On Being Semi-Verbal
I want to clear something up today. Lots of people draw distinctions between speaking and non-speaking autistics, as if that matters. And the people who make these distinctions don’t seem to realize that it’s not as simple as “verbal” vs. “non-verbal”. Like so much of the autistic experience, it varies. I appear fully verbal to most people. Throughout most of my life, I speak clearly and with a large vocabulary. Since I was little, I’ve been known to use words that are “overly intelligent” or “too academic” for the situations I find myself in (I can’t help it, those are the words I know). However, although I live on my own, hold down a full-time job, and do all the things that make people think I’m “very high functioning” (ew), I am only semi-verbal.
Just Add a Little Stress…
Stress causes all my brain functions to go glitchy. Any kind of stress – sensory overload, anxiety, over-socializing, miscommunications, going somewhere unfamiliar, physical pain, sudden changes in plans, lack of food/water/sleep, or even just a long day without enough time for rest – will cause my brain to run at less than peak efficiency. Sensory overload diverts my energy to shielding against the sensory onslaught and leaves my higher functions, including language, to shut down. And a similar reaction happens with other kinds of stress – it takes energy to cope with new places, unfamiliar situations, too much people-ing, etc., and as my mental energy starts to flag, my language is the first thing to drop out.
It happens by degrees and my speech doesn’t always cut out completely. It might get hard for me to speak for a while and then get easier as I get out of the stressful situation or get some stimming to help me cope. If I’m mentally exhausted, I may still be able to speak but I’ll stumble over my words, slurring and struggling to sound coherent or even intelligible. Often, a loud, crowded space can shut down my speech until I get outside or into a quiet area, and then I’ll get it back after a few minutes and a few deep breaths.
Overwhelming emotions can knock out my speech, too, especially in the lead-up to a meltdown. Swallowing mounting anxiety or upset while I’m at work or elsewhere in public will slowly shut down my language circuits, first reducing me to only being able to speak a few lines of automatic social scripts and then finally cutting it out altogether.
What Does It Feel Like?
In short, really frustrating. I know the words are there in my brain but I can’t find them. It starts with missing just a word or two at a time – I can’t talk around it because I can’t quite get to what I mean – I end up wishing I could sign it instead. I’ve been known to whack myself on the side of the head at this point, as though that would knock the words loose. It’s incredibly upsetting when I know the words are there but they’re locked behind some door I can’t open.
Other times, I reach a point where I can think in words, but there’s some short between my brain and my vocal cords. My thoughts come in full sentences, but I can’t speak a word. This is the place I usually go to in a sensory overload or anxiety attack situation. My brain will be screaming for help while I’m sitting there mute. It’s much like dissociation, but I’m still very aware of what’s going on around me.
Sometimes I can write or type or sign (as much as I know) while I can’t speak. In those cases, I can at least ask for help and accommodations. But other times, especially when I’m faced with sensory overload or a meltdown, I go very still and have trouble moving even a little bit. Although I might be thinking clearly in words, I can’t use any other form of communication because I can’t move. This is a hell of a place to be because I can’t tell anyone what’s wrong or ask for help. It’s here that people have accused me of throwing a tantrum, doing it for attention, expecting people to read my mind, being a drama queen, or trying to manipulate people.
All because my brain glitched out to the point that I could no longer communicate.
Is There a Word for This?
There are a few terms that I’ve seen applied to the phenomenon of being semi-verbal.
Some people call it selective mutism. I don’t think that’s very accurate, because selective mutism is usually consistent, speaking in one place but not another. The classic example is a child who speaks at home but not at school.
Other people call it situational mutism. I think this is a better description of my experience, where my ability to speak is based on the situation I’m in and my stress levels at any given time.
I recently learned another term in connection with being semi-verbal, which is chronic catatonia. This could explain my inability to move in some situations and might explain the vocal paralysis as well.
Regardless of what you call it, the fact remains that I cannot truly be called fully verbal. Although I can usually speak just fine, I can and do lose the ability to speak at times. Too often, people make assumptions about intelligence and cognitive functioning based on an autistic person’s ability to speak or communicate (and they usually don’t count assisted communication), and that’s complete crap. I am semi-verbal. When I can’t speak, my intelligence has not decreased, and I have not lost the ability to think. The more people understand that verbal communication is not an indicator of cognitive ability, the better this world will be for all autistic people.
That’s my rant for today. Do you ever lose the ability to speak? Got any tips for helping those around you understand when that happens? Do you use assisted communication, and do you get any pushback from other people about that? Have you been accused of faking it, throwing a tantrum, or being manipulative when you just couldn’t tell people what was going on? How do you handle it?
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wardOctober 8, 2021 at 11:22 pm
Just want to say a quick thank you, bc this is the only explanation I’ve been able to find that fits what I experience. I panic and freeze, unable to speak, and never was able to figure out how to explain it (closest I got was selective mutism, but I knew that wasn’t quite right). Thank you and hope you’re doing well <3
Ander Jem MiskinisDecember 4, 2021 at 11:31 am
I, like you, have a wide range of words in my arsenal. I grew up being told that I was very smart because I knew words my classmates didn’t. However this got me in trouble because when I would “go mute” people would always be rather annoyed and tell me I was faking it for attention. I am 26 years old now and I know quite a lot of sign language and I also keep a AAC tablet with me when I go out just in case my anxiety causes me to go mute. I have never been able to explain quite clearly enough to people why I cannot speak in these moments. I think I may show them this post. It may help them understand a little better. Thanks!
GraceDecember 4, 2021 at 12:34 pm
Glad this was helpful! I’ve tried learning ASL, but there’s few people who understand it in my area so it hasn’t helped as much as I wanted. I do sometimes text instead of speaking, especially if I’m very stressed and can’t get somewhere to decompress.
Mitch BaneFebruary 10, 2022 at 9:27 am
I am currently doing research on being semi-verbal because I woke up today and don’t want to/can’t speak. If I try, I get pressure in my chest and it’s really uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do because I’m in class right now and I have three more classes today. When does your speech usually come back?
GraceFebruary 10, 2022 at 9:50 am
That’s rough, I hope you feel more relaxed soon!
My speech tends to come back when I get more relaxed or more comfortable. Sometimes stimming can help me get regulated enough to speak again, other times it just takes time. If I were in your position, I would seek out some pleasant sensory input and get some stimming in to get my brain back in a good place.
All the best!
JaysonApril 14, 2022 at 9:16 pm
I sometimes experience something like this when I’m anxious or have sensory overload, and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all, but I don’t know if it’s being semi-verbal exactly? I’m capable of speech when I feel like this and can talk if I have to, but it feels uncomfortable (mentally) to do so and I’d much rather stay silent. Would an aversion to speaking count as being semi-verbal or would you have to be actually unable to speak or have some sort of physical discomfort when trying to speak, or when speaking?
GraceApril 14, 2022 at 9:35 pm
I really don’t know if there are clear lines on that. I also have times where I *can* speak but it’s hard or takes more effort due to overload or exhaustion. Since I’m not a fully non-speaking person, I can’t say for sure if they consider it a clear delineation, but I think the most important thing is to understand yourself and how to take care of yourself in those times when speech gets so difficult. Maybe use text or write, let your close friends and family know that you don’t feel up to talking at the moment, but you can still communicate.
KimNovember 25, 2022 at 9:40 pm
Great suggestions! I know this approach has been greatly beneficial for me! People who accept my need to use AAC have been greatly beneficial in increasing my motivation to communicate at all!
SabrinaMay 24, 2022 at 9:36 am
This helps me because I have autism (I’m not diagnosed yet though, my mom doesn’t want to admit I might have it) and I relate to so many symptoms, and when it comes to people having non-verbal episodes, I say that I somewhat relate because I don’t stop talking for days at a time. Normally, it’s only an hour or two. It happens when I get stressed, anxious, angry or sad. But learning that being semi-verbal is a thing helps me out a lot. Thank you so much for helping me understand myself more.
NoahJune 5, 2022 at 10:32 am
This pretty much sums up my experience perfectly. Thank you so much for making this 🙂
KimNovember 25, 2022 at 9:37 pm
Great explanation! I do wish people would stop calling this kind of speech shutdown or difficulty “selective mutism”!! They two aren’t the same at all, in my experience! I also wish people would stop assuming that, because of my intelligence, my speech issues “have to be” only caused by anxiety, or some other “common” experience NTs have! There are various physical, cognitive, and trauma related issues involved, that are all interconnected. AAC is a wonderful thing for me!! I’m so glad it’s so much easier to come by than it used to be! I could say more, but it’s probably easier to direct you to waht I’ve said on my blog, in various places. Tags AAC, Speech, and Communication.