We don’t need no conversation

A reader recently sent me a really great idea for a blog post regarding forming connections without conversation. I have so many thoughts about this that I’m not sure how to join together into a single blog post, but I’m going to do my best.

Much of this comes from the fact that allistic people really do seem to rely so heavily on conversation as a means to connect to people. It’s often simply a default assumption that we will all find conversation as easy as they do and that highly interactive social connection is simply the best way to socialize and spend time with other people.

So first of all, let’s talk about conversation. It isn’t nearly as simple as just knowing words, knowing how to speak, or being able to make sentences. Oh no, it really isn’t. I mean, I know lots of people seem to think that conversation just naturally follows being able to speak, and we put all sorts of effort into teaching children how to talk and just assume they’ll figure out conversing on their own. So let’s just look a bit at that, shall we?

Conversation involves lots (and lots and lots) of real-time processing. Processing the words people say, trying to figure out if anything may have been behind the words and if so, what that was, processing tone and facial expression and posture and body language and everything else that goes with conversations. While conversing I honestly find it rather unpleasant that we are expected to do all of that, just given how hard it can be for me to process visual information and auditory information at the same time. Even purely text-based conversations, when done in real-time, can be challenging with all the rapid processing that is necessary. Now, I personally do enjoy conversing, don’t get me wrong, but I do think that there needs to be more general knowledge out there about just how tricky conversations can be.

While I find conversations sometimes tricky and can only do them within certain limitations, other people find them nearly or entirely impossible. However, difficulty in conversation does not mean that we have no need for human connection. I sometimes see people claim that autistic people do not need or desire human connection, or that said desire is what separates autism from Aspergers and honestly, I increasingly find that a load of twaddle. The more I read books from the perspective of autistic people, the more I read blogs like A Diary of a Mom, the more I believe that yes, autistic people totally want connection too. I know I certainly do. However, we find it difficult. Allistic people want us to interact they way they interact, to look the way they look, to be the way they are, and that’s a very difficult and unreasonable thing to ask of us. So many people just don’t see the need to find a shared language to allow for connection, and when they think in terms of assisting us, it’s just ways to try to make us like them rather than trying to meet in the middle. This is bothersome to me, in so many ways.

BUT, this post is supposed to be about connecting to others without needing to rely on conversation. As a brief note staying within the realm of conversation for a bit – even just allowing for more time to process (potentially LOTS of time to process for some of us) in silence is huge. Don’t try to fill up space with words, don’t bombard us with more and more words if we aren’t answering right away. Don’t try to force us to do everything as rapidly as you do. Allow for time to process what you said, time to think about our response, time to translate that into words that we hope will make sense to you, and time to get those words out our mouths. That might take a while. It might not feel like a conversation anymore. That’s ok – it’s communicating and connecting. Importantly, it’s connecting with who we are rather than who you want us to be, and that is incredibly important.

Imagine if I tried to force my way of conversing onto everyone who talked to me. You may not look at me when you speak to me. You must outright say what you would otherwise rely on body language to convey. You must wait for a very long period of time before you answer a question or reply to me. No one would take that well! Yet the inverse is demanded from us All. The. Time.

Anyway. I really must get back to the topic at hand here. One of my favorite ways to connect to people is something I’ve talked about before – Parallel Play. Allistic people often demand, or at least prefer, conversation happen with it, but that is actually not at all necessary. There is also the related associative play – where we are doing similar things and interacting in some way, such as sharing materials. I find that allistic people seem to rank interactions as better or worse depending on how much it forces us to closely interact with the people we are with. Cooperative play is seen as “better” than associative play, which is better than parallel play, which is better than solitary play. Only maybe these are simply different, rather than better or worse. Maybe they are all entirely valid, and maybe a parallel play connection is actually just as real as a cooperative play connection. (hint: I don’t actually mean “maybe” in the previous sentence. They really are just as real and valid as each other)

Possum, the individual who originally proposed this topic, also posted a comment to my Parallel Play post describing just such a non-conversational connection she experienced once. With her permission, I am sharing it here:

One of the high points of my life socially was casually dropping by an acquaintance’s porch one summer longer ago than I’m going to admit to. She was in the middle of some woodworking project. As a woman with NVLD as well as Aspergers (both undiagnosed at the time), I couldn’t help a lot. We just “be”ed there together in companionable silence, me handing her the tools she needed. I considered that moment in time magic and was never able to replicate it, but the way you just articulated it and normalized it gives me what I need to create more of that in my life (in conjunction with an awesome therapist).

All things considered, I actually suspect this was a form of cooperative play (yes, I am using the word “play” here very broadly), just given the cooperative nature of what they were doing. Yet it was done in “companionable silence” (what a fantastic phrase that is!); it was interaction and connection done without needing to fill the space between each other with words and sounds that, for some of us, can actually just create more distance. See, when I talk about “filling space with words,” that’s actually what it feels like for me. Like words take up space and if you put a whole lot of them out there in a short period of time, they push on me, and they can actually push me away from you because there are just so many. Instead of connecting us, they’re just this cloud of bugs, separating us.

Autistic people need meaningful connection as well. It’s just that we can’t always do it on allistic terms, and all too often I see autistic people speak of simply giving up due to the extreme difficulty of connecting in a world that is all too hostile to autism. So, allistic people, please respect silent connection, and please allow us that as well. We work so hard to interact with you on your terms; maybe you could interact with us on our terms as well. Let’s find ways to create connections based on companionable silences; on long, thoughtful pauses; on closeness that does not need constant verbal validation.

That would be awesome.


Filed under issue, opinion

4 responses to “We don’t need no conversation

  1. When all the others were away at Mass
    I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
    They broke the silence, let fall one by one
    Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
    Cold comforts set between us, things to share
    Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
    And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
    From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

    – from Seamus Heaney, “Clearances (III)”

    That poem is what comes to my mind when I think of companionable silence.

  2. PK

    Thank you for this.

  3. Yes! I really like your point that just because we can do speech, it doesn’t follow that we can do conversations. It’s like showing someone how to press down the piano keys, then leaving them some sheet music and telling them to get on with it.

  4. Possum

    You took my idea and made such a thoughtful, articulate post! As your posts usually are. All I can say is to echo another commenter: Thank you for this.