossible to master the coordination necessary to form words in one’s mouth, much less say what one actually means when focusing so hard on making a sound. I have read accounts of nonspeaking autistic people who say that sometimes they focus so hard on forming a word, they forget what they originally intended to say. So, what comes out might be totally different from what they meant when they started the process of speaking. Because of this, nonspeaking autistic people are often assumed to be unintelligent, non-thinking. But not being able to express one’s thoughts coherently doesn’t mean that one lacks the ability to think coherently. Thinking is one thing, expressing thoughts is another.
I am primarily verbal, and though I do periodically lose the ability to speak, I find it easier to coordinate the muscles in my throat and mouth than I do to coordinate the muscles in my arms and hands. However, my speech is not immune to the perils of poor motor control. We’ve already established that my handwritten work is mediocre at best compared to my typed work. By that same token, I type much more eloquently than I speak. I think this is something most autistic people relate to, because we exercise much more conscious control over our muscles than neurotypicals do, and consciousness can only stretch so thin before it has to pick and choose what aspects of our present reality to attend to.
Often times, I have too many thoughts that are moving too fast for me to catch them and funnel them into my mouth, which causes me to stumble over my words. The same is true when I’m handwriting. And, because my thought process is associative and visual, the sentences that come out might not necessarily be in the right order. When making simple remarks or comments to my friends, I will often say two things in the wrong order. I will think one thing, think a second thing, and then verbalize the second thing. After realizing I only verbalized the second thing, I will verbalize the first thought that came to mind. A hypothetical example might be, if I was sailing with a friend and water got in the boat, I would think, there’s water in the boat, it needs to be bailed out, let’s get a bucket. But I would say, “Let’s get a bucket. There’s water in the boat.” I suspect that these patterns of speech occur in varying degrees among people of all neurotypes, but I have noticed that I say things in the “wrong” order much more frequently than I say them in their proper sequential order, and have not observed any neurotypicals who do this with the same frequency.
Maybe it’s because the first level of thought for me is mostly sensory-perceptual, so it hardly registers as “thought”. In the example mentioned above, I see the water, know it’s there, visualize what needs to happen to get it out of the boat (bailing water out with a bucket), have a verbal thought prompted by the image (we need to get a bucket), and then verbalize what is necessary to communicate in order to solve the problem (“let’s get a bucket”). Only after I verbalize do I realize that the person I’m speaking to might not know why I’m suggesting that we get a bucket, which prompts me to explain the reason: “there’s water in the boat”. Sometimes, however, I fail to clarify what the reason is. It could be because I’m tired, or because I’m simply unaware that the other person doesn’t know what I do about the environment. When I suggest things or make comments to people who don’t know the reasons why I’m saying what I am, they can become confused about my intentions.
When speaking, it is difficult for me to express exactly what I want to say in exactly the manner I want to say it. Alongside trouble with speaking in a linear, easily understandable fashion, I have trouble regulating my tone of voice and volume. Something I intend as genuine but playful might come off as bitter, and something I intend as sarcastic might be interpreted as serious. I might say something intended as a joke to my friends much too loudly, or something important for others to hear much too quietly. This is because I tend to focus much more on the content of my speech than the manner in which it is delivered (again, my consciousness can only stretch so thin before it has to select what aspects of reality to pay attention to), and because it is difficult for me from a motor control perspective to perfect the exact vibrations that produce specific tones of voice for different emotions and contexts.
Tone is more ambiguous in writing, however, and volume isn’t an issue- unless the reader makes their internal voice start yelling or whispering, which is their prerogative. And, hypothetically at least, one can take as long as they desire to polish a piece of writing until it is ready for public consumption. Writing is more comfortable, therefore, and feels more natural to someone like me who can’t always say what they mean when speaking. When writing, it’s okay that my thoughts are all jumbled, because I can go back and edit the way they are presented. I can tidy up the rough edges, saying exactly what I want to say, exactly as I want to say it. The process is deliberate, intentional. There are no mistakes and no stray threads in a fully fleshed-out piece. It is cathartic and beautiful, and though nothing I write is ever perfect, the feeling of uninterrupted, near-perfected self-expression that the process gives me is something that no other art form can replace. But writing, as wonderful as it is in theory, is difficult without a keyboard.
These difficulties with processing speed and motor control present challenges in daily life, but I feel their effects most heavily in academic settings. Yesterday in AP Lit, my class was given an impromptu writing assignment. The question was something broad and simple, asking us to relate a specific passage in our summer reading book to the style and message of the book as a whole. Our teacher handed out lined pieces of paper for us to write our responses on. I was caught off guard. My chromebook had died earlier in the day and I had gone to the library to charge it during lunch, but none of the chargers in the charging station were working, and I had forgotten to bring my own. I had assumed that, since it was the first day, this was probably no big deal. I realized how wrong I was when I found out that I would have to handwrite a response to a vague question, formulating an argument and adding in supporting details, with no editing tools at my disposal (except my eraser) and the threat of hand cramps looming over the horizon. I could have asked the teacher to lend me his laptop or charger, but I figured I might as well go with the whole handwriting thing. After all, it was only the first day of school, and this was a minor assignment.
Well, I tried. I don’t know if what I did qualifies as failing, but my sheet of paper, though it was filled front to back, contained substantially fewer words than those of my neighbors. It was also predictably disjointed and devoid of details. I think the reason I have such trouble incorporating pieces of supporting evidence into my handwritten work is that I don’t have the mental capacity to connect them to my main points. I only have the capacity to make my main points, alongside some randomly dispersed observations and insights about the written work I’m analyzing; and though I usually throw in some direct quotes just for good measure, there’s no guarantee that they make sense in the context of the paragraph. Anything other than that is too much for my brain to handle while also focusing on the task of writing itself. The ability to go back and edit, add in, and switch around bits of writing is also essential to making my points coherent. Otherwise, everything is scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, save erasing entire paragraphs in order to add in extra sentences or change the existing ones, paper doesn’t lend itself very well to editing. Typing circumvents these problems. All I have to do is memorize the layout of the keyboard, remember how words are spelled, and poke at things. Poking requires much less coordination than handwriting.
I know that these challenges have no relation to my intelligence, or my ability to think clearly and coherently. However, my slow processing speed and motor skill differences do interfere with my ability to express my knowledge and understanding of any given situation. This disconnect between what I know and what I can express has the potential to lead others to believe I am less intelligent than I actually am. However, I express myself decently enough most of the time that the majority of the people I interact with know I’m intelligent. But then, it surprises them, and they don’t understand what’s going on, when I struggle so much with things like handwriting an essay. They don’t understand why I stay after class to finish math quizzes that take other people 25 minutes, why I have to stay after school to finish Chinese unit tests that other people finished with time to spare.
They don’t understand because in neurotypicals, processing speed and verbal intelligence, alongside motor skills, are in the same general area. Most of the time, they are within 15-ish points of each other, as subscores in an IQ test. In my case, however, my verbal intelligence is a whopping 32 points above my processing speed, and my motor skills are lacking. Although my processing speed is average, it lags significantly behind the rest of my mind and is therefore a relative impairment, especially in high-level classes. This is one of the main problems with measuring IQ in autistic people- our scores on various subsections of IQ tests can vary widely, making the overall score (the average of the different subsections) a somewhat irrelevant and inaccurate way to understand our actual abilities in different areas.
I’m not sure what insights I want to distill at the end of this piece. Perhaps this is because I think much more frequently about the physically disabling conditions I deal with, since they present the most immediate challenges to my everyday functioning. Autism and ADHD are background noise a lot of the time. However, a few times each day, something will happen that reminds me that I’m autistic. Sometimes the reminder is not only that I’m autistic, but that I’m disabled because of it. That I simply cannot do some of the things my equally intelligent neurotypical peers can do, at least not in the same way that they do. Attending my AP classes yesterday was one of those reminders. I don’t usually think of my autism as a disability, because it is more of a way of experiencing and interacting with life than anything else. But the way I experience and interact with life doesn’t always fit seamlessly into the machinations of the world, because the world isn’t set up for people like me. So I have to find creative ways to work around those roadblocks.
I think what I want to say is this: I’m struggling, as I grow older and more independent, with the reality of being developmentally disabled. There are many explanations for why I’m disabled, everywhere from my doctor’s office to the classroom where my mom teaches sociology. But for the first time in a long time, the “why” doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is how I’m going to deal with this. I need to learn how to cope with my emotions on the subject, and how to navigate the world in order to reach my fullest potential. Accepting my limitations for what they are is difficult. It’s hard to be in a classroom full of people who can handwrite essays and write them well, who ask you why you’re typing, who ask you what took you so long the other day on that test. Maybe it comes down to me being too concerned about other people’s perceptions of me. Too concerned about their evaluations of my capabilities, my intelligence, my worth.
I may be autistic, but I’m not immune to internalized ableism. Not caring (in theory) about social norms and attitudes, and thinking they’re ridiculous, doesn’t stop me from feeling their effects. Intelligence is valued in this society, and being able to quickly and effectively communicate one’s thoughts is right up there with it. Value gives things worth, gives people worth. And what happens to autistic people’s self esteem in a society like ours, where not being conventionally intelligent or communicative results in negative value judgements from other people? I suppose at a certain point, I’ll just have to stop caring about what other people think. I should not base my sense of self worth on my ability to do exactly what neurotypicals can do, exactly how they do it. That’s ridiculous, because it is impossible. I am not neurotypical and I never will be. So I just need to accept that what I do is different from what others do, and know that there’s nothing wrong with that. It will be difficult to fully extinguish self-doubt, and I know it will crop up at various times in my personal and academic future. But at the end of all this musing and moping about, I’ve gained a newfound determination to live the truth of Temple Grandin’s famous quote:
“I am different, not less.”