I mentioned at the start of the month that I was going to focus on figuring out what it means to succeed as an autistic person, rather than trying to judge success on neurotypical expectations. Since most people are neurotypical, teachers and parents expect kids to develop in neurotypical ways and assume neurotypical motivations. One of the biggest examples of this in my own life had been the assumption that I’m shy. I’ve been told this for as long as I could remember, and for a long time believed it was true because it was associated with me so often I interpreted the meaning as “feeling the way I do in social situations.” It was an easy explanation. Why don’t I get more involved in activities and try to make friends more? Oh, I’m just shy.
And according to the dictionary definition, that’s actually not bad. It’s defined here as “Being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.” Well, sure. But what does that mean? It doesn’t get at the reasons behind that nervousness, and that’s important. Other definitions emphasize traits such as being easily frightened or lacking self-confidence. And I’ve occasionally noticed a cultural expectation that shyness is a flaw resulting from fear and inexperience, and that being a successful adult means you need to just get over it. While introversion has been praised a lot recently, often I see it discussed in ways that are careful to draw a distinction between it and shyness. “We’re not shy, just drained and need to recharge.” Nobody wants to be shy.
All of that makes sense, given that on the first page linked you can scroll down to find the etymology and see that it did originally mean “easily frightened.” Shyness has a connotation of being thin-skinned, overly sensitive, weak. In movies, shy people (often women) are under-developed, easily-manipulated people who just need to grow up, find some courage, and start standing up for themselves. There is no real understanding of shyness as an essential character trait, something that really contributes to who a person is. It’s a flaw that must be overcome. When we view the word and trait in that way and yet describe everyone who doesn’t like social situations as shy without trying to understand the underlying issues, that can be a serious blow to someone’s self-image. Why can’t I just be braver? Why is this hard for me? I can’t figure it out, so I must just be fundamentally flawed and weak.
But what if the problem isn’t fear in the first place? Or what if it is, but it’s a very legitimate fear that could be easily overcome if you understood what it was?
One of the weird “what-if” moments of my life comes from pre-school. I definitely wasn’t afraid of anything there. I played with the other kids, made friends, and generally had a good time and enjoyed going. All my memories of that time are both happy and social. Except, my mom tells me, I didn’t talk. The teachers spoke with her at one point and suggested that I might be slow, because all the other kids were having normal conversations for our age while I almost never spoke.
But obviously I was smart, I’d been reading since I was two. And my mom says I talked a lot at home. (In my memory, it was mostly uncommunicative babbling, like talking to myself while I colored pictures. But there may have also been a social element, the sensory input at home was almost certainly more manageable so it would have been easier.) So I didn’t get tested and missed out on being diagnosed early. (I mostly think this is a good thing, given what I hear from autistic adults who were diagnosed young and therefore given just a ridiculous amount of intervention therapy that hurt them more than it helped.) And what might have led to a lifetime of restrictive educational services that taught me I would never have a full life instead just got me labeled as “shy” and told I needed to push myself harder.
Talking out loud is hard for me. A lot of times I know the words I want to say in my head, but somehow they get lost on the way to my mouth and it comes out wrong. Even when the words are right, they come out too fast and without “appropriate” intonation and without matching body language, so people have trouble following my meaning. And sometimes, when there’s a lot of sensory input, I get confused and distracted too easily to even get the words right in my mind.
Before speaking up in class or any other group, I need to repeat everything I will say over and over again in my head. Often, by the time I’m sure I can say it right, the topic has moved on. If I push myself to speak up before I’m sure I have it right so that I won’t miss the conversation, it always comes out garbled and I miss my most important points and people look at me like “why would you even bother us with that?” Gee, I wonder why I might not want to speak up in class very often. 😀 It really has to be worth it for me, I have to know that what I’m saying is worthwhile and adds something to the discussion that others will value.
Public speaking is worse. I know most people have trouble with public speaking, but it seems like other people are mostly afraid of doing poorly or being judged. Does that seem accurate, neurotypical readers? In my case, I’m mostly afraid of not being able to talk. Eye contact is physically painful for me. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a bright light being shined in my eyes. In my daily life, I make eye contact as little as possible, to the point that on particularly bad sensory or emotional days I find myself unable to look even near other people’s faces.
Public speaking means 20 or more pairs of eyes all shining their lights right in my face. It means 20+ faces making expressions I’m terrible at reading. This in addition to the bright lighting that is already a minor disturbance and the difficulty I have getting words out of my mouth in the best circumstances. Most teachers advise against memorization and instead tell you to just know your topic and be able to follow a few notes on index cards. That is not possible for someone who needs to stop and repeat things to themselves multiple times in order to speak a few sentences. You can’t stop in the middle of your speech every time you make a point to figure out how to make the next one. No matter how well I know my topic, this seems to be something I’ve always needed to do.
So I eventually ignored the cue card advice and wrote out exactly what I wanted to say, word for word, and read it out loud. This went a little better. My voice is still uneven, I still talk too fast, I still trail off the ends of my sentences and have trouble with intonation. But I can get through it without “umms” and pauses after every point. Improvement! Even so, in speech and preaching classes I was always told that I needed to slow down, add more “natural” pauses. It was suggested at one point that I actually write down “pause here!” after major points to stop and let people catch up. I followed this advice as much as I could, but I never managed to sound like my peers.
Those pauses aren’t natural for me, and whenever I listen to a recording of myself talking I can tell my voice doesn’t sound like other people’s, there’s always this odd edge to it that sounds like I’m not quite there. And I’m not. I’m not “at home” in my voice, like I’m not at home in my body as a whole. I live in my head, and everything physical about me feels disconnected. I don’t like being touched, because it brings sudden intense awareness to this part of myself I didn’t feel before, and now all I can think about is that physical sensation. I don’t like talking because it’s too much of a struggle to make the words come and they never manage to communicate what’s really in my head, especially at the quick pace of ordinary conversation. I really don’t like hearing myself talk, because it makes it very obvious just how poor a job my voice is doing in communicating for me. My body and I are not friends.
The most surprising part of all of this, though? Once I learned to just embrace these things as part of the way I interact with the world, I learned something that completely contradicted what I’d been told about myself all my life: I. Love. Public. Speaking. No, really. I do. As soon as I heard other autistic people (and in particular, autistic women) speaking on camera and heard that edge I’d always hated in their voices too, I realized that was normal for me. It’s not that I was failing somehow and couldn’t figure out how to work speech like everyone else, I was talking in a perfectly normal way for an autistic person. It was never reasonable to expect me to suddenly develop a neurotypical way of interacting with the world. (Especially over the course of a single semester!)
Soon after that, I came across a suggestion to think of public speaking anxiety as anticipation. That butterflies feeling, heart pounding in your chest, fuzzy head…isn’t that how it feels on Christmas eve as a kid, too? Or before anything that has you very excited. It is! Between accepting my way of communicating as normal/acceptable and interpreting those signs as excitement, I was able to re-evaluate my approach to public speaking and realize that I actually do enjoy it a lot. I like being able to share my ideas, and public speaking presents a rare opportunity for someone who has trouble speaking fast enough for regular conversation to finally be heard. I think if I were “shy,” honestly just scared of talking to people and being seen/heard, I wouldn’t enjoy this so much. I wouldn’t have embraced blogging and dreamed for years of starting up a podcast or vlog. Definitely not shy.
I think we need to stop labeling people in easy ways. We need to stop expecting that everyone will develop in the same ways, or that a lack of a certain skill or trait always means the same thing. Try talking to the person, give them alternate ways of expressing the same thing. See if a “shy” person suddenly gets super social when you give them access to other forms of communication. Let them speak in an environment that doesn’t have so many sensory disturbances, maybe darken the room so they don’t have to look at everyone’s faces. Give them examples of a wide variety of people doing something, find examples that look and sound like them.
Really, showing videos of “good” public speakers in speech classes is so useless. They’re all doing the same things, and if those aren’t things you’re capable of doing it’s just discouraging. Why not dig a little deeper and find people who don’t follow the expected norms but speak anyway and are proud of the ways they’re different? Why was I never shown videos of Temple Grandin speaking, so I knew it was okay to stop in the middle of a speech and let people know their movements are distracting me and I can’t focus? Why didn’t I ever know it was okay to be me and that I still had a right to be seen and heard without fitting a mold?
It’s amazing how much that slight change of perspective has influenced my life and made me more willing and able to do things I thought I couldn’t before. Be careful before labeling someone, especially in ways they haven’t labelled themselves. You could be shaping the way they view themselves and putting a limit on their abilities, not to mention missing a possible cause you haven’t even considered. As much as it’s possible, always allow people to speak for themselves and let you know what’s going on in their heads. You might be surprised.