Autism, Linguistic Processing and Lip Reading

I’ve a lot of thoughts about more political stuff going round in my head but am having trouble separating the different strands into things I could actually write about, so instead here is a post about one way my autism affects me and ways that I work around it.

From talking to lots of other autistic adults, I’ve learned that quite a lot of us have difficulty with something called “linguistic processing”. What this means is that our brains take longer than most people’s brains to differentiate speech sounds from non-speech sounds and so we are slower to realise which sounds we can hear are most important. Neurotypical people’s brains seem to be pretty good at quickly working out which sounds are speech, our brains have to work to remember that not all sounds need equal attention.

When I was a young child I was repeatedly given hearing tests only to find that my hearing is perfectly typical. Other autistic adults have recounted similar experiences. Part of this of course stems from autistic people’s tendency to act differently from neurotypical people, teachers and parents may have difficulty believing that a child can hear if that child doesn’t look up when their name is called or doesn’t look at people who are speaking – but these are not really indicators that someone has heard what is being said. The other reason why people might repeated assume that an autistic child or adult is deaf or hard of hearing is the noticeable delay between something being said to us and our response. If this delay is long enough that the other person repeats what they said, it looks like we didn’t hear them the first time.

So, what’s happening?
When someone speaks to me, it can take a moment for me to recognise that anyone is speaking. Then I have to recognise that someone is speaking *to me* and I am supposed to listen. Once that’s out of the way, I have to check what language is being spoken. If it’s English, I then hear all the words and start tying them together as a sentence in my head. This takes time. Whole seconds. More if any words are unfamiliar or unexpected. I often have to make educated guesses about how the sentence began or what some of the words are because I couldn’t listen to them properly over my own thoughts of “Is this speech? Am I being spoken to? Do I need to respond? Is this a command or a question?” Sometimes I guess incorrectly and answer a question that wasn’t asked – this furthers the suspicion that I cannot hear. But can hear fine – what I can’t do is process the information as quickly as it is being given.

I’ve had to live with this all my life and there are a few ways I’ve learnt to adapt. One is by lip-reading. Watching the shapes people’s lips make can give me more clues as to what words they are saying. Sometimes I find myself silently mimicking the shapes with my own lips to try to work out what someone is saying. Other things that have made my understanding of speech much better are subtitles (closed captions) and asking people to make or provide notes on what they are saying / will be saying. Power points are great for this – if I can read your powerpoint slides I have some idea of what you might be saying, the same goes for advance copies of lecture notes. Of course, most speech is not lectures or TV but writing down key points of what you are saying or have just said can be very helpful. I can’t write them down myself as I’m still trying very hard to understand what you said at all but it is very helpful when people write down what they are asking me to do for example.

What can you do?

  • Give people enough time to respond. Wait while I/they mentally rewind and replay what you just said until I/they understand it. Don’t immediately repeat what you just said. If about 30 seconds have elapsed, ask if you should repeat what you said.
  • Information in other formats. Write down anything really important.
  • Put subtitles / closed captions on your videos online and transcripts on your podcasts. I won’t be able to understand them properly without this.
  • Try to face the person you’re speaking to and not to obstruct their view of your face.
  • Don’t expect people to look at your eyes – or even at you at all – when you’re speaking to them. Many autistic people find it much harder to concentrate on speech if they are looking at someone’s face. Some of us lipread, some of us don’t.
  • Offer to go somewhere quieter if the person you’re talking to seems to be struggling – even if you don’t think it’s that loud.
  • Read this
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One thought on “Autism, Linguistic Processing and Lip Reading

  1. I have a subtly different problem to this. I pay attention to all sounds, speech and non-speech – and I can’t stop that. So I am aware when people are speaking to me, but I can’t filter out the other conversations in the room. Even though I’m trying to listen to one person, if another conversation is deemed by my head to be more important (perhaps the people are louder, or talking worriedly, or using a word relevant to my life), I miss a couple of words before i remind myself what I was supposed to be concentrating on.

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