On Silence and Expectations


. I have selective mutism which means there are times when I have words in my head but no physical ability to speak them. Long ago in the land of childhood and teenagehood, I dealt with this by panicking that people were judging me(and they did, oh they did, from calling me names to my face to grabbing me and shaking me, yelling at me to ‘just talk’) which only exacerbated an issue born of anxiety in the first place. No I didn’t have social anxiety as such, I had performance anxiety because I have problems sequencing syntax, body movements and speech and I tended to say the wrong thing anyway. But I couldn’t speak and no one could force me to either. If I had access to or knowledge of AAC back in those days I would have gobbled it up and I think my selective mutism would not have become the permanent fixture that it is today. Today I can hide it and pass it off as being “aloof” or something.  I have shorter bouts of mutism and usually use exaggerated facial expressions like a dog to relax people(a big stressed out smile letting them know I’m not dangerous, don’t hurt me!) until I can speak again. I am mostly verbal though.

Except, since I got my root canal that is. It started with a loss of gag reflex, followed by weak and silent vocal tics(my body continues to go through the movements, but no sound comes out) and now my voice is fatigued, low and breathy. A trip to the doctor is required, sadly. But now, I am mute again, and I remember very clearly what it was like to be a mute. This time though, I have AAC at my disposal in the form of HelpTalk. Why does all this matter? Why can’t I just hide away and use GChat until it resolves? Well, because people expect speech. I have to do things like take my dog out, and he draws attention. Sometimes, I even like to speak instead of just type with my back turned to another human being. But really, people place an inordinate amount of stock in being able to face someone and have them communicate by producing phonemes with their mouthparts. Why? Well, I can’t really say why.

I remember when I was 17, and a friend held me by the chin in the dark of the winter and screamed at me “just talk, just say it!” People expect speech, in fact, they even feel entitled to getting aural feedback from your mouthparts. I remember being in my early 20s and having my now husband’s relatives call me rude for not carrying on a conversation with them, as if being mute is a choice people make. It’s not a choice, but if I did have a choice, I would choose to use AAC more often than I do. I believe all people have the right to communicate in the way that is most comfortable to them. Even when I can speak, often times my husband and I will carry on a conversation that is half text, half mouthparts. We are not somehow disconnected from each other, or estranged for using technology; we are very present and very involved with each other, and technology makes our communications go smoother and heightens our understanding of each other. There are also times where, for an Autistic or chronically ill person, not using speech is a better option. It lets us have the energy and stamina to do more important things. Often, for me, being hyperverbal is a sign that I am going to crash at some later date. It is a sign of overload, and that means it’s a sign that I may meltdown soon. Being verbal is not always efficient, smart or a good sign when you’re disabled.

No human being is entitled to your mouth, or your voice, or even, frankly, your time. No human being is entitled to your comfort. Communicate in the ways that come naturally to you, and feel no shame. We need to get over this idea that utilising technology is somehow estranging us from the world around us. It’s a decidedly abled, privileged way to view the world. In reality, AAC probably fits into the curb-cutter effect. No one should expect someone else to use their mouthparts, ever.

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