On Formulas…and Dating

Predictably, when the topic of dating comes up, people who don’t have the type of relationship they want ask, “How can I get it?”

Sadly, the simple truth of the matter is: There is no formula.

That’s probably good.  I’m different than you are.  And my ideal girl is different than your ideal partner (and, besides, my ideal girl is now married to me, so she’s taken!).  In fact, if we were in each others’ shoes, with the others’ ideal partner, we’d probably both be absolutely miserable.  And that’s okay.

You can’t make someone love you.  Oh, I know there are people who can claim to manipulate other people’s emotions, and maybe they really can do that.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about someone who loves you because of who you are, not some secret manipulative power you have.

Sure, there are things you can do to help yourself out:

  • Be patient – desperation doesn’t help.  Being satisfied in life does.
  • Be happy – finding ways to enjoy the world is a huge plus to finding someone.  Work to take care of depression and bitterness, as bitter people aren’t a lot of fun to hang around with.
  • Be comfortable single.
  • Get a goal in life other than finding a relationship.  This is counter-intuitive, but it really will help.
  • Be interesting.  Hobbies can help here, as can activism, education, or any number of other things.  The key is to have some stuff to talk about and enjoy with someone else.
  • Be confident, but not egotistical.
  • Don’t be a creep

But this is hardly a formula.  There’s a lot of other things that can make your life easier or more difficult.  For instance, how picky are you being about characteristics that have nothing to do with how well you will be able to share life together (guys: I’m talking about expecting her [or him] to look like a model; girls: I’m sure you too can be too picky).  Now, I’m not talking about things like avoiding anyone who is abusive or controlling, or who’s general way of being is simply incompatible with your way of being – that’s understandable and even a good thing.  But eliminating choices – particularly for characteristics that have nothing to do with whether or not you can happily live together – obviously is going to make finding someone more difficult.

I’ve seen some straight guys (some NTs do this too, it’s not at all just an autistic thing) see a “good-looking” woman, and, knowing nothing about her beyond that she is “good-looking”, proceed to fall for her.  A slight variance is seeing her public persona as well, and thinking, “Oh, we’d be a good match.”  I had a non-autistic friend who was convinced he was a superstar female singer’s perfect mate – after all, he knew her music, so he knew her (according to him).  Well, he didn’t.  And the singer has since come out as lesbian, making him a very unlikely perfect partner for her!

Friendship is good.  Sure, it’s frustrating to have tons of women friends and not be able to find a date, if you are a straight guy (substitute the right genders if you aren’t).  But at the same time, the most common way to find a long-term relationship is through a friend.  So it’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you don’t send off “creep” vibes (by trying to make a friendship into something not desired by the other person, for instance), to have some friends of the appropriate gender.  And every single autistic I know who is in a long term relationship first became friends with the other person well before there was any romance (that said, they probably weren’t ‘just friends’ for long before the relationship became romantic – if it’s been many months or years that you are ‘just friends’, the chemistry likely isn’t there).

So, here’s what I know from my own and other autistic people’s relationships from my circle of friends:

  • Individually, we haven’t done “one-night-stands”
  • The women asked the guy out more often than not, but only after there was a friendship
  • There was no typical “pickup line” used
  • None of us met the other person at a bar or club
  • There was something, outside of attraction, that both partners had in common and felt very strongly about
  • All of us had fewer dating experiences than others at our age, sometimes a lot so (first date at 35 or so is not unusual in my group of friends)
  • We seem to have less break-ups than NT-NT dating relationships
  • Age differences are relatively common, but I don’t know anyone with a significant age difference who has a relationship with someone in their early 20s or younger – it seems both partners need to reach a certain maturity in age
  • The most common place where autistic people I know have met is at church followed by autism groups (please don’t go to either with the express desire of hitting on every single person of the appropriate gender)
  • Most are with another autistic person
  • Both partners are aware of the others’ autistic traites and have to grant room for those traits

Of course none of this is scientific, and I personally know exceptions to most of the above.     In addition, I have a very limited sample size so I’m not sure how much this applies to autistics as a whole.  But I do think autistic relationships often do look different than stereotypical NT relationships.  That’s one of the reasons formulas don’t work – I think we are different than most formulas assume.  Don’t turn the above observations into a formula, either – it won’t work.

The Risks of a Neurotypical Driver

A road sign reading "Watch Out" with a cartoon car heading directly towards a cartoon bike heading the opposite direction

Watch Out <> By KEVIN, Licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

First, I’ll start by saying this: if a person would be at a high risk of killing or injuring themselves or someone else while driving a car, they should not drive.  But note that I didn’t say “if a person would be a dangerous driver,” as that’s a slightly different statement and would bar just about every teenager from driving.

Second, I’ll state that this post is US-centric.  I know other countries have different rules for getting driver’s credentials.  I don’t know what those rules are, nor do I know if they are better or worse than the USA’s.  So you’re warned.

There’s a lot of autistic people old enough to have driving credentials, but who haven’t obtained them.  I’ve seen a lot of reasons, with the most common being:

  • They feel they would be a danger while driving a car
  • Their parents feel they would be a danger while driving a car
  • They have no desire whatsoever to drive a car

I’d add I think there’s a forth reason: Learned helplessness.  And also a fifth reason: different expectations for autistic people than neurotypicals.

Certainly some people shouldn’t drive.  Including some autistic people.  I agree 100% here.  And if someone tells me they would be a danger while driving, I’ll take their word for it and not try to convince them otherwise.

But I’d like to look at the forth and fifth reasons.  First, let’s look at what I mean by learned helplessness.  I know that’s a triggering phrase and that it has a lot of pop psychology meanings.  I ask readers to put those aside and allow me to explain what I’m meaning by that.

Many of today’s young adults had the fortune – or misfortune – of having an autism diagnosis from an early age, accompanied by IEPs, special education, therapies, specialists, etc.  Through all this special labeling and treatment, it’s easy for one thing to be made clear to an autistic person: you’re different, and the normal way of doing things won’t work for you.  It’s also easy to make it clear that the experts know all about your autism, so you should listen to them.  While I agree early diagnosis and appropriate services are good, I think it’s easy to teach you’re not as capable as others.  It’s easy to teach the person that they don’t have social skills, don’t have the ability to plan things, have motor skill issues, have sensory issues, and can’t concentrate.  And from there it is easy to guess that these same difficulties would manifest in certain ways while driving.  Of course this isn’t 100% true – shouldn’t these same difficulties make something like climbing a tree difficult?  Yet I know tons of autistics that were frequent climbers (to their parents’ horror) at early ages.  I think the difference is nobody told them their autism would make tree climbing hard.  Many individuals are used to being told what will be difficult for them, so why would driving be different?  Why would they disagree, even if it wasn’t true?

That’s how we get to the fifth reason: different expectations for autistic people and than neurotypicals.  What’s the expectation (in the USA) for a 16 year old getting a drivers’ license (or whatever age is legal where you are), other than demonstrated competence (to some degree) behind the wheel?  If the child is neurotypical, the expectation seems to most often be two-fold: “Get good grades” and “be born long enough ago.”  If the neurotypical meets these two criteria, they can begin to gain the skills to demonstrate competence as a driver.

But…are these neurotypicals always good, safe drivers on day one of drivers’ education?  Of course not.  They accidentally run red lights, they drive the wrong speed, they miss cues from other vehicles, they don’t realize that that kid standing by the side of the road might run into the road.  Simply put, they have a hard time putting together the whole picture and all sensory inputs, and figuring out the social rules of driving.  At this point, people think, “Oh, autistic people have trouble with big picture thinking, sensory inputs, and figuring out social stuff.  So they’ll do even worse.”

There’s a few problems with this logic, however.  The first problem is that research doesn’t seem to bear this out!  This article cites some research that shows 12% of teenage autistic drivers with autism have received a ticket, compared to 31% of teens in general.  It also shows autistic drivers are less likely to have wrecked – 12% of autistic drivers vs. 21% of teen drivers.  It’s not a stretch to say that the autistic teens may be twice as safe as non-autistics.  That said, I haven’t read the study itself (no academic affiliation right now), and it does sound like the study had a small sample size and may have some selection bias.  But, regardless, I couldn’t find one link from Google about an autistic driver to causing a fatal accident (I did find some very young autistics who aren’t old enough to be a license but who did cause property accidents).  I did note I found many about autistic people (typically pedestrians) being victims in accidents, however.  In fact, in addition to those with a high “functioning level” (roughly meaning being in a typical school classroom and planning on going to college), two other things stand out as being associated with whether or not an autistic person has a license as a teenager: the experience of their parents in teaching teenagers to drive (the more experience, the more likely the autistic is to drive) and the presence of driving skills in a student’s IEP.  Imagine that: if you teach a person to drive, they are more likely to become a licensed driver!

Heck, Fehr in Das automanische Heimweh: Thesen zum Autozeitalter, stated that cars essentially turn drivers into autistic people, relating to how they isolate themselves from others while driving.  So it’s okay for neurotypicals to drive, even if they  become autistic while driving (according to Fehr!), but not okay for an autistic to do something associated with neurotypicals.  Interesting indeed.

Regardless of Fehr’s statements (which I don’t agree with), I do believe that autistics are held to a different standard.  When mom or dad puts their neurotypical teen into the driver’s seat for training, they don’t expect the teen to be a good driver.  But they do expect him to be able to learn.  So when he blows through a stop sign, slams down hard on the brake, and nearly runs over the curb, it’s attributed to lack of training.  When an autistic kid does the same thing, it’s proof of lack of aptitude.  Thus, the expectation for the autistic kid – too often – is “Show that you are a ‘safe’ driver and we’ll teach you to drive.”  How can that happen without training?

Of course there are variations in abilities.  Some autistic people really will not ever be able to competently drive a car.  Of course some neurotypicals fit in this category too.  And some autistics could earn a living from driving, whether it’s a taxi, 18-wheeler, or race car.  Everyone should be evaluated individually, but the standard shouldn’t be “can they drive ‘safely’.”  It should be: With training, could this person become a competent driver?  That’s a different question entirely.

It’s different due to the definition of “safe driver.”  What’s a safe driver?  It turns out that many accidents have little to do with skill of operating vehicle controls.  What causes fatal accidents?  The NHTSA has a bunch to say, using their 2009 statistics:

  • 38% nationally involved at least one driver with a BAC > .01%.  Clearly drinking and driving is bad (32% of accidents involved at least one driver with a BAC > .08%).
  • 31% of fatal accidents involved speeding
  • 54% of fatalities were not wearing seatbelts (note that > 50% of people wear seatbelts, so non-seatbelt use is significant in fatal accidents)
  • 16% of fatal accidents involved distractions (such as cell phones or food)
  • Early morning driving is particularly deadly (2:00 AM – 2:59 AM has 3x the number of fatal accidents as 7:00 AM – 7:59 AM; note this is absolute number, not percentage compared to number of miles driven or cars on the road at those times)

Of course operator skill and ability reduces accidents as well as not driving drunk, not speeding, and avoiding distractions.  That’s why everyone driving should get good driver’s education.  But autistics may be at an edge, particularly if we follow the law.  Everything in the above list, except early morning driving, is illegal.

I’ll also throw out my experience.  I’ve been a licensed motorcyclist for the last 5 years, and got my automotive license at age 16.  I’ve driven cars, driven trucks, riden motorcycles, riden ATVs, ridden scooters, driven RVs, pulled trailers, flown planes, piloted boats since a young age.  I’ve also done some flight education (dropped that due to money, not ability as I had no problem managing tasks such as maintaining altitude, speed, fuel mixture, engine RPM, and compas direction).  My wife (also autistic) was licensed at 16 for cars and is motorcycle license.  She’s driven just about everything with two or more wheels on it since she was a young teen, including scooters, motorcycles, early automobiles, tractors, and plenty of others.  We both have driven sticks, including vehicles that required double clutching or other complex actions (such as manually advancing the timing).  Neither one of us has had a serious accident, and we’ve only got a handful of tickets (speeding!) between us.

I took to driving very quickly, as did my wife.  I’m pretty sure either of us could drive almost any vehicle out there.  Some things took me a bit to learn (loading a boat onto a trailer in 40 MPH cross-winds is difficult.  For anyone).  But I learned.  I was given the chance to learn.  (edit: I’ll also add that both of us believe driving is much easier than things like walking, as far as motor skill requirements; the car does what I want, my legs don’t always)

If you can’t drive, that’s fine, please don’t.  But I encourage people to not immediately dismiss the idea of an autistic driver.

Please, don’t be that guy!

Some of this blog deals with advocacy.  Other parts, like this one, are my observations of the autistic community.  We’re certainly not immune when it comes to human evil.

I’m writing to some autistic guys here.  “Desperate Aspie Males” or DAMs to be exact.  I don’t know why it always seems to be guys, and I haven’t noticed any DAWs, but I haven’t.  I’m sure they exist, but compared to DAMs, the DAWs are an endangered species, or at least can hide from sight easier.

What do I mean by a DAM?  The DAM is the creepy guy that goes to the autism support group, sees a woman, and immediately sees her as a sex object.  Her might be one specific woman, or it might be every woman there.  Not only does he see her as a sex object, but he makes it clear to everyone within a 2 mile radius that he sees her as a sex object.

If I was looking for a man, this way of getting a woman would definitely turn me off.  It’s not sexy, it’s not attractive, and it certainly isn’t going to end in someone having sex (unless there is a rape involved).  It’s also why so many autistic women avoid support groups and similar – it’s almost a given they’ll encounter a DAM.

Here’s some signs for guys that you might be a DAM (note I’m assuming that you, the reader, are heterosexual. If you’re gay, then substitute “man” for “woman”, as DAMs know all orientations):

  • If a girl hints that she’s not looking for a relationship, if you don’t immediately give up any deep hopes that she really is looking for a relationship with you, you might be a DAM.  Hint: she’s giving you one.  Save your dignity and quit pursuing her, even if you would have liked to have a relationship!
  • Do you tell women about how you’ve never had relationships, hoping to inspire pity and get attention from her?  You might be a DAM.  Hint: objects of pity are not seen by 99.9999% of womankind as desirable mates.  Not even autistic women.  Your mother doesn’t want to have sex with you (hopefully) – and neither will women you try to make feel like your mother!
  • Why are you talking to the woman?  Is it because you’re thinking about how you need a girlfriend or want to have sex, or is it because you genuinely enjoy spending time with her?  If you wouldn’t be happy without adding anything physical or romantic to the mix at this point, you might be a DAM.  Hint: even autistic women can pick up on whether a guy really is interested in her as a person or just her as a sex object.  So it’s really not worth the effort to lie.
  • Would you be better served by a prostitute (or your own hand), but are seeking a non-prostitute?  You might be a DAM.  Hint: most women don’t want to be your prostitute.  Having a relationship with you is not a basic exchange of “You give me X, I give you Y.”  It’s instead about truly wanting to give to the other partner.  I’m not suggesting prostitution, but I’ve seen guys that would be better off seeking that option rather than treating every new woman who shows up at a support group as a prostitute (maybe not for money, but a prostitute nonetheless).
  • Do you have expectations for a partner that differ from expectations you expect them to have for you?  For instance, do you expect the woman to be stereo-typically beautiful, while you yourself are a 300 lb man with a poorly kept beard and a very asymmetric face?  If so, you might be a DAM.  Hint: sure, beauty comes in all body shapes and types, and true beauty is on the soul.  And plenty of relationships have one partner that society judges to be more attractive than the other, sometimes a lot so.  But most of these relationships didn’t start by the less stereo-typically attractive person excluding everyone like themselves, but somehow expecting the stereo-typically beautiful women to find them attractive!  You need to be willing to be judged by the standards you are judging them.  So be careful expecting stereotypical beauty – in my experience most men who do this really should look in the mirror first and ask if they want women to do the same to them.
  • Do you initiate a bunch of unanswered communication with her?  If so, you might be a DAM.  Hint: if the woman is interested in you, she’ll let you know and she’ll remember you exist.  You don’t need to keep reminding her.  If she doesn’t…well, be patient and see who else might be in your life down the road.
  • Do you think any woman should be thrilled to have you as a mate?  If so, you might be a DAM.  You’re even more likely to be one if you’re angry about this.  Hint: no man is attractive to all – or even most – women as a serious partner (or even one-night-stand, if she’s really interested in that thing – see below).
  • Do you think most women in society want one-night-stands?  If so, you may be a DAM.  Hint: Most women don’t want one-night-stands. They want a relationship!  Really.  And they want a guy that wants a relationship.  Sure, they might want sex too!  But most women don’t want sex without being pretty sure that the man actually wants other parts of them too, and not just casually or for one night.
  • Do you tell a DAM who you see pestering women to knock it off?  If not, you’re encouraging the behavior and just as bad as the DAM.  Show you have some moral strength.

Now of course there are autistic characteristics that would make someone come off like a DAM.  We often miss social cues, for instance.  But there’s a difference between a missed social cue and using our autism as cover when questioned to give ourselves latitude that other men wouldn’t get.  If you’re chasing after a woman (metaphorically) and you find out she’s been giving you cues that she’s not interested in you, and you just say, “I’m autistic” rather than “I’m so sorry” and then cease to chase her, you’re using your autism as a cover.  That’s BS.  Don’t make the rest of us autistic guys look like a creep – knock it off.

I’ve seen autistics also try to cover their sexist attitudes with bogosity about autism – such as claiming “autism is ultramasuclinity”.  Others talk about how women and feminists have ruined their chances in life but then expect these same women to sleep with them while telling the women that they are essentially horrible for wanting things like a chance to earn a living (uh, “Women, you caused me all this suffering and ruined my life.  Want to sleep with me?”).  No, feminism didn’t ruin your life.  Neither did women.  And if you’re thinking men’s rights (essentially anti-feminism) are an important cause, expect to be lonely.  For a long time.  Women – imagine this – like to be treated like full human beings, even if they do hold to the theory that there are men’s and women’s roles in society (and don’t expect most to hold to that).

I’ve seen other autistics that try to leverage their autism into pity.  Some even seemingly regress into infanthood in a misguided attempt to bring out motherly instincts in their (they hope) sex partners.  But as I mentioned above, mom doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship with her kid, and this is just plain creepy behavior.  Others are trying for some sort of “pity sex.”  There’s not much pity sex out there, DAMs!  Sure, pity might get attention, but – and this is important DAMs – attention is not attraction.  Just because a woman is paying attention to you doesn’t mean she’s interested in you romantically.

Sure, there are always exceptions.  There are women who willingly submit to sexist pigs in relationships.  Some women probably do want casual, one-night-stands and would detest a deep relationship.  The nice guy sometimes is single.  No doubt some women would love a 30 year old baby.  But these are exceptions, and if you choose to play the exceptions, please do it in a way that doesn’t pester, annoy, and harras women that aren’t one of these exceptions.  And don’t expect to find a lot of interest if you try going after the exceptions.

Do you want a relationship?  I’ll suggest a few things that do work:

  • Stop looking for a relationship.  Seriously, stop looking.  When you stop looking at women as sex objects or relationship targets, you’ll find more women around you are interested in you.
  • Become interesting.  Find a hobby, ideally something you can share with others. It can be a solo hobby, but it helps if it’s a hobby that you can do with someone as well.
  • Enjoy life.  Misery doesn’t love company, at least not romantically!  If you can’t be happy without a partner, how does a partner know you can be happy with them?  Happiness can be shared – someone who loves you will get happiness from seeing you happy.  If you’re looking for love, some enjoyment in life will help people who have an attraction get something from you that makes them feel good too.  People like to feel good!
  • Take care of your own needs.  Don’t make a potential partner take care of you.  Sure, part of a relationship is helping each other – and that flows very naturally.  But when someone is just getting to know you, they probably don’t want to be your caregiver, shrink, transportation, etc.  This isn’t about being non-disabled or having needs, even needs that can be met by a partner!
  • Leave some mystery.  It’s actually attractive to get to know someone, but not as attractive to have these details dumped in your lap!  Share a bit, but then wait for her to share a bit before you share tons more.  Email her, but wait for her to email back once in a while before sending another email!  If she’s taking a day or two to email back, you probably should generally too.  You don’t have to rush things.
  • Be patient.  It might take you years, even decades to find a partner.  If you find someone you can have a relationship with, it’s worth the wait.  My wife and I waited quite a bit longer than most people wait – it was worth the wait and I’d do it again knowing what I know now.  But see above – it’s easier to be patient if you enjoy life.

There’s no formula to finding a partner.  The people I know who have found someone all found them at a time they weren’t looking, and even a bit by surprise.   Most of us didn’t find someone in our early 20s or late teens – autistic people take longer on this, often.  That’s how it works.  Frustrating, true.  But I don’t know any guy who found it being a DAM.

Yes, You Might be an Ass!

Donkey looking over a split-rail type of fece at the camera, with a smaller donkey in the backgorund

Donkey by bagsgrove (flickr) – Licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

Autistics are not like NTs (neurotypicals) in the social arena.  We may not pick up on emotions the same way as others.  We may not be motivated by feelings of belonging in the same way as NTs, and may be more likely to go against the crowd (for good or bad).  Our emotional expressions may be misunderstood by neurotypicals.  We may communicate differently or less frequently about our feelings and thoughts.

Some of these things can lead us to being considered rude, jerks, or, yes, even asses.  For instance:

  • YOU SEE: You are someone who doesn’t care that I’m upset
  • I SEE: I didn’t realize you were upset.  I wish I did.
  • YOU SEE: Why do you have to make a big deal out of this?  Can’t you just get along?
  • I SEE: I’m not supposed to express my opinions and thoughts here?
  • YOU SEE: You’re not upset that this happened to me?
  • I SEE: I am upset!  I’ve been trying to tell you!

There’s a lot of these NT/Autistic misunderstandings in any relationship.  Heck, these same types of misunderstandings can take place among pairs of autistics or pairs of NTs – autistics don’t have a monopoly on being misunderstood or misunderstanding others!

While these types of misunderstandings exist, and they might even be more frequent when NTs and autistics mix, that doesn’t mean that every argument between an NT and an autistic is rooted in the differing neurologies.  Sometimes an autistic person is an asshole.  Sometimes they don’t care about another person.  Sometimes they are mean.  Sometimes they are selfish.  These things aren’t autism, nor are they unique to autistics (how many Fortune 500 CEOs truly care one bit about the janitor?  Maybe a few, but certainly not all).

There is a theory that “autistics are morally superior.”  This sometimes gets brought up (typically around Autistic Pride Day) to show we’re better than NTs or some such nonsense.  But usually this theory is presented in a bit more subtle way: how dare you accuse me of being a bad person, when I’m autistic!  Uh, no.  You might actually be a bad person.  You might not be.  I don’t know.  But I do know all of us are capable of evil deeds (both autistic people and generally “good” people are).

Maybe a person is being perceived as an ass because of his expression of autism – but he isn’t actually an ass.

But it’s also possible that the person perceived as an ass, even if he’s also autistic, really is an ass.  We can have the same sorts of human evil and immorality as everyone else.

So…don’t be a donkey.

What Makes a Good Communication System…Part 4

Previously, I mentioned the need for a way to say no, the need to be able to report abuse, and the need to be able to be inappropriate.  For this post, which I think will be the final post in this series, I want to talk about the value of babble.

A close-up of a magnifying glass with a blury background that may be a desk

Magnifying Glass by Auntie P (Flickr), Licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Since I wrote JTalk years ago, I’ve talked to many users and parents about how my text-to-speech software was and is used.  Very few people use it as I thought they would.  Instead, I’ve heard some neat stories about how the software is making people’s lives better in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.  One of the more common usage is to connect meaning, sound, and writing.

It’s a conceptual leap to realize that symbols can have meaning, whether those symbols are letters on a piece of paper or sounds made by someone’s vocal cords.  Once that leap is made, however, people typically want to explore the symbols, their relationships, how to write them, and how to say them.

With the users of JTalk, there were three things I heard multiple people doing:

  • Typing repetitive “gibberish” and having the computer speak it
  • Typing something to communicate, listening to the computer speak it, then repeating the words vocally
  • Typing words to hear and then “practicing” alone, having the computer speak the word and then speaking it vocally

The first of these, typing repetitive “gibberish” and then having the computer speak it, consisted of something like typing long strings of a single letter (“TTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT….”) and then hitting speak.  Or it might consist of a repetitive sound, like “Wowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowo…”  In effect, these might be seen as stims (they are repetitive, and that can be calming or grounding).  But I think more may be at play here, at least some of the time.  Just as a neurotypical starts with vocal language by babbling and making nonsense sounds, some autistic people may do the same when they come to language late.  Further, this type of sound play is linking a symbol to a sound (“what does ‘wo’ sound like?”).  In effect, it’s teaching a person that these sounds can be strung together in ways that produce desired output – something people who speak do every day.

Of course I won’t ignore or dismiss the value of it just from a stim standpoint!  But it is more than that for some people.  Unfortunately, this type of sound play can also be annoying or distracting to others.  Certainly there are times and places where it is inappropriate, but it’s important to ensure that there is a time and place where it is appropriate!  There’s real learning and language development here for some people (and for others, it’s just plain calming to have control and assurance of what comes next).

Other people might type something and then hit speak, listening carefully to what is said.  Then, they can repeat the words using their own voice.  I don’t do this so I don’t know for sure what people’s motivations are, but it seems as if it gives people confidence and a reference point to anchor their own speech.  They can hear the words and know what they sound like (they may already, but this will give extra confidence).  Regardless of the reason people do it, this seems to give people the confidence they need to initiate and respond to others verbally, when they would have remained silent otherwise.  So despite the apparent repetitive nature of this, it’s a good thing!

Yet others practice words in private.  In effect, it’s a way of people learning literacy, albeit backwards from how most neurotypicals learn it.  Most neurotypicals learn audible language first, then written language.  So they may need occasional help to connect the symbols on paper to sounds they already know.  Some autistic people do better in writing, so they may have a much larger written than spoken vocabulary (I’m one of these people).  They may know a many words that they can read and write, but can’t speak.  What better way than to have a non-judgemental and infinitely-patient device pronounce the word, as often as you need it, as repetitively as you need it, to get a handle on the word?

I suppose these things have less to do with the construction of a communication system than the uses that a system has.  But they are vital – it’s important a person with any communication system (including the standard vocal system!) gets a chance to play with sound and symbols, to develop the connections and confidence they need to communicate.  It’s also interesting that these types of activities are sometimes complained about by parents – particularly strings of “nonsense” sounds being emitted from a device.  It seems some people expect someone to take a new means of communicating and instantly speak deep thoughts eloquently to everyone.  Few people do that!  Most of us need to learn to use our communication tools, which involves a lot of just plain tinkering with voice, symbols, sounds, etc.

These activites fascinate me in another way, too.  I wrote JTalk for people who wouldn’t speak in some situations – yet I see people using JTalk (and other devices/software) so that they can speak more!  A common concern parents and others have when a person uses some speech is given alternatives to speech is that allowing someone to type (or gesture, symbol, write, etc) when they can talk will remove incentive for speaking from the person.  Quite the opposite seems to be the case – in many cases it seems having the speech device or system encourages people to speak more!  Trust me, as a part-time speaker, I’ll speak when I can speak and communicate my thoughts clearly.  Why wouldn’t I?  Unless it’s painful or difficult at the time (which means I probably wouldn’t communicate at all without alternatives), or completely inaccessible, speech is just plain easier and quicker.  It’s naturally self-reinforcing.  I don’t need communication alternatives removed to grasp this!  And, for me, having alternatives handy means I’m more willing to stretch myself and speak more – since I do have something to fall back onto for an emergency.  I don’t need to preserve speech energy for emergencies that rarely occur!

All this said, there’s a lot to designing communication systems, and a lot to understanding how they are used.  I’m not an expert on this, although I have a lot of experience personally with my communication needs.  I encourage people to learn more, both from users of speech alternatives, from family of users, and from clinicians.  There’s a lot more to this than just my opinions.