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Everything I Wish I Knew About Communication

I was in a service station with my mum the other day, watching an altercation play out

between a McDonald’s worker and a man whose first language was not English. The lady behind the till was misunderstanding the man and the man was becoming increasingly frustrated with not being able to convey his meaning. As well as that, emotion was clouding his actions, making the conversation muddier and the man’s explanations less coherent. In turn, the patient McDonald’s worker was losing her ability to be calm with the way she spoke to the man, understandably so. People were tutting as the man became irate and agitated. I could understand why each person in this situation was upset, was acutely aware of the breakdown in communication happening under the bright lights and the yellow M. No one person was in the wrong, rather there was meaning lost in translation somewhere amongst the mini ketchup packets and scattered salt granules on the counter in between them.


‘I feel for the man,’ I said to mum, and she nodded.


I suddenly felt able to articulate what I felt like every day when attempting to communicate with people. It’s like I am speaking a different language and there is a greasy counter between me and the person I’m talking to. There is that constant beeping and the roar of ovens and burgers spitting fat and chips sizzling in burning hot oil. Conversation flies around me in incoherent snippets. From the workers behind the counter to the rest of the hungry drivers who have stopped for a quick roadside lunch. And there’s always a baby crying somewhere.


Except all those sounds are being vacuumed straight into my brain like bingo balls in a cage, clattering and rattling, conversations bouncing off each other and swirling in a disjointed mess. All the while I’m speaking a different language, losing the ability to talk in my own language, and unable to explain the distress I’m feeling or why.


Someone once told me I was like an alien. He couldn’t understand me. I felt like one. Still do. However much I may feel like an alien, my skin isn’t green, and my face is round like yours, not triangular and sharp. This human skin doesn’t fit me though, it’s too tight, and my limbs don’t stretch and yield to the shape of it. It’s itchy and everything hugs the wrong parts of my body, clinging to bits it shouldn’t. When people see me, they think I’m just like them and they talk to me like I’m just like them, and then I can’t hear. My brain goes white static. It’s blinding and deafening, drowning out the meaning of words I know.


I’m not going to fill this post with statistics about communication being difficult for people on the spectrum, because it is one of the more obvious symptoms. In fact, it’s the first item on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. ‘Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts’.

Wherever someone sits on the spectrum, communication is a problem. Whether that be a physical inability to speak, selective mutism, an inability to read social cues or facial expressions, confusion with body language, or being generally incapable of interpreting the meaning behind words. One of the most difficult things I find is that I look like I should be able to communicate. I have no obvious disability. It’s the reason I can’t work in ‘normal’ work settings. It’s the reason my parents come with me to doctor’s appointments and help me with phone calls. It’s why I live with my parents and only socialise when there is no other option.


I can’t believe I tried to do all that for thirty years without the support I needed. No wonder my life was catastrophe to crisis to car crash. As time goes by and I learn, I am grateful for the support I have that enables me to only have to directly communicate with people who understand my needs.


Thanks Mum and Dad!

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