During the days following my first autism assessment, the one that went terribly wrong and during which I was declared “too articulate” to be autistic, I did quite a bit of googling of various things in an attempt to establish whether I really was simply going crazy. I found something posted on a forum somewhere, I can’t remember where, about autism and speech. The person who’d written it described how their speech varied and assigned different speech capabilities “levels” from 1-4. Much of what they’d written aligned with my own experience, and it helped me to understand my speech capabilities and how they work.
I have since thought about this quite a lot and have eventually come to the conclusion that I have 5 main levels of speech. I have very little control over which level I’m actually at, and if I try to force speech when it isn’t there it can make me feel really very unwell – these days, now I know what’s going on, I force it less and less, just accepting that my speech isn’t always as it might be expected to be – it’s no big deal, and just allowing it to be as it is (or, indeed, isn’t) is actually starting to allow my health to improve somewhat, even though it makes things a bit more awkward socially.
Interestingly, my husband has always said that when I’m ill or tired or really low and depressed my speech becomes monotone, so I evidently have noticeable speech difference even just in tone of voice at these times, especially once I’m home in a safe environment and not deliberately trying to inflect my voice in the way that I know I should from years of conscious learning. The assessor who diagnosed me as autistic also picked up on the fact that I don’t have the sort of variability in vocal modulation that might be expected – and my range of vocal expressiveness is much more formulaic and limited than most people’s. I, of course, had never noticed this, since my normal has always been my normal!
So, what are my five levels of speech?
Fluent easy speech. As far as I know, this level of speech would appear totally typical from the outside and nobody would guess I had any speech issues at all (except, maybe, that I might appear exceedingly confident and dominate the conversation). It feels natural and not difficult and doesn’t use much energy. It might, I suspect, occasionally be a bit too fast, loud, or intense (this, I have been told by others, and I have always linked to the hypomanic phases of bipolar disorder in the past), and it’s more the sort of speech that I use when recounting a story, giving a lecture, or telling someone about something that’s already formed in my head or about which I am knowledgeable and confident. It hardly ever happens if there is interaction with anyone else, and it can be disrupted very easily if anyone stops me, interrupts me, or asks me a question. But the words flow just fine and it doesn’t feel difficult or use a lot of conscious energy.
Fluent difficult speech. To the outside observer, I expect this level of speech appears exactly the same as does that of level 1, and, again, nobody would guess I had any issues at all. However, once interaction with someone else happens and I have to listen and interpret as well as talk, or I’m forced to start improvising and talking about something I hadn’t prepared for, from the inside it feels like much much harder work. Being able to continue to sound fluent and remembering to inflect my voice and use the right sort of language and so on is extremely tiring. Once I start to tire I’ll often get quieter and contribute to the conversation less. This is the sort of conversation that feels very different from the inside, but gives very little away to the outside observer. It’s probably formed the majority of my interactions with other humans over my lifetime, and although it serves me well socially and gives me quite good abilities in many ways it often makes me feel dizzy and sick, and if combined with sensory overload can often lead to meltdown if I try to maintain it for too long. It can leave me utterly exhausted, and the effort of producing it often means I need a full day to recover from the exertion of a fairly ordinary social occasion.
Idiosyncratic speech. This is still good enough that I can communicate effectively, but, moving from level 2 there would be a number of slight oddities that could be noticed from outside. My word order sometimes gets mixed up (I can hear it as it emerges), and I start to substitute words for more readily accessible ones – I might, for example, be unable to think of the term “extremely bad” and say “very very very not good” instead, simplifying vocabulary. I’ll also simplify my tense structure somewhat. I’ve spoken like this within my own home and to close friends for years, but have usually tried to maintain level 2 out in public. At this level I also often leave out words such as “please” and “thank you”, because I am using speech purely for communication and someone like my husband knows that they are meant and I don’t need to use the extra energy to say them. My best friend informs me that he has heard many examples of this sort of speech over the last couple of decades. It has always simply been taken to be me being a bit eccentric or quirky, or even as some sort of humour. It is easier than maintaining level 2 though, and once I get to a certain stage in any sort of public conversation I will, again, simply be quiet.
Fragmented speech. At this point it’s fairly certain I’ll eventually lose speech completely, but I CAN still talk, albeit in a way that is unmistakably atypical. I can use single syllable words, or sometimes ones with two syllables (but slowly). I will usually give up worrying about tenses, and there will be no noticeable sentences. It is the most basic spoken communication, but it’s sufficient for me to say, for example “drink” to someone and to get a drink. It is, however, really really effortful. Each syllable has to be deliberately constructed, consciously and with great care, as if learning a brand new foreign language. It feels like there is some sort of faulty connection in my head, and that connection is failing. If I need to communicate anything other than the most basic information at this point I will be typing on my phone and the person with whom I’m communicating will need to read what I’ve typed to really understand what I’m trying to tell them.
No speech. This is when the words are gone. Just gone. If I open my mouth and try to make words, I cannot. It’s not a choice. It’s not even, like in levels 2 and 3 above, a strategy to maintain my energy levels. I can still make sounds. I can still hum tunes (wordlessly). But I cannot produce speech. It’s as though the connection between my brain and my mouth has been unplugged. I can usually still type perfectly coherent language (there is a disintegration of typing language sometimes, but it is much rarer) and all my communication will be by facebook message or typing into my phone or some similar method. However, even when I cannot speak at all and am totally mute, I can usually understand what is going on around me just as well as I can when my speech is at level 1. There is no loss of thoughts in my brain, no issue with being able to formulate arguments or learn or think or anything else. The thoughts are all there – I just cannot articulate them via my mouth. “No speech” is very much not the same thing as “no thoughts” and unless I am so deeply shutdown or in the midst of a meltdown or other crisis, I will be absolutely aware of what is going on around me – just not able to respond with speech.
So my speech varies between “articulate” and “nonverbal”. It’s not as simple as an either/or, but is a sliding scale, and I move between the levels fairly often, depending upon my level of tiredness, my mood, my circumstances, who I’m talking to, and what the sensory environment is. Most of this movement is beyond my control – if my words start to fragment and depart there is nothing I can do about it. I have, in the past, maintained level 2 rather heavily as part of my mask – the price for doing so is quite sizeable and leads to situations such as that described in Sudden Illness. It also results in the immense exhaustion I’ve felt over the years, and I’ve found that just allowing myself not to worry about speech and to let it ebb and flow as it naturally does has already helped my health and energy levels enormously. There is a sense of inner peace I get once the words completely go, a sense of calm, recharging, and stopping fighting.
In the past I didn’t know why, but I knew that once the socialising had finished, once I stopped trying to talk to people, once I went home from the restaurant after an evening sitting outside on the pavement, shaking and feeling terribly ill, once everyone else had gone home and it was just me, I breathed a sigh of relief and started to feel better. I always got a certain feeling, one that I’m still struggling to describe, but I can identify very easily, once I was alone and starting to feel better. It’s only recently, as I’ve been seriously experimenting with trying to speak, that I realise that is the feeling of speech being gone. Maybe one day I’ll be able to describe it a little better.
As I said in the previous post, this is still something I’m trying to analyse and to figure out. I’m still working on how I communicate to the rest of the world that speech is often either very hard work and requires intense concentration or is not possible at all. The amount of time I spend at each of the five levels I’ve outlined above is still fluctuating as I continue to adapt to my changed life and as I continue to recover, slowly, from the burnout that was already starting around a year ago. This is very much an ongoing process for me.