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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

It's about Time!
Being Honest about Expressive and Receptive Communication Problems and Time Awareness

Roger N. Meyer
Copyright © 2004-2005
All Rights Reserved


 Special Terms
Explanatory Notes for
Dyssemia Rating Scale

[This article contains an explanation for special terms found in Stephen Nowicki and Marshall Duke's 2002 book entitled Will I Ever Fit In? This article is expanded from a brief explanation of terms and concepts found in Nowicki and Duke's book related to their Dyssemia Rating Scale (pp 146-151). Because this expanded article is based on some concepts first presented in the Nowicki and Duke book, readers are encouraged to obtain their book for personal self-development. Their scale, plus less expanded remarks explaining some of Nowicki and Duke's terminology, was first presented to member of the Portland Asperger Syndrome Adult Support Group in our inaugural communication skills workshop in August, 2004. In this article, Nowicki and Duke's observations are expanded to many of the special challenges in receptive and expressive communication that are part and parcel of being autistic.]

Workshop Materials

Full credit is due Nowicki and Duke for their term dyssemia, a neologism describing human incapacity to perceive and express non-verbal language in the form of cues and signals, postures, gestures, unwritten social and communication rules and conventions, and in understanding many social messages of spoken language, or paralanguage.

They emphasize the role that time and timing play in furthering effective communication. With permission of the authors, this author reformated their Dyssemia Rating Scale for group work with Asperger Syndrome adults. That handout referred extensively to "Will I Ever Fit In?" for further self-assessment and self-development. The support group communication skills workshop also used materials and concepts developed by Michelle Garcia Winner MA/ SLP, Stephen Gutstein, Ph. D. and other authors knowledgeable about the semantic/pragmatic language challenges of persons diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

No Professionals

When one of the two authors to "Will I ever Fit In?" was contacted by this author, he indicated that their concepts were not designed or tested specifically for persons with ASD. He saw no reason why their approach, with modifications, would not be of value to adults on the autistic spectrum.

By definition, individuals diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome/HFA are all considered to be dyssemic.

As indicated elsewhere in articles and writings on this web site, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is precisely that, a spectrum condition. Because our lives are peppered with daily reminders of our communication deficits, we are ever more mindful of our shortcomings. As a consequence, we are more highly motivated to address them in ourselves and others in our Portland AS Support Group more vigorously and consistently than would be efforts expended by paid, professional, non-spectrum-sitting experts in communication.

The Portland group's workshops were self-led by the group's co-facilitators. In planning meetings, we concluded that since we were the ones most familiar with our own communication challenges, we and our group members, who served as guinea pigs and our best source for feedback for first-time-ever experimental training workshops were in the best position to know what works. In five communication workshops held throughout a twleve month period starting in August, 2004, support group members validated our approach, based upon our belief of the value of of Each One Teach One.

Building on our success, we plan to conduct more sessions during our next twelve months of meetings, events and trainings.

Our Work's Value to Others on and off the Autistic Spectrum

The notes below have been expanded to take into consideration a wider adult readership than just those individuals in the Portland Asperger Adult Support Group working on our individual communication challenges in small groups and individual coaching sessions between monthly meetings of the support group. These notes expand upon the meaning of special terms used in the Nowicki and Duke book. Those terms are found in the ten-section Dyssemia Rating Scale found at pages 148 through 151 of the book and are fully explained elsewhere in the book.

We very slightly modified the format of the scale so that it could be used as one type of dyssemia self-assessment by each group member as well as being scored by each individual group member's chosen "coach." Because few dyssemic ASD adults have the financial resources to engage professional counselors to work with them in a manner proposed by Nowicki and Duke, we felt that if ASD individuals scored themselves on the same scale Nowicki and Duke proposed for third-party use, that the expected difference in an ASD person's self-reporting compared to the scores of a person who knew the ASD adult well would be an additional source of valuable information the ASD individual would have regarding the accuracy of their ability to take the perspective of another person.

The author of this article believes of this article may be of further interest to all dyssemic adults interested in improving their verbal and non-verbal communication skills.


"Paralanguage" Section C

Paralanguage refers -- in part -- to the way speech is delivered and perceived by others. Many individuals are not aware of how they sound, or if they are, they are embarrassed by what they hear. They don't often know why. They generally express sentiments like, "I don't sound like that, do I?" The way folks with few communication problems sound may not be an issue for others. It is for individuals with AS.

The Social Consequence of being "Sound Blind"

Because individuals with Asperger Syndrome are both sound sensitive as well as sound blind -- and yes, AS individuals have problems with both kinds of sensitivity -- their social interactions are often impaired for reasons they don't understand. Lack of certain kinds of awareness of auditory phenomena, as well as hypersensitivity to certain sounds are characteristics shared by many autistic folks. This is different than mere "selective hearing" or "selective deafness." Things such a prosody, or the natural lilt or flow of one's speech, may be difficult concepts for AS individuals to understand. However, with practice listening to the live conversational voice of others and by private session practice listening to their own voices with objective feedback from recent audio recordings, AS individuals can learn formally what non-autistic persons learn through intuition as toddler and childhood mimics of adult speech.

Speaking in a monotone is something autistic adults understand, although our understanding may be only intellectual. Learning how to change our monotone to more appropriately inflected speech is difficult but not impossible. Speaking either too loudly or too softly for the occasion is also something we understand intellectually, but without accurate feedback and showing willingness to practice monitoring our own voice levels, we remain clueless.

Autistic Individuals' Problems with Live Feedback

If we had headphones playing our live words to others directly back into our own ears, our own auditory processing delays may cause us to falter and break down our communication altogether. This author has observed just such a disorienting effect on communication when individuals with mild auditory processing delays wear headphones to get instant feedback from a totally objective source that is supposedly benign. Confusion and breakdown in the communication did not occur as a primary result of any sensory issues the individuals had with the headphones or earbuds in use.

There may be similar problems with live video feedback. Because of our known difficulties with multi-tasking or integrating multiple sensory input from the same experience, instantaneous video feedback may be equally disorienting not only because of possible visual processing delays, but also because of many autistic adults' difficulties in identifying the right visual object to focus on.

The Value of Playback as a Communication Training Tool

One type of authentic feedback comes from objective sources such as a recordings of our own voice and comparing its level, using a dB meter or other kind of volumetric display to the voice level of others, especially our coaches. Most people have heard of biofeedback. Many people associate biofeedback with monitoring of heart rates or breathing rates or electrogalvanic skin response levels.

The type of biofeedback this author refers to is far less sophisticated. Observing the metered level of our own speech loudness is helpful feedback because we can now "hear" with our eyes what we can't easily hear with our own ears when speaking with others.

Video feedback is more problematic because of the same processing and focus/distraction issue mentioned above, but let's assume for the moment that the opportunity for multiple playback helps the individual. It does so by providing the AS individual opportunities to gain greater perceptual discrimination. Furthermore, repeated playback of the same scene can compensate for some individuals' processing delay through focus-buiding reinforcement of accurate perception caused by some autistic individuals' strong short term visual memory. (Some eye tracking and pattern discrimination research has demonstrated some autistic individuals' particular strengths in identifying patterns not easily perceived by others.)

Using video feedback to understand the roles of facial and body gestures as receptive and expressive animation is also possible because simple video editing software allows one to objectively view the relative activity or passivity of a person's participation in a social exchange by observing video gain levels on video signal strength meters. Even if an autistic person does not fully understand the significance of heightened or reduced gestural animation, the ASD person can learn to more accurately mimic volume and gain levels of others through what amounts to a simiplified bio-feedback practice. For a very dyssemic person, having a non-dyssemic coach identify levels and gestures to be replicated by the dyssemic person is an essential part of the formal training process.

Hearing with one's eyes and seeing with one's ears are not contradictions or a mistaken choice of words. Speech-language pathologists working with autistic children help them understand the pragmatics of speech -- not just the dictionary meaning of words. They use knowledge we now have regarding the value of using more than just our ears to understand spoken communication. They know that blind individuals who are not hearing impaired have certain blindisms related to accurately understanding others because of the tremendous value vision add to the emotional significance of verbal expression. Many of us are hearing-process-impaired by features of defective hearing similar to the cognitive mechanism, which produces blindism in visually impaired persons.

There are appropriate levels of loudness for each situation, for each type of conversation, for each emotional state, and for each physical setting. Rules regarding one's appropriate voice level can be learned. Learning to match those levels using accurate and objective feedback is much easier than having no feedback or only the verbal reports of others to guide us.

Moving from Object-based Feedback to Relation-based Feedback

Many AS adults are object-oriented. We break down our experiences in complex social settings by objectifying relationships and events, storing them in our social experiences data bank as detailed, sequence-based clusters of factoids. It's our way of making sense of the world, but in social settings, relying on a singular cognitive tool to explain complex events is not only inefficient due to our need to process details as factoids, but it's also socially dangerous. Because of our continued reliance on inefficient and misleading perceptual tools, we have become either distrustful of the feedback of others or naively reliant upon the observations of others because we have such inefficient social-meaning processing tools at our disposal.

In our childhood, we employed an autistic child's-logic need for such simplistic litmus tests of the safety of complex social situations. Early on, we relied upon others' feedback to interpret the meaning of complex events. As adults, many of us still do, but in the presence of strangers, this dependency upon another trusted person to interpret the world for us isn't always available. Intellectually, we know that our own perceptive tools may provide us with inaccurate readings of a social situation. However, many of us can't, on our own, make the leap from intellectual understanding to effortless practice. Practice can approach making perfect, but for most of us, practice will remain hard work. Notice, however, that I haven't said that the work is impossible.

In adulthood, our reliance on the same child-like, single-means method of testing the safety of a socially complex situation invariably has us navigating a pathway to understanding covered with social faux pas banana peels.

One way out of this bind is to use totally objective feedback tools like audio and video recordings of ourselves in relationships, not just blank backgrounds with no social interaction involving others. From a recording medium that does not interpret but merely plays back, such feedback forces us into thinking about ourselves differently than were we to have only the feedback of a dressing mirror. That's because mirrors can't "rewind" an event. They can't help us see the same thing again and again, each time allowing us to view ourselves differently based upon increased self-knowledge about the messages we put out to others.

Moving from Playback to Live Interactive Feedback

The next step to understanding ourselves is to expose ourselves to live feedback from other people. We don't walk around or work or interact with individuals in an opaque bubble. We are visible and audible to others, and others take much of our meaning to them from what they see and hear. Meaning isn't only about our understanding ourselves better as autistic individuals. We could gain some understanding by staying in a room reading books or reviewing tapes of ourselves, but the real test involves checking out whether others see us the same way as we perceive ourselves.

Others' reports may be accurate, but hard to for us to grasp. The reason for this is obvious: Many Asperger Syndrome individuals do not trust what we hear with our own ears or our own eyes. Why should we believe others?

We should, because trust, of all human values, is the basis upon which all relationships are built.

Tone of voice is subtle, but very important. If one doesn't realize how one comes across to others, it is often a result of not understanding the effect of one's tone of voice, or how it does not match one's own emotional state at the time. It is no surprise that many of us have trouble with anger, or "the angry voice."

Because we have trouble accurately identifying emotions -- our own or others' -- we often have similar problems relating to our rate of speech. There are times when speaking quickly sends the wrong message. Using something as simple as a metronome or rhythmic hand movements can often slow too rapid a speaker's rate down to a level that is more intelligible or acceptable.

On the other hand, using only these tools to learn to speak slowly could lead to non-inflected, monotonous speech. Even if understandable, inappropriately slow speech is also socially unacceptable to others who do not understand our problems with modulating our rate of speech for related reasons. Lack of social acceptance doesn't only come from non-spectrum persons. It also comes from those of us with ASD who have more normal rates of speech.

One effective method of learning how to modulate our speech rates is by learning to listen with our whole body and its other senses, not just our ears. By doing this we learn to deliberately turn off our head-noise through the use of non-intellectual forms of observation. As adults, many of us have unused, basic listening tools. Before now, we've never been formally taught how to put them to use. It may be harder to find these tools the older we get, but some of them are still there, and with enough cajoling, they can be our friends in ways we've never previously imagined possible.

Many AS adults who aren't around others a lot may develop or continue a style of speaking that is child-like. Something we did as children that may have charmed adults is inappropriate when, as adults, we use that same type of language, inflection, and body behavior with other adults. However, other adults aren't the only ones affected. Children are just as often surprised and offended when adults use child-like language in their presence when they otherwise have every reason to be spoken to respectfully and expect adult-like language to be uttered by the adult. Putting matters very simply: some of us don't realize what kind of impact our voice and the way we talk has on others. We may know that we speak differently, but now we can learn why people react the way they do to what we say and how we say it.

Other AS adult paralanguage issues involve word choice and choice of appropriate phrases. While some of these issues slide into a question of literacy as opposed to mere choice, all adults are expected by others to word-find appropriately. The slower-than-normal rate at which high functioning autistic adults word or phrase-find is often responsible for our reticence (reluctance to speak much if at all). On the other hand, many of us have no trouble finding words. For the chatterers among us, it's our sheer wordiness that distresses others. We must learn to listen to what yacking on and on does to others, to "read" the effect our avalanche of words has on them and learn to moderate how much we speak if we wish to earn their respect, acceptance and understanding.

We can't do any of this without first interacting with others we trust, first, and listening to what they say. For adults, the world beyond those we trust most highly is often just a step away into the next room or the next experience involving strangers. As adults living and acting in the real world, we can totally control only a few such experiences.

"Resting Face" Section D

Nowicki and Duke devote several pages describing the effect of having an off-putting resting face Many of us are not aware of what our face looks like, and what that look means to others. Even when we are in the same room, but not in conversation with others, our facial language gives off powerful signals to them. Furthermore, even when we are not with people, many of us are even less conscious of what our face looks like and how it may appear if suddenly someone were to come into the room or be able to observe us. Just "thinking" that we are approachable may not at all match what our face is actually telling others. A negative resting face has a profound effect on our approachability as others determine whether even acknowledging us or moving toward us is safe or worthwhile. Video playback and mirrors are objective, non-argumentative reflectors of just how we do appear to others. We have the tools to capture how we look, and play our "look" back in real and delayed time. We intend to use them.

Some of the first set of face-awareness exercises Nowicki and Duke propose for persons who have problems with their resting face may be ones we choose to work with early on in our support groups. It may also be a very early exercise we may decide to work on with our individual coaches. We may never get things perfect, but many of us can expect to set things up better. After all, it's our face that may first bring us trouble, not anyone else's. No one other than us is in charge of our own face.

"Chronemics" Section J

A sense of time, as well as an appreciation of what time means to others, and the value people attach to it, is something that plauges many AS individuals. Some of us have never formally learned how manage our time well. Others who then take over a responsibility that belongs to us give us too much help. There is nothing that infuriates people quite as exquisitely as a person whose time management skills are age and situationally inappropriate. Independent adults are expected at least to be in control of some of this sense. Even if adults remain poor self-masters of time, society expects them to have found means of compensating for this shortcoming by either relying on a limited number of other persons, or having found time prompts and self-organizing routines or mechanisms to manage their time as adults.


Time Management Problems Reveal Fundamental Problems Relating to Self-Respect and Respect for Others

Without even saying a word to us, others judge our sensitivity to them and their own time-needs by how we handle time ourselves. For example, the Nowicki and Duke refer to the different ways individuals from different cultures relate to time. We are so used to others in our culture putting a premium on punctuality and doing things in a certain order that many of us -- autistic or not -- can't imagine why other people seem to be much more casual and relaxed about timeliness and undertaking numerous seemingly unrelated tasks at the same time. Here, we're not talking about merely multi-tasking or doing things sequentially, one at a time, but something much more important. There are cultural differences involving all of these differences, and culture counts.

In this regard, this author does not support some autistic adults' demand that others provide us with a blanket pass regarding our problems with time management.

Study of chronemics reveals a breathtaking array of situations and expectations affected by peoples' different understanding and use of time. Understanding those differences intellectually is one thing. Demanding that others patronize us and coddle us for something as fundamental as our individual chronic time management issues is too much to ask of people who don't really know what we're capable of managing on our own, given the chance, and given proper and respectful training. Expecting everyone, all the time, to put up with our problems, at least the ones we know about, and the ones that we know there are training techniques to remediate or at least reduce, is unrealistic and unfair.

To put it clearly, "All ain't gonna happen." If some of us make this demand a condition of interacting with others, not only is this a blatant challenge to others that they overlook our bad manners, but that they cut us a wide swath they don't cut anyone else.

Chronic time violations excite reactions just as virulent and destructive, both in the moment and in the long run, as touch, personal space, and other kinds of personal boundary violations. Given incredible inherent and learned resistance from everyone, everywhere, at almost any time, it is incumbent upon us to actively participate in coming up with our own accommodations, and assure that to the best of our varied ability, we remain mindful and respectful of other people's time needs. For example, all of us have biologically built-in clocks and timing mechanisms. There are other means of determining time and its passage that have nothing to do with clocks or digital read-outs. Certain routines that others depend on -- routines over which we have no control -- have their own order, some of which are time dependent, and others of which are dependent upon certain things happening before and after a certain event. In other words, some routines are sequence-dependent, not "clock dependent."

In some cultures, people don't finish one task before picking up another in the same way we do in our western European culture. They multitask, and for a person with AS, their actions appear helter-skelter or confusing. No matter. What they do and how they do it makes perfect sense to the other person, and makes perfect sense in their culture. It is up to us to become aware of these differences from what we expect and use our knowledge of them as best we can as "next best things" to manage as many of our challenges with time as we can.

Our profound individual problems with time, with all of their consequences, befuddle us just as much as others are befuddled by us. Our problems impede our ability to communicate well with one another as autistic persons. Even amongst ourselves, there are certain breaches of manners and civility we don't tolerate, mainly because whatever our differences, we still have to get along with one another -- more or less.

It is our duty, if we wish to be respected and accepted by persons who are autistic as well as those who are not autistic, to make every possible effort to learn things about time that, because of the nature of our unique manifestations of autism as a cognitive difference, we did not intuitively acquire in the same way non-spectrum individuals master varied aspects of chronemics. In this regard, individuals on and off the spectrum are often in need of help understanding time and timing issues. You don't have to be autistic to have a poor sense of chronemics. If nothing else works, this author recommends that the AS individual who just "doesn't get it" to do the best s/he can to fake it. Once you know the rules, even though you may disagree or not understand them completely, go along with them anyway! You absolutely don't have to understand everything about something just to "do it."

Make an effort. "Act as if." Who knows, you might hit on something that works. At least you may convince others that you are trying. That's often a good enough reason to move things along when they become implacably stuck. The closest to a "blanket" request" this author will make is to ask all people -- those individuals somewhere "on" the autistic spectrum as well as those who aren't -- to recognize our situation, and then if they value their sanity as much as we value ours, help us as much as they can and as we are able, to be on the same page, in the same place and time as everyone else for the purpose of being more efficient communicators. In most such instances, we aren't in a position to demand anything more of others, including others of us who are autistic.

One final comment. There is a difference between asking others to recognize our differences and demanding that they do things "our way" in order for us to continue in a relationship with them. Relationships are about compromise. If we are unwilling to negotiate time, place, and circumstance (context) with others, they have every right to not to deal with us.

Understanding Rules about Time

Within our own western European culture, people judge one another by the degree of respect accorded them to be late or to deliberately break rules about being available for appointments exactly on time. Important people expect others less important than they are to tolerate their being late, or even early, for set appointments. Such expectations go along with their social ranking. We may not like it. We may think such expectations are unfair, but they operate in every situation where people adopt a social or ceremonial pecking order.

For example, patients are expected to arrive on time for their medical appointments. Doctors always seem to run late. Similarly, while students must be in their seats when the bell rings; teachers and professors are entitled to be late. However, they shouldn't be early. By being early and starting "before time," instructors break a cardinal rule applicable to all teachers. They stand to risk instant disrespect of their students and their own colleagues. In the same vein, if we arrive early to a party or a social event, doing so may put us in a very awkward relationship with the host and other party guests who understand how unsettling an early arrival can be on a host. Out of our anxiety to not cause a scene by being late, we unknowingly cause a worse one by being too early.

It isn't enough to be predictable by always being on time or early or chronically late. If we were always that predictable, if we were ruled by ludicrous, mechanistic rules giving up our powers of choice, then at least others would know what to expect of us.

There are two problems with absolute predictability. First, total predictability can irk others because they enjoy variety, even though we may not. Second, and more fundamentally, when it comes to human beings, absolute predictability is impossible. Things are never that simple. Putting it differently, "In all affairs, ***t happens." Call it Murphy's Law. Call it anything you want. Absolute predictability isn't going to happen.

One other important thing about time and the unintended, untended things that happen in it. When AS individuals interact with persons who are not AS, awareness of time and the enormous issues non-awareness (often without others bothering to tell us any longer -- because, after all, what's the use?!) -- raise one, huge cause for generalized frustration. When AS individuals decide to do things with one another, it is also just as likely to cause major problems.

Self-Respect leads to Respect Toward and by Others

Poor time management and unstated expectations about doing things on time are among the most predictable reasons why many autism groups on a national, state, and local level -- many of which are directed by undiagnosed autistic adults -- often fail to take care of business by disrespecting the needs and priorities of others in their midst. If we can't take care of our own business by being more mindful of "our own," how indeed can we demand respect by others who don't have this problem?

While it may be hard to change, given enough incentive, we can do it. A person's final incentive to get a grasp of time issues may be something as basic as fear of loss of a job. It may be a realization that because you are not predictable while others at the same time expect you to be more flexible, that your poor time management or rigidity about time matters literally drives others away. If people avoid you, it may be because of your rigidity or what they perceive as outrageous demands that they adhere to your timetable or your expectations even as you disrespect theirs. Your demands may make perfect sense to you. However, this is a world of other people, and you can't impose your expectations -- especially if others perceive them as utterly unreasonable -- without cost.

In this regard, it's important to distinguish between your personal need for routine and your domination over others, a kind of perverse manipulation driven by your need for order, predictability, and assuring that everything remains the same. People cannot be so arranged that the next time you will always find them unchanged. This is one reason why many AS individuals don't date or don't marry. It's also a good reason why some AS individuals shouldn't marry, and why so many AS marriages aren't easy. If you want a good example of the disastrous effect of super-AS demands for routine, consider reading a book written by three members of a family dominated by the AS husband and father's outrageous demands that others adhere strictly to HIS need for routine and order. As the reader, you can judge for yourself the toll that such tyrannical chronemic control-freakism exacts on a wife and a teenaged son: (Living and Loving with Asperger Syndrome - Family Viewpoints, Patrick, Estelle and Jared McCabe, 2003, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London/Philadelphia).

Understanding the time needs and time-values of parties in relationship is essential to keeping the relationship healthy. Personal relationships, whether friendships or intimate ones, especially marriage, founder because of one or both partners' time blindness. Without appreciating the role that AS time-blindness plays in destroying close relationships, the more benighted partner won't have access to a basic set of tools required to perform necessary "scheduled maintenance." Maintaining relationships takes real work by all parties.

Life in social relationship with others is not like the magic Ronco® Automatic Cooker. You can't just "Set it and Forget it!" That's TV, and it's only a cooker.

This is life.

Life has a lot more moving parts.

A note about "Sources" and Copyright

Please note that this article, and the Dyssemia Rating Scale, the work of authors Nowicki and Duke, is copyright. Even though this author has not directly quoted Nowicki and Duke nor reproduced their Dyssemia Rating Scale here, this article's organization and many of its expanded concepts could not have been written but for reference to Will I ever Fit In? The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Adult Dissemia (2002) by Stephen Nowicki, Jr., Ph.D. & Marhsall Duke, Ph.D. the Free Press, New York.



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