Here’s another “basic skill” I don’t know how to do an astonishing percentage of the time: talk.
This one is tougher to explain than, say, tying my shoelaces or handwriting my own name. Those are basically “one-shot” skill failures; either my hands do what my brain is thinking at them or they don’t.
The problems with not knowing how to talk, however, are multiplicitous and subtle. The what/how disconnect appears in at least one, but maybe more (or all) of the following places:
1. My brain can’t find the word for a concept map or sensory experience. I’d classify this as a “what” problem, not a “how” problem.
2. Having found the word, my brain can’t recognize it as an intelligible sound.
Has it ever happened to you that all of a sudden and for no reason at all you haven’t the faintest idea how to spell the word – “wife” – or “house” – because when you write it down you just can’t remember ever having seen those letters in that order before…?
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
3. Having recognized the word as intelligible, my brain can’t find one or more of the other words that go with it. Words in isolation rarely convey useful meaning; listeners need context, even if it’s just one or two words (go now, don’t want, cat sick, etc.)
4. Having found a context, my brain can’t arrange the words into a grammatically-coherent structure.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
5. Having generated a grammatically-appropriate sentence, my brain can’t figure out how to “load” it for translation by my lips, tongue, and jaw into speech-noises. It’s been suggested to me that this is a short-term memory problem, but it feels more like a speech-buffer problem. It’s not that I forget what the words are or what order they go in; it’s that moving that from thought to pre-action becomes impossible.
6. Having accessed a loaded “speech-buffer,” my face doesn’t know how to move to create the corresponding sounds. This is the part that is most similar to the problem in which my hands are holding the shoelaces but have no context for them.
7. My face moves to create the corresponding sounds to the buffered thoughts, but screws up and instead produces sounds that are unintelligible, even when the thoughts meant to be encoded in them are intelligible. This is probably classified most accurately as a motor problem. It is also the “how to talk” problem most likely to occur while I am speaking in front of a group – I do this at least once per lecture.
8. The sounds are intelligible as words but produced in the wrong order, even though they “buffered” in the correct order. I can’t even begin to explain this one. This is the “how to talk” problem most likely to occur when I am typing as well.
Until I started learning ASL, I had no workaround for this. Now I do. In sign, it’s possible to mix up the order many times and still be understood: “ME-WASH-CAR” and “CAR-WASH-ME” can rationally be understood as conveying the same information, especially when handshapes are placed in space to indicate progression (I -> washed -> the car, versus the car -> washed -> me).
9. The sounds are intelligible as words and in the right order, but my ears don’t understand them as intelligible words in the right order. This causes enormous confusion and anxiety when it happens – probably worse than any other failure point. Because when it happens, I hear myself say something that I did not actually say, that is neither the thought-words loaded into the speech buffer nor produced by the movements of my face.
About the only consolation is that when this happens, my listener usually hears what I actually said. The problem in understanding is an auditory-processing one; it’s between my ears and my brain, not between my brain and my mouth or between my mouth and my listener’s ears.
“How Do You Live Like This?”
Largely, much like you do living without it.
Like neurotypical people, I am blissfully unaware of this system as long as all the parts are working. Unlike neurotypical people, the parts of my talk-system break down a lot. My talk-system breaks down more often than it works.
Some breakdown points are easier to overcome than others. There’s even a short-circuit loop, undetectable to many neurotypical listeners (because y’all do it too), that cuts out steps 1-4 entirely: babbling.
In Nobody Nowhere, Donna Williams defines babbling as a “trick” the mind can use to speak fluently by convincing itself “that what it has to say is not of emotional importance.”
Until very recently, I would have argued that babbling is a way of “speaking” fluently that requires no attention to content, and that thus it allows “social” behavior without the risk of pulling the mind inward, thoughts being always more rich, subtle, and fascinating than their linguistic signifiers. Until very recently, my whole life was an extended siege against naming emotions.
Subverting emotional importance in order to “talk” (i.e. babble) is less about not getting “lost in thought” as it is about avoiding the loneliness and desperation that arise from putting in the extraordinary effort to wordify, organize, buffer, and mouthshape meaningful speech only to have it dismissed or misunderstood – or worse, both. (Few things are worse than being dismissed for something you didn’t actually mean.) If there’s no emotional importance to the words, it doesn’t matter how or even whether others receive them.
Babbling includes the creation of superficially-intelligible mouthsounds, and for that reason it is often conflated with talking. Most people who know me would report that I have few or no problems with talking. But because the mouthsounds have no emotional importance, babbling is not communication.
I don’t know if this is exactly what Donna Williams meant in Nobody Nowhere, but it’s how I understand her description of babbling. Certainly her summation of the problem elsewhere resonates: “I could say words but I wanted to communicate.”
I could, and can, and frequently do babble like a pro. Better than a pro: I babble like a neurotypical. But I talk (i.e. communicate verbally) far less, and it’s because the more emotional importance my mouthsounds must encode, the more difficult they are to produce.
How Much Is “A Lot”?
It’s hard to estimate what percentage of the time I don’t know how to talk. The multiple potential breakdown points complicate the math. I haven’t decided if planning my spoken words in writing, in advance, counts as babbling – if so, I babble professionally and have for years. And whether or not an attempt counts as a “failure” depends on from where one measures the start and end points.
Is babbling, which skips points 1-4, a failure to talk? Is it failure when the talking is of emotional importance but consists of only one word, or a jumbled sentence, or sounds unintelligible to me but makes sense to other listeners – or vice versa? (If an autistic speaks in the forest and no one understands her, does she talk?) If I get stuck at “how to move the faceparts to make the wordsounds,” then decide in a fit of fearful sour grapes that screw it, I didn’t want to say the thing anyway, did I “fail”? Or did I quit?
Depending on how one answers these questions, I don’t know how to talk anywhere from 50 to 95 percent of the time. The high end of that scale – 70 to 95 percent – assumes babbling is not talking, for increasingly broad definitions of “babbling” (mouth-running, echolalia, reciting what I’ve written – the last of which raises disturbing points on performative speech and its legal implications). But if we assume the low end contains only things I want to say (for whatever reason) but that fail to run the gantlet, it still captures how much, for one reason or another, I don’t say.