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Mis-listenings and the ravine of no sense

Following on from the theme of switching off and separating from the world, I wanted to touch upon what it can be like to speak the language of aspie. This is a switch that clicks on and off, mostly accidentally, like when you lean on the cooker and are only saved from total conflagration by the built-in safety settings.

The switch is not the same mechanism which causes a total shutdown - this is the switch that controls communication. It has what I like to think of as, the Babel effect. At any given moment, on a whim, it clicks on or off and the aspie can no longer understand their language of choice. They are now separated from other people by a great divide, a chasm to be crossed only when the time is right.

For aspies, the switch can be triggered by their own feelings on any given day, or more likely, by other people leaning on it. Unlike the cooker, aspies tend to have very limited built-in safety settings, which usually comprise of removing themselves from the situation, throwing objects and shouting before removing themselves or turning away and having a total shutdown.

This idea that an aspie brain can suddenly change the settings and not receive information in a normal way, is one I only know about from personal experience. Forgive me if this one doesn't resonate so strongly with other aspies (though I have a feeling it will). Let me give you the example which best describes it from my point of view.

One of my many failed jobs was in a doctor's office, on the reception desk. As usual, for reasons I can never really explain, I had decided to go for a job which involved lots and lots of contact with other people. Now I would maybe know better. Maybe not, too, I seem to enjoy the pursuit of unsuitable goals.

This reception job had its ups and downs and the incident I want to describe was very early in the experience. I was feeling pretty stressed overall, as it involved early starts, it needed attention to detail under pressure, there was an intercom which, frankly, scared me and the phones would ring at the same time as lots of people talking. All very confusing and overwhelming - what was I thinking?!

On this particular day, an older gent came in, a friend of one of the doctors. He was making a social call and wanted me to let his friend know he was here. I don't remember how stressed I was at that moment, it must have been bad. I do remember realising who he was (I'd been told to expect him) and leaning forward as he came to the desk and started speaking.

He spoke, readers. He spoke English, in a loud enough voice to hear over everything else. I saw his lips move and heard his voice. I listened attentively. I understood nothing he said. He might as well have been standing there saying, 'Blurble urble urble oooo,' over and over again.

For a moment, after he finished speaking, I stood, perplexed. Then horrified, as I realised I hadn't understood even one word. Amongst this was a stirring of fear too, as he was looking expectantly at me, waiting for me to act on what he had said. Desperately, my face blushing a deep red, I bent towards him and asked him to repeat himself.

He was angry and irritated, which I do understand. He was also keen to share the feelings and started by asking me if I was stupid or deaf or both? Then he repeated what he had just said, loudly, angrily and slowly, glaring at me the whole time and slapping his hand on the counter.

I understood the second time and told the doctor his friend had arrived. It was awful, though. A part of me knew I couldn't have done anything differently, I couldn't make my ears work the way they were meant to - or, more accurately, my brain work the way it should. I was stuck with the situation and I just had to hope it didn't happen again.

There was also a part of me that knew the man didn't have to be so unpleasant about it. I was human, I had been mistaken in not understanding him but I didn't do it to upset him or inconvenience him. Often, though, in public-facing roles, common courtesy and decency are left at the door, only to be used for proper people, ones who don't wear name tags and who get paid more per hour than the lowly shop-worker, receptionist, cleaner and so on (I've done all those jobs and the main benefit is you get to see the best of people as well as the worst).

Without breaching any confidentiality, I must say that I also met a man who had lots of problems, some self-inflicted and some not. He would come into the surgery, obviously struggling against his problems and having difficulty restraining his aggressive and out-of-control emotions. He would arrive at the desk and physically contain himself, looking away, concentrating on other things, on any thing at all, so that he could control the way he spoke to me. That man did everything in his power to appear respectful and to treat me well for the short (but to him very long) time he needed to speak to me.

I respected him, for his efforts and for his recognition that we all deserve to be treated decently. I also recognised the way he behaved as an obvious, very much outward version of how I coped with things myself when trying to communicate under difficult circumstances. He was mirroring what I also do, using my strength and concentration, such as it is, to focus on things other than the person I am talking to, so that I can continue talking to that person without running out of the room or screaming as I bang my head against a wall. Sometimes you need to focus on the irrelevant details to carry on dealing with the main event.

Back to the different language problem. I believe that, like so many other problems in aspergers, it is set off by stressful situations. You just have to divert your energies, your brain activity, your self in general, away from the frightening thing which is trying to happen right in front of you. Your aspie brain thinks if it can divert you for long enough, you will be safe. So, even when you don't want to be diverted, you are and you find yourself in one of those vicious circles of needing to understand something, not being able to understand it, becoming too stressed to understand it, and then round again.

I'm not saying all aspies change the language received from the language spoken. That was a very specific instance that happened to me and is set apart in my mind. But I know similar things happen a lot, where you do understand the words spoken, you just can't grasp their meaning.

On occasion, when I've asked people to repeat things to me a few times, I've resorted to asking them to spell it out. Then there is a moment while I relay the letters back, building up the required word in my mind. Then it makes sense, it becomes what it was meant to be.

Also, when I talk about stressful situations, don't be confused here. I know you will have had times when similar things have happened with your aspie, and you've been in the comfort of your own home, without stresses like I had at the doctor's surgery. So, where is the stress there, you wonder. What causes the mis-listening then?

Oh, reader, what causes it is Stuff. Big stuff, little stuff, stuff from last week we never processed to our satisfaction, the feeling we had yesterday evening that reminded us of the bad thing that happened ten years ago.

Or maybe a few little bits of stuff have followed us around all week and we've been fine, we have, we've done everything that was expected of us and then all the bits of stuff caught up at the same time and tumbled together to bump against the backs of our legs at just the wrong moment. And it's the moment you say the important thing, or the thing that becomes important because we have no idea what you're talking about.

It's frustrating that the stresses which make our switches flick on and off can be so blooming well small and stupid, so tiny we didn't even notice them and could never tell you what they were. It's like grit blowing in the air in front of your face; if there is enough of it, some of it is bound to get in your eyes; but you couldn't say which particles blew in, only that there was a whole cloud of it that you didn't see until you were blinking back the tears.

As usual, the key to all this is patience. Be patient, explain yourself, use different words if necessary. Only raise your voice to repeat the words if we ask you to. Don't throw the TV remote at us when we ask why you're shouting. If necessary, spell it out. Describe the word as if you've forgotten the name, that's often how we explain things to you.

On top of all that, be gentle and smile away the mis-listening. It can be frightening, to not understand. When so many other things are confusing and misleading, not knowing what you say, our beloved, that can be terrifying. There's a small part of us that always worries we'll lose you too, like we lose the little things in life.

Be like me when I watched the distressed man using the pins of the noticeboard to distract his aching mind: admire the effort that goes into communicating and try to ignore the frustration evident in our eyes. Frustration belongs with the small stuff. In the end it's just emotional grit and a few tears and a kind touch can soon fix it all up.


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