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I have a documented verbal IQ of 134, and a vocabulary in the 99th percentile. My phonics decoding skill is in the 96th percentile, and my oral language is in the 94th. I am, for all intents and purposes, a gifted speaker, a master of language. Why then, under the right circumstances, does my speech fail me, my IQ get cut in half? Why, for all my strengths, do I get left a stammering monkey, unable to form an intelligible sentence or even a word, when faced with anger, frustration, fear, rage?
In situations like that, I am reminded all too clearly that autism is, at its core, a communication disability. It has been documented that in general, high functioning autistics have a higher verbal than nonverbal IQ, with the opposite being true for those on the lower end of the spectrum (this is certainly true for me: at 94, my nonverbal IQ is a full 40 points below my verbal IQ.) Because of this fact, and because of the intelligence and verbosity that many on the spectrum demonstrate, it can be easy to forget that, even for the high-functioning individuals, autism is still a disability of social communication, of which speech is a vital part.
What that means, is that even the most well-spoken of us can have a hard time saying what we want to when our minds are overloaded with more pressing stimuli. It is as if the emotions completely scramble the wiring of our speech centres, making speaking a challenge, even when we know exactly what we want to say. It is for this reason that we can become violent, lashing out physically at the people and objects around us, or simply screaming unintelligibly. It is extremely disconcerting to suddenly lose your powers of speech, to discover that one of your greatest strengths has instantaneously deserted you. It is also highly frustrating to have this happen at the most inopportune moments, such as when we are attempting to explain ourselves, or defend our position, or get something we urgently need to return to a state of mental normalcy. You would get violent too if your speech were suddenly and inexplicably robbed from you, especially if you were left stuttering and repeating the same word over and over like a stuck record, with no one to lift the needle from the groove. It is alarming to hear yourself saying the same thing over and over again, not knowing if or when it will stop, allowing you to move on to the next word, and not knowing how long your audience is going to wait you out and try to listen. Time is of the essence in situations such as that, and its the one thing you can feel physically trickling away as you try to untangle your tongue and your brain.
It is important when we get like this, that we be given time, patience, and understanding. Do not try to rush us, or shout over the top of us. Do not make fun of us by repeating the syllables we manage to get out. If you are fighting with us, step back and wait until we can speak again; do not walk away, as we may panic or become enraged, thinking you are leaving without having heard our side. Do not use our loss of language to your advantage, treating our lack of intelligible speech as a silence into which you can continue to insert your own thoughts; that will only confuse us as we try to process both our speech and yours, and will only make everything worse. Be patient, wait with us until we can speak again; speech often returns with calm, which will be advantageous if you are arguing with us; it gives everyone time to pause and think. If our silence lasts a long time, or does not appear to be returning, offer alternate methods of communication: texting, writing, sign language; do not stop communicating with us just because we cannot currently do so in a normal fashion. Trying to talk to someone who has suddenly had their language drop out on them is hard, but it’s not as hard as trying to be that someone.