Bridging the communication gap between high functioning autistics and neurotypicals.

So Michelle and I were talking about a speaker we heard whom we considered ‘monotone’. You know, that voice that neither rises or falls. That voice that becomes the swinging watch in a hypnotism act. That human white noise generator that puts people over the edge or to sleep.

Well, I used to be like that. I would talk on and on and on with the auditory equivalent of a flatline in my voice, all the while flatlining my listener. How did I do that, you ask? Well, I have Asperger syndrome and, for some of us, that is just how we emit our words.

In 1985, when I worked for an Albertson’s Grocery in Jacksonville, Florida, someone I worked with, after spending some time listening to me talk, said, “Don’t you vary your voice? You sound like a robot.” I was surprised by that. I never listened to how I talked. I just talked. But, from then on, I listened very closely to how I talked. It wasn’t until sometime later, possibly a few months, that I decided to listen to how others talked. I started listening to how people employed a sing-song, up-and-down quality when they were talking to someone. I never noticed it before. But, I was more aware than I had been. I soon understood that this sing-song device made listening to these folks more enjoyable.

Storytellers always interested me. When I was in kindergarten and at the library, whether public or private, and I was listening to a story being read, I was always captured by the dramatic tones of the person’s voice reading to us. The reader was usually good and captured my attention from beginning to end. But, I noticed that they varied their use of drama with dynamics such as loud and soft, different voices impersonating characters and other tools of the voice actor’s trade. I realized, then, that I wanted people to listen to me when I talked. The idea came to me to get a storybook and practice dramatic storytelling the way I’d heard it at school and the libraries.

My first story venture was ‘Peter and The Wolf’. When I first read it out loud, my voice impersonating the other storytellers sounded funny. I was putting drama into the boring parts as well. This made the entire story too intense for me to read and probably the same for anyone to listen to. So, I found a record of Peter Ustinov reading it and I sat there listening to him and practiced the storytelling in my mind.

Now, I think other Aspies do this as well and what I mean by this is mimicking. I sat there reading ‘Peter and the Wolf’ mimicking Peter Ustinov’s voice trying to get the inflections in his voice down pat. Mimicking has always been the way I learn something that I’ve needed to learn. I remember mimicking my landlady at a place I lived in Atlanta because I was trying learn how and why she said something a certain way. I sat at the bar in the kitchen mimicking away. She walked in from her room and heard me mimicking her under my breath. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just repeating what you said. I’m trying to figure out why you said it like you did.” It never occurred to me to ask.

Mimicking might now be called ‘adaptive behavior’, a behavior that helps you adapt another behavior or habit to another situation. Mimicking helped me adapt my monotone behavior to a multitoned manner of speaking so I didn’t stick out so much. There were many times in my life I ran over verbal things in my mind so I could understand how they were said a certain way and what impact they might have had being said in that certain way. I didn’t always understand and I made lots of mistakes like the time I put a huge emphasis on the word ‘of’.

I also mimicked gestures a lot as well. I won’t talk about the attendant trouble that came with mimicking certain gestures, otherwise we’d be here all night. But after a lot of trial and error or ‘experimenting’ as they call it in the scientific world, I became a little more proficient in understanding people’s physical communication. I used to keep a list of the many books I had read on body language. I found that even after all that reading, body language only communicates a small percentage of the meaning as well.

Over the years and after much experience, I’ve gotten better at carrying on an interesting-sounding dialogue with people because I’ve learned how to capture their interest a little. And, while I don’t remember that person’s name from the Albertson’s in Jacksonville, Florida, I’ll always be grateful to them for making me aware of how I sounded.



~Mark @ Happy Robot Coaching


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