I am not talking here about the non-literal communication of NTs and autistics’ presumed difficulty interpreting it. Rather, I refer to an expressive difference that can be part of autism, or at least, which I’ve read other autistics experience, too. In the psychiatric handbooks, it might be that this falls under “stereotypical” or “repetitive” language, but it isn’t necessarily either of these, and I am not claiming diagnostic validity here.
Amanda Baggs had a post on her blog a few years ago in which she quoted some pretty disorganized language, and was asking whether this sounds like the person uttering these words is suffering from disorganized thinking. Her point was that language is different from thought. Not only this, but language can be different from intentional communication. Sometimes, the person using language might intend to communicate, but the words that come out of their mouths are not the words they wanted to say. It is also possible that the words that come out of someone’s mouth, have no intentional meaning whatsoever. This is quite obvious when people’s words make little sense, for example, if they’re nonsense words. The people around you might ask you what the words mean once, but will quickly realize that you just didn’t learn that there’s an option to remain silent when you have nothing to say. (Of course, this may not always be the correct attribution – think of, for example, people with Tourette’s -, but the attribution will keep people from assuming meaning that wasn’t there.) When the words uttered have linguistic meaning, it is also possible to discern they aren’t supposed to convey anything, if they’re used in a meaningless form. For example, if I summed up a string of venomous animals, people might wonder if I was ever going to say anything about these animals rather than just summing them up, but that isn’t necessary. (When I had this habit a while ago, people were already used to the fact that “Brazilian wandering spider” is a favorite word of mine, so they never showed any surprise.)
It becomes more difficult when the words that come out of someone’s mouth, sound like they’re making up a communicative phrase. For example, when I am overloaded, I might say things like “Go away, stay there” a few times. Sometimes, I am not sure why I’m saying these things, but people assume they are intentional anyway. Not only that, but they’ll quickly assume that I am directing these words at them. Now of course it is quite possible that I am intentionally telling someone to go away and stay where they were, although it sounds a bit paradoxical to me. But besides just being a meaningless string of oral nonsense, it can also be that I direct these words at an external or internal stimulus. It doesn’t have to be a human: I have told lawn mowers to “go away, stay there”. Oh well, maybe I could be said to direct these words to the person operating the lawn mower, but that’s not the source of the overloading noise and I assume he wears earmuffs anyway.
Now even in these situations, you might say that you can tell that I’m not intending what I say, because it is repetitive (usually, in my case) or because it sounds odd in some way. However, it is quite possible that people use phrases that make perfect sense and are not (immediately) repetitive, but that are still not intended, or not directed at the people listening. I think I can usually tell when someone with a psychotic disorder is talking to their voices rather than me, but I still incorrectly presume comments to be directed at me sometimes (and I hope not, but I might think of comments that are actually directed at me as directed at a voice). Oh, for clarity’s sake, I am not saying here that auitistics are psychotic (they might be thought of that way by doctors who assume every word corresponds to a thought); I am just using it as an example of how speech that makes perfect sense could still not be intentionally directed at the listener.
Now in my own case, I use speech communicatively most of the time. Therefore, it is understandable that people assume that I’m meaning what I say. They are correct far more often that way than if they presumed the words coming from my mouth to be strings of oral nonsense anyway. But some people use speech communicatively only occasionally, or have speech, but don’t use it communicatively. People still may presume intentionality in the words coming out of these people’s mouths, even if their lack of intentional speech communication is the reason they use an AAC device. Isn’t it interesting how speech is so ingrained in people’s minds that we automatically assume it to have an obvious intention and meaning, that it really doesn’t always have?