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The Differences between Aspie and NT Conversation

A little while ago, I was asked to explain what the main differences were between aspie and NT Communication, specifically in terms of what each party receives.

We're always being told that Aspies miss non-verbal cues and that they're distracted but do aspies actually pick up more or less elements in conversation?

Here are a couple of lists for comparison based on a normal office desk conversation.

What the NT Gets

  • Voice
  • Facial Expression
  • Verbal Tone
  • Body Language and Posture
  • What the person is wearing
  • Any sufficiently loud or disruptive intrusions

What the Aspie Gets
  • The Voice
  • Non-verbals in a single swoop (discussed below)
  • The books on the bookshelf behind the talker
  • Other people in the room
  • The Flashing lights on their hard drive
  • Traffic outside the office
  • Nice (Groovy) Patterns on the person's tie
  • The Logo on their glasses
  • Scuff marks on their shoes
  • The Screen Saver on the PC behind them.
It's my belief that aspies generally pick up much more of the surroundings regardless of whether or not it is relevant to the conversation.

In fact, I don't believe that this is limited to conversation. I have also noticed it while driving.

When I am in the car, regardless of whether or not I am a passenger or a driver, I seem to notice much more of the surroundings than my NT wife. Strangely enough, I will pick up all kinds of interesting but irrelevant details which she will miss even though she is looking out of the window and directly at them.

Picking Up Non-Verbals in a Single Swoop
The question remains as to whether or not aspies get non-verbal cues in conversations. I think that we do actually pick them up but that we are unable to interpret them in a timely fashion.

It's funny but when I am in the conversation, I usually find that I am struggling to keep up just with the words and that I don't have a great deal of time to think about anything other than what has been said.

It's only when I am going over the conversation back in my office or writing minutes for it or thinking about it on the way home, that I start to go over all of the non-verbal cues. Sometimes it's then that I realise the person wasn't really interested in what I have to say or that they seemed to have trouble accepting an idea.

It is far too late for this new information to have any bearing on the conversation at this point but I will often take that feedback on board an attempt to not discuss the same subjects or the same amount of detail with that person again. One thing that I don't often do however is go back to the person with my new interpretations and attempt to redo the conversation. As far as I can tell, if something wasn't well received once, it's not a good idea to attempt a follow up.

In a sense, we are getting non-verbal cues unfortunately however we are not able to process them in time to make use of them during conversation. This leads outsiders to believe that we are missing them entirely.

Strangely though, one thing that I don't often get (and this could be a male thing rather than an aspie thing) is clothes. Unless someone is wearing an interesting pattern, I'll usually have absolutely no idea what they were wearing. It's like my mind drops that as "irrelevant".


Anonymous said…
This is exactly it. I do think we take in the non verbal clues because I do the same - in fact it is a ritual - to go over the conversation again in my head after the event ( I can usually replay the whole thing exactly - shame my memory can do that and not remember to turn off a tap or eat breakfast but such is life. It is during the replay that I notice facial expression. It is at that time that I also realise if I have been rude, abrupt or too opinionated in my approach and chastise myself for hours...

Interestingly, I also don't notice clothes, unless they are a very bright or unusual colour, or are very revealing (which embarasses me). So maybe this IS an Aspie thing rather than a male thing...will have to see what other Aspie women reckon?
Anonymous said…
My experience is a little bit different. If I see nonverbal communication at all, it is so undifferentiated that I simply can't translate it. The only exception is a person's facial expression. If the expression is fairly clear and uncomplicated, I'll usually get that. But mostly, I'm working hard to listen to the words and quickly formulate a response while noticing all the visuals that extend as far as my peripheral vision will go.

Before I discovered AS, I used to replay entire conversations in my mind, just as you're describing. However, I didn't process the nonverbal stuff in my recollection, because I just hadn't registered it. I tended to concentrate on the question of whether I'd said the wrong thing or gone on too long or been rude. I'd replay what I'd said over and over to make sure it was really okay.

Now that I'm diagnosed, I don't replay conversations anymore at all. I generally figure that I'm going to miss some things, be awkward, etc. and that I'm doing the best I can. I'm naturally self-reflective anyway, and doing the replay was very tiring for me.

Oh, and I definitely notice clothes, but then again, I work in a thrift store, so they're kind of on my mind. ;-)
Gavin Bollard said…

That's quite a fundamental difference. You said that you don't notice non-verbals but what about background things? Do you find that you're distracted by anything and everything during conversations? Screen savers, blinking lights etc?
Anonymous said…
Yes, my eyes are constantly taking in everything in the environment--screen savers, carpet colors, pictures on the wall, etc. I don't know if I'm distracted by them so much as I have a deep and abiding need to keep track of them. For me, seeing everything in the background (and on the periphery) is a way of feeling safe and creating order because my senses are so easily overwhelmed.

I also have a deep and abiding love and commitment to words, so while I'm seeing all the visuals, I'm also taking all the words going back and forth very seriously. It's an interesting mix.
I almost ALWAYS miss non-verbal cues because I rarely look at people when I talk to them -- which they, of course, find really weird and disconcerting. Even after a lengthy conversation, I recently realized I often have no idea what the person I just got done talking to looks like, but I can usually describe the room we were in!
Anonymous said…
same here with the clothes. also, hair and stuff. I am face blind as well (not completely - I need to talk to people at least 3 or 4 times before I recognise them in the same situation, and months of daily contact to recognise them in the street).
I was about 25 years old when it finally dawned on me that other do care about what people are wearing.
now I am so happy to be in a country where most people wear uniforms. easy to get it right, you won't mess up, and nobody cares that you are wearing the exact same thing you were wearing last Monday and the Monday before and on all Mondays in the past 3 years.
yes I am a woman. :-)
It's still hard for me to allow for "normals" in my world view. You mean that most people miss the small stimuli, and are more influenced by whether my shoes have been recently polished? That's wierd.

And I've been living with the asperger's diagnosis for nearly five years now. Over five years - frequently seeking out and working with mental health practitioners who pretend to an understanding of aspergers - and I still don't #$???*** understand.

What does it take?
Anonymous said…
This is a great post! The way you explained this makes more sense to me than anything else I've read on this subject.
Angela said…
I read a personal blog the other day where the person writing it firmly believed in order for a person to have aspergers they should not be able to read any non-verbal signs or signals at all.

I was rather irritated by that view point, I must admit. Autism is a spectrum after all. I can imagine that some people with aspergers would be better at picking up on non-verbal signals than others.
ASpieboy said…
I am usally only distracted by the things in the room if it's an strange room, and I'm not comfortable in it, or, if my favourite music is playing etc.

Clothes? What about them?
Anonymous said…
I agreee with pretty much everything.

About clothes - the only time I really notice clothes is when someone is wearing the same thing I am - which, working in a vet clinic and wearing patterned scrubs, happens maybe about once a week.
Khelben said…
Good post.

I have been wondering about a thing here which also affects communication.

I read somewhere in your blog that you wrote: remember I'm deaf.

Have you always been deaf, Gavin?
Gavin Bollard said…
I wasn't born deaf but I lost my hearing shortly before the age of two.

I got a really bad ear infection and my mother took me to a "quack doctor" (I know he was a quack because he also didn't believe in asthma). The doctor gave me an ineffective medication and sent me home.

When I was much worse a day or two later, my mother contacted the Doctor who said "I saw that baby a couple of days ago. Leave it until after the weekend and call me on Monday if the situation hasn't improved".

I'm not sure if I made the whole weekend but by the time I got treatment, the infection had already done a lot of permanent damage. I've got less than 20% hearing in my right ear and about 50% in my left.

It's possible that the aspergers pain tolerance also had a bit to do with the problem being unnoticed as my mother said that I rarely cried.

In fact, there's an amazing photo from about that time with me riding on a bike with my sister. It's very clear that I'm in pain but I'm still playing.
Mike Hanson said…
For me, with regard to non-verbals, the key word here is "notice". I can be keenly aware of them as long as I remember to pay attention to them. In other words, I have the capacity, but it doesn't switch itself on automatically. I have to decide to notice, so to speak.

The flip side of this coin is that when I *do* remember to observe closely, my perceptions and my sense of what the other person is thinking and feeling can be very sharp indeed. I wonder if Mrs Spock and others' hindsight perceptions are also sharper than your average NT-on-the-fly...

(Hello all. This is my first comment to this blog.)
Becca said…
I am learning more everyday about how my husband communicates or rather receives the information differently than I do. Having an Aspie husband helps greatly to understand an Aspie son.

I do have a question though---well, I see that most Aspie's have commented here that they seem to be able to recall everything said and said back. It seems to me when I ask a simple question to my husband or son looking for a summarized simple answer, instead I get a replay word for word exact lengthy answer back. For example, I ask my husband about the tv show he watched and he takes an hour retelling me every line and happening of the show. Or someone asks my son about the book he's reading, and he starts an hour long conversation chapter by chapter of what it is about.

Is this a normal thing too?
Gavin Bollard said…
The aspie memory is quite different from NT memory and the method of recall is very linear. When you ask an aspie about an event or conversation, we have to recall it sequentially. This makes exposition very lengthy (and annoying) for our NT families.

We also have a lot of trouble sorting out the little details from the big picture. To us, they're often one and the same. Ask us to summarize a movie or book and we won't simply cover the plot, we'll include the nuances, red herrings and subtext as well.
Anonymous said…
i took fashion in college which fascinated me (especially textile class) because i had spent the previous 7 years designing these extravagant costumes that would come out of my head. however, i'm almost 30 and still dress like a 14 year-old boy, so i don't think that being "fashionable" or "trendy" (there's a difference) really applies to me.

but yes, i've often been asked if i'm listening because i'm too busy staring at the swirls in the carpet pattern or picking out different shapes that could be animals out of the clouds.
Angela said…
I get the whole linear thinking thing. How about "aspies" who hate long explanations and try their hardest to keep everything short.

Could that be an aspie trait at all or would it just be a temperament thing?
Anonymous said…
I didn't think I noticed more details than anyone else because it's hard to evaluate yourself but I've had enough examples since I've been aware of AS to believe that I do. It's not unusual for me to notice something during a conversation and change the subject temporarily over to that. I usually excuse myself saying, "That's just me. I seem to notice all these little things."

The driving example is interesting. I seem to notice all sorts of things other drivers don't. Maybe that's why I find driving so tiring. Endless change of scenery means endless visual processing which takes a lot of energy.

I also replay conversations especially if I think they may not have gone well. I had one of those today when I ran into a neighbor I don't know well but I needed to ask a small favor. He said he'd think about it and get back to me. Normally I'd just take that at face value and expect to hear back but previous experiences have told me that "thinking about it" may be code for "No" and that I may never hear back. I hope I'm wrong. I tend not to remember facial expressions when replaying but I do remember voice intonations sometimes. Why can't people just give an answer and be done with it? If I tell someone I'll get back to them, I do it. If I have an instant decision, I will tell them. I've learned to try to be diplomatic if the decision is something they'd rather not hear, but I don't just leave them with no answer.

I don't remember clothes either.
Gavin Bollard said…
How about "aspies" who hate long explanations and try their hardest to keep everything short?

I don't think I've ever known an aspie to not want to "talk the ears off" anyone who asks about something related to their special interest.

All other things however, tend to get minimal answers.

Plus of course, aspies tend to hate listening to long explanations themselves (unless they're on a special interest topic).

I'm aware of how hypocritical that sounds - but it's a feeling. You may be able to change the response (and particularly couples in relationships SHOULD) but you can't change the initial feeling itself.
Damo said…
Due to the length of posts, I'll keep mine short.
Your aspie list of environment observation around 5% for me. I pick up everything. Now for social cues. I'm hopeless. I have identified that as a weakness and have begun studying the more subtle cues. It's like a whole different world is there.
Conversation replaying, not really my thing. I do however go over the principles.
Recounting data. Whilst thinking linearly and also grouping I will call on prior experience with that person as to how long the recount is. Typically they want the readers digest version.
Ok here's another way to look at your topic. NT's will look at a coin and see a coin. I see both the coin and the sum of its parts (3). I focus more on the parts than the whole.
I am managed by letting me look at the plans whilst the conversation is occurring. I go rainman on the plans. compile 6 points, interject and refocus again. I'm there but not there.
Anonymous said…
I feel like as an aspie, I have a greater memory capacity but a lesser social capacity
pk said…
Its ages before I begin to recognise ppl out of the environment in which I met them. Find I don’t recognise ppl if they cut their beard off or wear something unusual to them, and never in town,if I’ve only met them a few times, or meet them in a different place to which I met them. I seem to associate certain ppl with certain locations and recognise them only because of where they are, not what their face looks like. Some ppl who are eccentric and wear all the time a certain and noticeable trade mark garment or have a visual feature exclusive to them and no one else, I can recognise out of the environment in which I associate with them.
Training myself to look and sound and express in certain ways, to put across certain things, talking to myself, hearing my voice, looking in the mirror and talking, and trying to practice. Even with practice I didn’t get NORMAL. You see while I can draw upon a number of responses that I know, I spend most my mental energy in the intense assessment of what others MEAN in conversation. This takes a lot of mental energy, its exhausting. Because I learned somewhere along the way, people often mean something different to what they say. If I can figure out what they mean then I can choose, perhaps, an appropriate response. This is much easier when there’s only one person talking to me, The only times I felt like I had any hope of understanding communication was when I was one on one. Its too strenuous and complicated as it is. When there’s a number of people talking, I’ve got next to no chance of keeping up. By keeping up I mean GETTING what’s being said. This is a very anxious situation. When there s just one person they give you the chance to respond and ask questions to clarify what they mean, or to make mistakes in your interpretation and be corrected. It becomes all too much for me, because I don’t understand what’s being said, the spirit in which it’s being said, and often cant follow the conversation. When people say something to me in a group sit, I’ll often look at them with a baffled expression and not know how to respond. Its exhausting keeping an eye on everyones movements and expressions and verbal tone and chosen words and trying to piece all these things together for each individual simultaneously to try and arrive at an understanding of what they may mean. In fact its impossible. And is the reason for my avoiding social situations, parties, groups of people socializing at the shop, visiting people, joining groups (classes), accepting invitations, going to functions.

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