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  • Sarah Nannery

Memory Lane: The Silent Child

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

In my last memory post, I shared one of only two things that ever caused significant strife in my teenage relationship with my parents: the fact that I insisted on keeping my bedroom window open through all weathers and seasons. Now, I want to share the other source of strife, because I have realized, as an adult, that both had very much to do with my autism.

When I was very young, I experienced none of the developmental delays that often can mark autism in young children - I started talking at an age compatible with most neurotypical children, I didn’t regress once I started, etc. But as I got older, my mother noticed how quiet I was. Yes, I could talk, but I usually chose not to. She did not mind at all that I was quiet - it was simply part of my nature. What worried her was that I would not speak up when I needed to - when being quiet became a crutch, rather than a choice.

By the time I was 10 years old, she had devised several subtle ways to help me practice “coming out of my shell.”

“Sarah,” she would say, “can you call the pharmacy and find out if our prescription is ready?”

My eyes would bug out at her in surprise, a cue that she was onto something. “What??”

I couldn’t conceive of making that phone call on my own. Mom always made those calls. What number was I supposed to call? What was I supposed to say? Who would answer the phone? What if it wasn’t ready yet - would they be mad that we called? What if they were mean? What if nobody answered? Was there an answering machine? Would I need to leave a message? What would I say in the message? What if my voice sounded weird through the phone? What if while I was talking the line disconnected and they thought I hung up on them? What if they’re busy and it’s inconvenient to answer the phone? What if...

You can see how this panic-inducing over-analysis could easily cause paralysis.

Mom patiently walked me through the process, showing me how to look up the phone number in the yellow pages of the phone book (ah, simpler times), practicing with me what was likely to happen when someone answered the phone, what I should say in order to check on the prescription, etc.

Still chittering with anxiety, I would make the call, fumble my way through it, with Mom standing by in case things went sideways, and succeed in the end. Thus, I learned how to make the first "cold calls" of my life, a skill that would become indispensable later in my career.

As I got older, Mom found another way to help me literally practice using my voice: theater. She made sure I auditioned for every school and community play that ever graced the surface of the earth. In many ways, although getting up on stage and performing in front of people is a whole separate type of anxiety-trip than making a cold call, having lines to memorize made the theatrical experience rather enjoyable for me. There was a clear structure to it, clear direction for exactly what I was supposed to say, when and how I was supposed to say it, and where I was supposed to be on the stage, down to which way my body should be facing when I delivered the lines. As long as it did not involve improvisation, and as long as I didn't have to perform hugely lengthy solitary monologues, theater suited me and my structure-craving brain well. It was through theater that I learned how to project my voice with volume and authority, and gained confidence addressing a crowd of people. Public speaking in a structured environment is less anxiety-producing for me than making a cold call - as long as I am prepared, with my "lines memorized," and know exactly what I am going to say.

These two ingenious tools of my mother's, while exceedingly helpful in preparing me for a world that needs to hear my voice, still did not help much, however, when it came to the times during my childhood and adolescence that I would become entirely nonverbal.

My nonverbal episodes were not just me refusing to call the pharmacy or me not speaking up if I wanted to eat pasta for dinner instead of chicken - these were long, protracted, impenetrable chasms of silence. Often they corresponded with highly emotional interpersonal episodes, which made things much, much worse. Something would happen that engendered high emotional responses - from myself or a close family member or friend - and instead of being able to talk about it or work it through, I would clam up. There were times, especially when I was a teenager and conceivably should have "grown out" of this type of behavior, when my mother would literally plead with me to speak - to say anything - to give some sign of life or reciprocation. And I simply would not be able to. I would sit in silence, sometimes staring off into space, sometimes keenly alert, but still, unable to form words or make any sound come out of my throat.

Eventually, after trying many different things, we hit on a strategy that helped mitigate the conflict that arose when one of these nonverbal episodes came over me. We agreed on a "trigger" word - a type of "SOS" that I could sound, right at the very beginning, if I felt a nonverbal bout coming on. For us, it was "R2D2," the name of the hilarious little android in Star Wars. I was allowed to say the word whenever and wherever I needed to, even interrupting a conversation if I had to, in order to cue Mom into the fact that my speech abilities were shutting down.

When I used the trigger word, my mother knew we might be heading into a danger zone where I would stop speaking and not be able to talk again for a matter of hours, no matter what prompting she offered. She knew to re-route the conversation, or to calm down the atmosphere, or to give me space, in order to try to subvert the shut down.

But why was my voice shutting down in the first place? Why it happens to me might be entirely unique, or might be something that a lot of people with autism experience - I don't know yet. The best way I can describe what used to happen to me, and what can still happen very occasionally even as an adult, is that it is a literal short-circuit in my brain.

Faced with overwhelmingly emotional input - someone who is angry with me or the surrounding circumstances, someone who I have inadvertently hurt or if I myself have been emotionally hurt, etc. - my brain will literally overload. The neural pathways that lead from thought to speech will shut down, or re-route, and I will be physically unable to make my vocal cords form sounds in order to form words. The words are going off like fire engine sirens in my brain, but they can't get out of my throat. Sometimes, I can write them down, but not all the time. It is astoundingly painful, to have words screaming inside your head that you can't get to come out of your mouth - and even more painful to see the person who needs your words suffer from not having them.

As an adult, I am faced with this situation much less often than I was as a child, simply due to the nature of life being less frequently emotionally-charged. I have also learned how to side-step a nonverbal shut down by side-stepping emotions - even if I am faced with a highly emotional situation, I can often maintain a rational, analytical viewpoint that allows me to keep my voice and not over-stimulate my brain. This doesn't always work, of course, but it does help.

As I learn more about myself and others on the spectrum, I will be curious to learn what triggers nonverbal episodes in others, and the ways others describe how they feel.

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