It doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to a medical model of disability or a social one when it comes to autism. Either way, I am disabled. The easiest way to understand why, and how, is to talk about talking on the telephone.
Telephone conversations always have petrified me. To my knowledge, I never thought about or discussed it much prior to my autism diagnosis. It was just yet another part of the way neurotypical society functions that I suffered in silence. Phone conversations were just part of the world. Why would I see my difficulties with them as anything other than just one more way in which I was a fuck-up?
Of course, I’ve talked about communications difficulties before, and much of the problem comes from the processing required for real-time interaction and the fact that monotropism restricts multitasking.
Some of this is the fact that I am effectively incapable of multi-tasking. It dawned on me only recently that the reason I sometimes will interrupt someone I am talking with is because when a thought strikes me I am mentally incapable of simultaneously holding onto that thought for later andcontinuing to pay attention to what the other person is saying to me. So the thought leaps out of me while they are in mid-sentence, and I need to apologize, urge them to continue, and hope that the mere fact of me having said something out loud will be enough to bring my thought back into the conversation at a more suitable moment, like when it’s actually my turn to speak.
Telephone conversations in some ways make this worse, because at least face-to-face the other person likely has some conception of the fact that a thought has just struck you and you are waiting to be able to get to it. They also have some sense of when you are quiet because you thinking about things rather than from some sort of disinterest.
There’s an old piece about this elsewhere that nicely details many of the important parts of what makes telephone conversations so vexing for many autistic people (and has a photo illustration that’s on-point as to the sheer terror having to talk on the phone can bring), chief among them for me: being the focus of attention, the unpredictability, and its verbal nature.
These problems are especially sharp when it’s not just a routine matter. Comparatively predictable conversations such as calling to see if a store is open (although even that’s not easy for me, and I’ll mostly just hope this sort of thing is listed online somewhere) are one thing. Answering questions from the Oregon Department of Human Services about my SNAP benefits eligibility or needing to understand the options for temporary electrical service from Portland General Electric at my nonprofit project are something else entirely.
It’s even been a struggle to convince my doctors at Kaiser Permanente to use their website’s secure messaging system not just to send me information but to enable replies so that I can correspond that way. The tool is designed for communication but so far I’ve only found one doctor willing to use it that way. Despite, you know, being doctors, most of them have refused to accommodate my disability.
Were I deaf, nearly every large organization or company or agency would have a TTY line or similar accommodating method available. For some reason, despite even small organizations, companies, or agencies having access to email, text messaging, or chat programs, I can’t seem to get people to use them to accommodate my impairments.
So, this is for you, agents and representatives of private companies, government agencies, and nonprofit medical providers (as well as, you know, therapists): when I ask that we communicate via some method other than the telephone or face-to-face, it’s not because I am being difficult. It’s because the cognitive and emotional loads of those forms of communication cause me distress, and, ultimately, are unproductive.
Having a record of a conversation, both as it’s happening and when looking back on it later, actually helps both of us. The form of communication is handling much of the load for me, lessening the stress being placed upon my atypically-wired brain, and helping ensure both that I understand what you’ve said and that I got to say everything I needed to.
So hang up the phone, and send me an email.