Being Honest about Non-Verbal Communication Problems
with Special Attention Paid to Time Management

Roger N. Meyer
Copyright 2004
All Rights Reserved

The four-section article found below contains an explanation for special terms found in Stephen Nowicki and Marshall Duke's 2002 book entitled "Will I Ever Fit In?"

Full credit is due Nowicki and Duke for their term dyssemia, a neologism developed to described the phenomenon of human incapacity to perceive and express non-verbal language in the form of cues and signals, postures, gestures, unwritten social and communication rules and conventions.  The authors also emphasize the role that time and timing play in furthering effective communication. With permission of the authors, this author, founder of one of only a handful of peer-facilitated adult AS support groups, has begun to reformat, for group work and individual skill-building exercises, a number of self-assessment tools that authors Nowicki and Duke present in their book.  Their book, as well as the materials of Michelle Garcia Winner MA/ SLP, concepts developed by Stephen Gutstein, Ph. D. and other authors knowledgeable about the semantic/pragmatic language challenges of persons diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome are being used by AS adult peer facilitators in a small group setting with members of the Portland Asperger Syndrome Adult Support Group.  No clinical or "expert"professionals are involved in this first-ever, long-term support group experiment fully embracing the concept of Each One Teach One.  What is happening in Portland, Oregon is anything but an exercise in The Blind leading the Blind.  As indicated elsewhere in articles and writings on this web site, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is precisely that, a spectrum or continuum condition.  Because we live a life peppered with daily spicy reminders of our communication deficits, we are ever more mindful of our shortcomings.  As a consequence, we are more highly motivated to address them in ourselves and others in our Portland AS Support Group more vigorously and consistently than would be efforts expended by paid, professional, non-spectrum-sitting experts in communication. 

By definition, individuals diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome/HFA are all considered to be dyssemic.

The notes below have been expanded to take into consideration a wider adult readership than just those individuals in the Portland Asperger Adult Support Group working on our individual communication challenges in small groups and individual coaching sessions between monthly meetings of the support group.  These notes expand upon the meaning of special terms used in the Nowicki and Duke book.  They are found in the ten-section Dyssemia Rating Scale found at pages 148 through 151 of the book and are fully explained elsewhere in the book.  The scale itself was slightly modified so that it could be used as one type of dyssemia self-assessment by each group member as well as being scored by each individual group member's chosen "coach."  By themselves, these notes, written by the author whose name appears under the title of this article may be of interest to all dyssemic adults interested in improving their verbal and non-verbal communication skills. 

Paralanguage refers -- in part --  to the way speech is delivered and perceived by others.  Many individuals are not aware of how they sound, or if they are, they are embarrassed by what they hear.  They don't often know why.  They generally express sentiments like, "I don't sound like that, do I?"  The way folks with few communication problems sound may not be an issue for others.  It is for individuals with AS.  Because individuals with Asperger Syndrome are both sound sensitive as well as sound blind -- and yes, AS individuals have problems with both kinds of sensitivity -- their social interactions are often impaired for reasons they don't understand.  Lack of certain kinds of awareness of auditory phenomena, as well as hypersensitivity to certain auditory phenomena, are characteristics shared by many autistic folks.  This is different than mere "selective hearing" or "selective deafness."  Things such a prosody, or the natural lilt or flow of one's speech, may be difficult concepts for AS individuals to understand.  However, with practice listening to the live conversational voice of others and by private session practice listening to their own voices with objective feedback from recent audio recordings, AS individuals can learn formally what non-autistic persons have learned through intuition as toddler and childhood mimics of adult speech.
Speaking in a monotone is something we understand, although our "understanding" may be only intellectual.  Learning how to change our monotone to more appropriately inflected speech is difficult but not impossible.  Speaking either too loudly or too softly for the occasion is also something we understand intellectually, but without accurate feedback and showing willingness to practice  monitoring our own voice levels, we remain clueless.  Our most authentic feedback comes from objective source such as a recordings of our own voice and comparing its level, using a dB meter or other kind of volumetric display to the voice level of others, especially our coaches.  Most people have heard of bio-feedback. Observing the metered level of our own  volume of speech is helpful feedback because we can now "hear" with our eyes what we can't easily hear with our own ears when speaking with others.  Hearing with one's eyes is not a contradiction or a mistaken choice of words.  Speech-language pathologists working with autistic children help them understand the pragmatics of speech -- not just the dictionary meaning of words.  They use knowledge we now have regarding the value of using more than just our ears to understand spoken communication.  They know that blind individuals who are not hearing impaired have certain blindisms related to accurately understanding others because of the tremendous value vision adds to the emotional significance of verbal expression.  Many of us are hearing-process-impaired by features of defective hearing similar to the cognitive mechanism which produces blindism in visually-impaired persons.  There are appropriate levels of loudness for each situation, for each type of conversation, for each emotional state, and for each physical setting.  Rules regarding one's appropriate voice level can be learned.  Learning to match those levels using accurate and objective feedback, is much easier than having no feedback or only the verbal reports of others to guide us.  Their reports may be accurate, but hard to for us to grasp.  The reason for this is obvious:  Many Asperger Syndrome individuals do not trust what we hear with our own ears.  Why should we believe others?
We should, because trust, of all human values, is the basis upon which all relationships are built.
Tone of voice is subtle, but very important.  If one doesn't realize how one comes across to others, it is often a result of not understanding the effect of one's tone of voice, or how it does not match one's own emotional state at the time.  It is no surprise that many of us have trouble with anger, or "the angry voice."  Because we have trouble accurately identifying emotions -- our own or others' -- we often have similar problems relating to our rate of speech.  There are times when speaking quickly sends the wrong message.  Using something as simple as a metronome or rhythmic hand movements can often slow too rapid a speaker's rate down to a level that is more intelligible or acceptable.  On the other hand, using only these tools to learn to speak slowly could lead to non-inflected, monotonous speech.  Even if understandable, inappropriately slow speech is also socially unacceptable to others who do not understand our problems with modulating our rate of speech for related reasons.  Lack of social acceptance doesn't only come from non-spectrum persons.  It also comes from those of us with more normal rates of speech.  One effective method of learning how to modulate our speech rates is by learning to listen with our whole body and its other senses, not just our ears.  By doing this we learn to deliberately turn off our head-noise through the use of non-intellectual forms of observation.  As adults, many of us have unused, basic listening tools.  Before now, we've never been formally taught how to put them to use.  It may be harder to find these tools the older we get, but some of them are still there, and with enough cajoling, they can be our friends in ways we've never previously imagined possible.
Many AS adults who aren't around others a lot may develop or continue a style of speaking that is child-like.  Something we did as children that may have charmed adults is inappropriate when, as adults, we use that same type of language, inflection, and body behavior with other adults.  However, other adults aren't the only ones affected.  Children are just as often surprised and offended when adults use child-like language in their presence when they otherwise have every reason to be spoken to respectfully and expect adult-like language to be uttered by the adult.  Putting matters very simply:  some of us don't realize what kind of impact our voice and the way we talk has on others.  We may know that we speak differently, but now we can learn why people react the way they do to what we say and how we say it.

Other AS adult paralanguage issues involve word choice and choice of appropriate phrases.  While some of these issues slide into a question of literacy as opposed to mere choice, all adults are expected by others to word-find appropriately.  The slower-than-normal rate at which high functioning autistic adults word or phrase-find is often responsible for our reticence (reluctance to speak much if at all).  On the other hand, many of us have no trouble finding words.  For the chatterers among us, it's our sheer wordiness that distresses others.  We must learn to listen to what yacking on and on does to others, to "read" the effect our avalanche of words has on them and learn to moderate how much we speak if we wish to earn their respect, acceptance and understanding.  
"Resting Face"
Nowicki and Duke devote several pages describing the effect of having an off-putting resting face.  Many of us are not aware of what our face looks like, and what that look means to others.  Even when we are in the same room, but not in conversation with others, our facial language gives off powerful signals to them.  Furthermore, even when we are not with people, many of us are even less conscious of what our face looks like and how it may appear if suddenly someone were to come into the room or be able to observe us.  Just "thinking" that we are approachable may not at all match what our face is actually telling others.  A negative resting face has a profound effect on our approachability as others determine whether even acknowledging us or moving toward us is safe or worthwhile.  Video playback and mirrors are objective, non-argumentative reflectors of just how we do appear to others.  We have the tools to capture how we look, and play our "look"  back in real and delayed time.  We intend to use them.
Some of the first set of face-awareness exercises Nowicki and Duke propose for persons who have problems with their resting face may be ones we choose to work with early on in our support groups.  It may also be a very early exercise we may decide to work on with our individual coaches. We may never get things perfect, but many of us can expect to set things up better.  After all, it's our face that may first bring us trouble, not anyone else's.  No one other than ourself is in charge of our own face.
A sense of time, as well as an appreciation of what time means to others, and the value people attach to it, is something many individuals with AS have difficulty with.  Some of us have never formally learned how manage our time well.  We've often been given too much help by others who then take over a responsibility that belongs to us.  There is nothing that infuriates people quite as exquisitely as a person whose time management skills are age and situationally inappropriate.  Independent adults are expected at least to be in control of some of this sense. Without even saying a word to us, others judge our sensitivity to them and their own time-needs by how we handle time ourselves.  For example, the authors refer to the different ways individuals from different cultures relate to time.  We are so used to others in our culture putting a premium on punctuality and doing things in a certain order that many of us -- autistic or not -- can't imagine why other people seem to be much more casual and relaxed about timeliness and undertaking numerous seemingly unrelated tasks at the same time.  Here, we're not talking about merely multi-tasking, but something much more important.  It's a cultural thing. 

In this regard, this author has no interest advocating for a kind of blanket Non-Spectrum persons' special "autistic cultural sensitivity" with regard to our problems dealing with time.  Study of chronemics reveals a breathtaking array of situations and expectations affected by peoples' different understanding and use of time. Understanding is one thing.  Inviting others to patronize us and coddle us for something as fundamental as our individual chronic time management issues is too much to ask of people who don't really know what we're capable of managing on our own, given the chance, and given proper and respectful training.   Expecting everyone, all the time, to put up with our problems, at least the ones we know about , and the ones that we know there are training techniques to remediate or at least reduce, is unrealistic and unfair. To put it clearly, "All ain't gonna happen." 

Chronic time violations excite reactions just as virulent and destructive, both in the moment and in the long run, as touch, personal space, and kinds of personal boundary violations.  Given incredible inherent and learned resistance from everyone, everywhere, at almost any time, it is incumbent upon us to actively participate in coming up with our own accommodations, and assure that to the best of our varied ability, we remain mindful and respectful of other people's time needs.  For example, all of us have biologically built-in clocks and timing mechanisms.  There are other means of determining time and its passage that have nothing to do with clocks or digital read-outs.  It is up to us to become aware of them and use them as best we can as "next best things" to manage as many of our challenges with time as we can.

The reason for this "non-request for a blanket free pass" regarding time management is very simple:  our profound individual problems with time, with all of their consequences, befuddle us just as much as others are befuddled by us negatively.  They all impede our ability to communicate well with one another, let alone individuals who are not on the spectrum.  This author asks for no special break or slack to be categorically cut for us as a group with regard to our idiosyncratic approach to time and its values.  It is our duty, if we wish to be respected and accepted by persons who are autistic as well as those who are not autistic, to make every possible effort to learn things about time that, because of the nature of our unique manifestations of autism as a cognitive difference, we did not intuitively acquire in the same way non-spectrum individuals are still mastering varied aspects of chronemics.  In this regard , individuals on and off the spectrum are often in need of help understanding time.  If nothing else works, the author recommends that the AS individual who just "doesn't get it" to do the best s/he can to fake it.  You absolutely don't have to understand everything about something just to "do it."  Make an effort.  "Act as if."  Who knows, you might hit on something.  At least you may convince others that you are trying.  That's often a good enough reason to move things along when they become implacably stuck.  The closest to a  "blanket" request" this author will make is to ask of all  -- those individuals somewhere "on" the autistic spectrum as well as those who aren't -- to recognize our situation, and then if they value their sanity as much as we value ours, help us as much as they can and as we are able, to be on the same page, in the same place and time as everyone else for the purpose of being more efficient communicators.
Within our own western European culture, people judge one another by the degree of respect accorded them to be late or to deliberately break rules about being available for appointments exactly on time.  Important people expect others less important than they are to tolerate their being late, or even early, for set appointments.  Such expectations go along with their social ranking.  We may not like it.  We may think such expectations are unfair, but they operate in every situation where people adopt a social or ceremonial pecking order.
For example, patients are expected to arrive on time for their medical appointments.  Doctors always seem to run late.  Similarly, while students must be in their seats when the bell rings; teachers and professors are entitled to be late.  However, they shouldn't be early.  By being early and starting "before time," instructors break a cardinal rule applicable to all teachers.  They stand to risk instant disrespect of their students and their own colleagues.  In the same vein, if we arrive early to a party or a social event, doing so may put us in a very awkward relationship with the host and other party guests.  Out of our anxiety to not cause a scene by being late, we unknowingly cause a worse one by being too early.
It isn't enough to be predictable by always being on time or early or chronically late.  If we were always that predictable, if we were ruled by ludicrous, mechanistic rules giving up our powers of choice, then at least others would know what to expect of us.  There are two problems with absolute predictability.  First, predictability invariably enrages others because they enjoy variety, even though we may not.  Second, and more fundamentally, when it comes to human beings, absolute predictability is impossible.  Things are never that simple.  Putting it differently, "In all affairs, ***t happens."  Call it Murphy's law.  Call it anything you want.  Absolute predictability ain't gonna happen.
One other important thing about time and the unintended, untended things that happen in it.  When AS individuals interact with persons who are not AS, awareness of time and the enormous issues non-awareness (often without others bothering to tell us any longer -- because, after all, what's the use?!) -- raise one, huge cause for generalized frustration  When AS individuals decide to do things with one another, it is also just as likely to cause major problems.  Poor time management and unstated expectations about doing things on time are among the most predictable reasons why many autism groups on a national, state, and local level -- many of which are directed by undiagnosed autistic adults -- often fail to take care of business by disrespecting the needs and priorities of others in their midst.  If we can't take care of our own business by being more mindful of "our own," how indeed can we demand respect by others who don't have this problem?
While it may be hard to change, given enough incentive, we can do it.  A person's final incentive to get a grasp of time issues may be something as basic as fear of loss of a job.  It may be a realization that because you are not predictable while others at the same time expect you to be more flexible, that your poor time management or rigidity about time matters literally drives others away.  If people avoid you, it may be because of your rigidity or what they perceive as outrageous demands that they adhere to your time table or your expectations even as you disrespect theirs.  Your demands may make perfect sense to you.  However, this is a world of other people, and you can't impose your expectations -- if others perceive them as utterly unreasonable -- without cost.
In this regard, it's important to distinguish between your personal need for routine and your domination over others, a kind of perverse manipulation driven by your need for order, predictability, and assuring that everything remains the same.  People cannot be so arranged that the next time you will always find them unchanged.  This is one reason why many AS individuals don't marry, or if and when they do marry, things often go badly, right from the start.  If you want a good example of the disastrous effect of super-AS demands for routine, consider reading a book written by three members of a family dominated by the AS husband and father's outrageous demands that others adhere strictly to HIS need for routine and order.  As the reader, you can judge for yourself the toll that such tyrannical chronemic control-freakism exacts on a wife and a teenaged son:  (Living and Loving with Asperger Syndrome - Family Viewpoints, Patrick, Estelle and Jared McCabe, 2003, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London/Philadelphia).
Understanding the time needs and time-values of parties in relationship is essential to keeping the relationship healthy.  Personal relationships, whether friendships or intimate ones, especially marriage, can founder because of one or both partners' time blindness.  Without appreciating the role that AS time-blindness plays in destroying close relationships, the more benighted partner won't have access to a basic set of tools required to perform necessary "scheduled maintenance."  Maintaining  relationships takes real work by all parties. 

Life in social relationship with others is not like the magic Ronco Automatic Cooker.  You can't just "Set it and Forget it!"  That's TV, and it's only a cooker.

This is life. 

Life has a lot more moving parts.

Roger N. Meyer.  Reprinted with Permission.

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"We each have our own way of living in the world, together we are like a symphony.
Some are the melody, some are the rhythm, some are the harmony
It all blends together, we are like a symphony, and each part is crucial.
We all contribute to the song of life."
...Sondra Williams

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