Today’s guest post was written by Neurodivergent K of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking and has been republished with permission.
“What’s wrong with saying ‘use your words’? My son’s ABA therapists told me to!”
Yes, and your son’s ABA therapists jobs are dependent on the promise of indistinguishability, their entire professional life revolves around creating a performance of typicality, not with helping Autistic people actually be healthy happy Autistic people. The whole indistinguishability series is all about that. Today, let’s talk about “use your words”. This will be a trip through all the levels on which that phrase is not awesome, semi stream of consciousness style.
So, what is wrong with “use your words”? Let’s think for a moment. When do you say that? Do you say it when you have no idea what I am communicating? No you do not. Not generally. Those of you who give a shit establish if it’s urgent, life threatening or something, first. But you know I’m not dying? You have a pretty good idea what I’m saying? “Use your words!”
This is you holding my needs and wants hostage to my ability to communicate your way. Once you’re reasonably sure I am not actively being mauled by a bear? You’ve decided it isn’t important enough to me if I don’t communicate it how you want.
This is an extremely dangerous assumption to make, and completely backwards. If something is urgent and important, words are hard. Your brain may go to words first. Mine does not. Not even a little. “Use your hands & sounds” is a better way to get useful communication from me when something is urgent and important. What my body does? Far more reliable than what my mouth says.
The less impact and importance my speech has, the more reliable it is, especially in a real-time communication situation. That part of my brain shuts down when what I say has immediate consequences of any significance.
“Use your words” assumes the exact opposite of this. It assumes my words mean more under duress. They do not. You are going to get whatever words fall out of my mouth in an order that may or may not make any sense or relate at all to what I am trying to convey. It might even be the opposite of what I mean.
Making that assumption comes from a dangerous place. When you demand that I “use my words”, the underlying attitude is that I can but am choosing not to. That I am intentionally doing something to make my life more difficult. No, I am fucking not flapping, semi-signing, making non-word sounds, crying, starting and stopping words just to piss you off. Allistics act like we’re just trying to make their lives difficult or add annoyance to their day. So they tell us to use our words, like it’s just that simple.
But if we could, we would be. Let’s walk in some Autistic shoes. Is flailing and sound making efficient? No. No it is not. It causes me far more actual problems than it could possibly ever cause you. “Use your words” says that I am choosing the non-awesome results of being unable to speak in that moment. It’s really presumptuous, actually, for you to make that assumption. It’s very allistic-centering.
“Use your words” holds my needs hostage to performance of typicality and says I do not deserve to have my needs met if I cannot make that performance work. That is what you are saying when you tell me to use my words.
And you don’t even really want my words. My words come in atypical syntax (which apparently is charming when I’m not trying to communicate something that you don’t want to hear) and I do, in fact, say “fuck” a lot. Especially under duress. That is not the word you want when you condescendingly tell me to use my words. You want your sentence construction. You want “polite” and “respectful” and the genuine words I have access to are not perceived as either-not the words I can use in a stress situation.
The result of this and of a childhood of “use your words” isn’t less swearing or more standard syntax. It is a library of scripts. My grocery store small-talk script is unlikely to be useful–and has actively sabotaged medical care when the nurse triggered the “I’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you?” sing song. Having to fall back on scripts rather than use my natural means severely inhibits communication–my message is falsely constrained to the socially appropriate things I can echo under stress.
They may not all sound like echoes. If a script is caught as a script, it is “meaningless echolalia” and not communication, unless of course it fits the least irritating narrative for the allistics involved (see: the nurses who decided I was fine when they triggered the grocery store script. I had cysts hemorrhaging on my ovaries at the time. Plural cysts. This wasn’t life threatening but it causes scarring and incredible pain).
“Use your words” is silencing. “Use your words” is a tool used to silence those of us who cannot-not will not, can not, express ourselves on your terms all the time. “Use your words” is yet another thing that promotes a facade of normalcy at the expense of our very real needs and desires. “Use your words” is yet another thing that demands performance, or else. “Use your words” is emblematic of the idea that only typical people have a right to have needs or wants. It is a Lovaas-esque “the child has no right to behave bizarrely” tactic that pretends we are nothing but our superficial behavior, and that we can choose to change that if there is a strong enough reinforcer.
“Use your words” is oppressive ableist bullshit. These are my words: Touch your fucking nose.