One of the amazing things about Twitter is the number of friends I’ve made who speak English as a second language. I’ve come to know a good number of people who speak languages from around the world. The vast majority speak it as well as I do, a testament to how much better language education is outside of the United States.
One of these is a German/Palestinian woman who I was involved in an interesting discussion on the meaning of a word with. We were discussing the complex nuance of it and how tricky it is to find the exact right term. Let me note how great German words are for that. It was talking with her that I hit on a realization: to a great degree, English is my second language with autism my first.
Before anybody gets offended, let me stress that I am not trying to belittle the challenge of learning a second language and speaking it. Of course that is extremely hard and I have a natural advantage having grown up speaking English. I’ve taken a few language courses and never done well. But there is an undeniable similarity.
See language itself is a surreal thing. We use sounds and symbols to represent complex ideas that aren’t even the same across the species. It requires a common understanding of the exact connotation of the symbol to appropriately express these ideas. When you get down to it, we all have to translate ideas to symbols. It’s just that most people are much better at it than we are.
With autism, we’re stuck on the conceptual level. Trying to convey an idea is tricky because we can’t include the information that would come along with it. If I try to express a concept like interest, I could mean everything from serious scholarly study to bile fascination and everything in between. No wonder I often have to struggle and correct myself.
It’s deeply frustrating for us because we seemingly speak the same language as others and we’re expected to be as rapid at it. Trying to explain how that’s not the case is aggravating since it implies failure on our part. Misspeaking makes us seem like awful people sadly. I have horribly alienated people for that reason.
So if autism is a language, what is it like. It’s very conceptual and visual I think. It relies on grand ideas rather than the nuances of English. It would be far easier for us to show you what we mean rather than speak it. It’s a language high on colors and sounds but low on words. Is it simplistic? A bit. That expresses itself in how direct we are. We see things very bluntly.
With all this said, why am I a writer? Well why was Beethoven a composer? I may not be able to fully comprehend words but I feel the need to express my ideas. So it is that I use words to get these ideas out.
And there is hope. I have many autistic friends. I’ve learned our common experiences mean we speak the same tongue. It’s nice to be understood by one of your tribe.