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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.