Socializing through silence

I wish you wouldn’t interpret my silence as silence.

My silence is, in fact, a compliment. It means that I am being my natural self. It means that I am comfortable around you, that I trust you enough to engage my way of knowing, my way of speaking and interacting.

When I dilute my silences with words — your words, the out-of-the-mouth and off-the-cuff kind — I often do so out of fear. Fear that my rhetorical commonplaces — the commonplaces that lie on my hands, sprint in my eyes, or sit nestled in empty sounds — will bring you shame. Fear that my ways of communicating will be branded as pathology, as aberrant, as not being communication at all. Fear that I will lose my job. Fear that I will lose your friendship, guidance, or interest in me. Fear that I’ll be institutionalized. Fear that I will be infantilized. Fear that I’ll be seen as less than human.

This isn’t to say that my use of your language is always a product of fear. There are times when I genuinely want to use it, understand it, and learn about and from it. I understand that speaking is how you prefer to communicate. I understand that speaking is how you best learn and interact. I understand that you take great joy in speaking and listening to others speak. And I do, I really do want to share in that joy.

But the burden can’t always rest on me. I have a language too, one that I take joy in, one that I want to share. And when you deny me that — when you identify my silence as a personality flaw, a detriment, a symptom, a form of selfishness, a matter in need of behavioral therapy or “scripting” lessons — when you do these things, you hurt me. You hurt me deeply. You deny me that which I need in order to find my way through this confusing, oppressive, neurotypical world.

My silence isn’t your silence. My silence is rich and meaningful. My silence is reflection, meditation, and processing. My silence is trust and comfort. My silence is a sensory carnival. My silence is brimming with the things and people around me — and only in that silence can I really know them, appreciate them, “speak” to them, and learn from them.

Speaking is an unnatural process for me. When socializing through speech, I will almost always be awkward, and I am OK with that awkwardness. In fact, I am learning to embrace that awkwardness, learning to reclaim and redefine that awkwardness. I am sorry you’re not OK with that, sorry that you feel I need to practice, or take anti-psychotics, or frequent the university hospital’s psych ward. I’m sorry that you won’t appreciate me for who I am and how I operate in the world. I’m sorry that I can no longer consider you an ally, confidante, or friend.

A photo of me holding a sign that reads LISTEN TO ME, I HAVE AUTISM.
I’m not a checkbox in some symptom cluster. I’m a freaking human being.

13 thoughts on “Socializing through silence”

  1. It’s funny because I always have to fill in the silence with something even if it’s my “eeeeeee!” noise. I think I would do better if I just shut my trap up sometimes.

  2. Hey, I wasn’t sure whether you intended to make this an ASDay post, or if you intended to make a post for ASDay at all, but let me know if you’d like me to include it.


  3. A great post, well spoken, err, written. How ironic that there should be an Autistics Speaking Day, when many of us prefer to not speak. How about Autistics Silence Day?

  4. Just found my way over here from The Awl, and so this is more of a cumulative comment resulting from a jaunt through your archive — but I just wanted to say how wonderfully true and welcome and necessary this post, along with so many others here, feels to me. This is how I experience silence as well, and it’s been a source of endless frustration among people who will always read silence as a lack to be overcome. I’m not autistic, but have a number of traits that are frequently popularly marked as being on the autism spectrum (bad job maintaining eye contact/varying my inflection when I speak/handling social responsibilities/seeming “warm” enough), and your eloquence is such wonderful advocacy for the kind of world — and a kind of feminism, since I’ve uncomfortably sat through more than one conversation among fellow lesbian feminists about (unfeminine) people who don’t “share their emotions” enough — that doesn’t read these ways of being as pathological. All this to say, thanks for everything you’re doing here (and the documentation of so many appalling forms of “advocacy” “on behalf of” autistic folks, which I wasn’t fully aware of), and I’m eager to keep reading.

  5. “She missed the silence. What there was now wasn’t the same kind of silence there had been before. Granny’s silence was warm, and brought you inside. Granny Aching might sometimes have had trouble remembering the difference between children and lambs, but in her silence you were welcome and belonged. All you had to bring was a silence of your own.”

    I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, over and over, for two weeks now. That’s from chapter seven.

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