7 Kinds of Silence

July 20, 2013


I don’t know if this is an official term just yet, but I’m what you might call semi-verbal. I can speak with no difficulty about 80%, maybe 90% of the time. The remainder, I can either speak with difficulty, or not at all.

The official term is selective muteness. But that doesn’t really explain it, and it certainly doesn’t capture the many different reasons why an autistic person might be unable to talk. There are several different reasons why I can’t, or don’t, talk at times:

  1. True muteness –  This happens to me in stressful situations. It is a true inability to speak. I can know what I want to say, and know that not speaking is only making the situation worse, yet I cannot force a word past my throat. Oddly enough, it happens even more often in my dreams than in reality.
  2. Speaking becomes painful – Sometimes when I’m tired, or strained, I’m able to speak, but the difficulty is much greater than normal. My own voice echoes loud and painful in my head. It isn’t just the sound of my voice that becomes painful, although that is a factor, but thinking the words creates a “noise” in my mind that is uncomfortable at times. At these times the choice is to remain silent, or speak and risk severe fatigue and migraine later.
  3. Speech noise –  The ability to speak can fail at any time, even when I’m not under any pressures. Speech noise is where an attempt to speak comes out in gibberish, speech-like sounds with no meaning. This happens most when I’ve been silent for a while and then try to speak, but it can also happen at any point in a conversation. It’s especially awkward when speaking professionally, in interviews, or the like. For me this type passes quickly, just a few seconds.
  4. Translation failure –  Silence might result from failing to translate from one’s native “language” into one’s spoken language. My internal language is not verbal, but images, patterns, and concepts. I translate these images and patterns into words on the fly, and the effort is much the same as translating from one spoken language into another. I can speak two additional languages conversationally, so I know the effort required. Sometimes the words you need for your thoughts aren’t there, and you’re grasping for words to describe what is so perfectly clear in your mind.
  5. Forgetting language –  This one has only happened a couple times in my life, thank what powers there may be. It’s terribly frustrating and frightening. I imagine it’s like what happens to stroke victims. You don’t just lose the ability to speak, but the ability to even remember what language is. You open your mouth and nothing happens; you have no language in your mind. You just know that communication is supposed to be happening and it isn’t. This one taught me to be careful of flashing lights, even if they don’t think I have epilepsy.
  6. Shutdown –  Hit me with too much information or emotion at once and my eyes will glaze over and I’ll be unable to talk. At best I might struggle out an “I’m sorry, what?” if I’m still together enough to bid for more time. This is the one that happens at work the most often. I’m lucky that my coworkers recognize the signs and will back off to give me processing time. If someone doesn’t know or understand, then this form of silence looks like intentionally ignoring or voluntarily not speaking.
  7. Logical paralysis –  “When did you leave the communist party?” is a terrible question to ask someone on the spectrum. A logical contradiction can leave us with no valid statement and thus unable to speak. Something about the way my mind works keeps me from just saying the question is invalid or unfair. I’m locked, and can’t speak. “Why did you do X and don’t lie to me.” will make me uncomfortable if I’m guilty, but if I’m innocent, it renders me unable to talk.

These are the ways that speaking fails for me. This doesn’t touch on other communication issues of course, like losing focus on conversations or not hearing the other person because you’re in hyperfocus.

If you’re on the spectrum or know someone who is, can you think of any I missed? These are mine, but I imagine there could be others. And of course this doesn’t even touch on total muteness or prolonged temporary muteness that others on the spectrum have.


  • Jester Queen says:

    This is the perfect explanation of Scott’s silences. It doesn’t happen often, but OY when it does. He gets angry and moody and we’ll get into some petty argument, and suddenly Scott’s over there giving me the silent treatment while I’m desperate for WORDS to come out of his mouth, which, intellectually I know only makes the situation worse, but which emotionally fixes NOTHING for me. And thanks to bipolar, backing down is so fucking hard even when I know I have to. (Much like speaking is damned near impossible for him in these situations; which is why it’s good we fight rarely.)

    #7 describes Sam perfectly. We had a shit smearing incident not long ago. OK, Caroline is NINE. She ain’t gonna smear shit on the walls. We went to Sam and asked why he did it. He gave some explanation. It doesn’t matter what, because it was a complete bullshit lie developed on the spur of the moment because he couldn’t think of how to answer “why did you do this?” with “I didn’t”. Turns out, his sister had diarrhea and didn’t tell us and things got awkward and she didn’t want to talk about it. (Who would?)

    #4 — I actually do something similar to this, though not quiiite the same. Caroline does, too. It’s much closer to true aphasia than I like to admit. A word – a tiny word, but one necessary to complete a sentence – flies away from me. Poof! Suddenly, I can say, “I just spilled a drink! I need … thing … a wet … no dry square absorbent fabric ….” and Scott has to fill in the blank. Or “Honey could you grab me one of those things we use to stab our food at dinnertime?” Scott’s gotten to be an expert at figuring out hand towels, forks, and everything else that comes out of my mouth.

  • Nik says:

    I relate to a lot of these, but #4 is a huge issue for me. I’d say I have this more often than not. Sometimes it just takes me several minutes to find the words; other times there is literally nothing there. And I can’t speak words that just aren’t there.

    I dislike calling it selective mutism, because that implies social anxiety, and my mutism happens even when I’m totally comfortable.

  • Luna Lindsey says:

    Ok, maybe I can relate to this more than I thought. 🙂

    I get #1 in a way. I always attributed it to being scared of the consequences of speaking, afraid I’d say the wrong thing or get in trouble for saying it. Sometimes I just can’t think of how to say it properly, inoffensively. That comes along with a fear response. The situation you described in the “moment of silence” post is the kind of situation I’m most likely to get it during (even during consensual encounters where I want something to change.) I don’t get it as often, because I practiced with a partner who was very supportive. I have no idea if #1 has the same root cause in both of us, but the effect is similar.

    #2 & #3 I don’t relate to.

    #4, absolutely. Certain concepts are very hard to convey because I think them in a way that doesn’t translate to language. It’s not entirely visual.. it’s abstract shapes and patterns and just “knowing” a thing. Sometimes when I try to put it into words, the other person entirely misunderstands me, which can be very painful, especially in a conflict. Trying to explain myself at that point can dig myself deeper into a hole, which can often lead me to #7, and finally a meltdown.

    #5 I don’t relate to. #6 I don’t exactly have, but I could see the early stages of it. It never gets to a complete shutdown. I’m usually able to catch up after a brief stall. Learning the social rules for how to stall appropriately has helped these moments seem normal. (Adding “I’m sorry,” to whatever stall I say really helps. i.e. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” or “I’m sorry, I don’t quite get what you’re saying.”) What I love about the character on Bones is she says, “I don’t know what you mean, but blah blah blah.” I adopted the first part, “I don’t know what you mean,” and people will happily re-explain. Even if part of the reason I don’t get it is because I wasn’t paying attention because I was distracted by three threads of thought that spawned from the first thing the person said. 😉

    #7 will totally lock me up, and if I’m already strongly emotional, I will meltdown. If I’m in a debate situation, where there is zero emotion involved, then I’m great at it. I will call BS on the logical fallacy and win that round of the argument. Not if it’s personal, though. I’m getting better, with practice, of finding things to say to get out of it. Recognizing that the question is a trap is a huge help, because it reflects more on the other person. If I can frame it like that, I can blurt out something like, “That question is not fair,” or “Do you still beat your wife?” or “That doesn’t make sense.” One thing that’s really worked for me is asking the person what they really want from me. Getting them to state what they want, rather than focusing on me and what I’ve done wrong, is a good strategy for anyone, I think, because it gets to the meat of the issue, to the validation and eventually resolution of the problem. Learning boundary-setting tools has also really helped me avoid all traps, and put the energy where it belongs when I do find myself in one. The trap is theirs, not mine. As Jennifer Connelly said, “My will is as strong as yours, my kingdom as great. I can never remember the next line…… You have no power over me!”

    This is a really great list, and it’s helping me analyze some of the issues I’ve had in the past. I’m going to show this to my partners so they can understand me a little better. Thanks!

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