What’s Tone Got to Do with It?

The natural communication style for autistics tends to take a straightforward approach. We know what we want to say, and we say it. But there’s more to communicating than words for non-autistics. Words are just one piece of the puzzle, and the non-verbal communication accompanying a verbal message can significantly influence how others interpret the message.

Autistics’ limited ability to grasp non-verbal communication skills can cause misunderstandings. We cause conflict and lose friendships and jobs, often not realizing why. There are many types of non-verbal communication, but the three types that have been more problematic for me growing up are paralanguage, facial expressions, and eye contact.

My earliest memories specifically address paralanguage, so I’ll start there. I’ll discuss my experience with facial expressions and eye contact in upcoming posts.

Paralanguage, a new term for me despite a long history of being confused by the concept, is the nonverbal qualities such as the natural rise and fall of the voice and tone when speaking. These things can help convey emotions and nuanced meaning behind our verbal message. However, autistics often don’t hear what our voices are doing. Many of us have a flat or monotone delivery or an unusual vocal pattern, often emphasizing sounds unexpectedly.

How many times did people tell you, “It isn’t what you say but how you say it,” as a child?

My parents often said this – or some variation – in my childhood.

I distinctly remember my mother leaning over and whispering in my ear at my birthday party. As I unwrapped my gifts, I’d thank each gift giver. But she’d say, “You don’t have to like the gift, but you do have to convince them that you like it when you say, ‘thank you.’”

I was confused. I liked my gifts. How was it possible that saying thank you meant that I didn’t? But apparently, my “thank you” wasn’t delivered with enough emotion to show my excitement.

Even in my young adult years, as I entered the workplace, coworkers told me several times that I was being rude. I had no idea why because my intention wasn’t to be rude.

I’ve tried my whole life to figure out this “tone of voice” thing, and while I can somewhat figure out other people’s tone of voice and what they mean, I do not know what my tone of voice is doing at any moment in time.

Autistic Science Person

Like many adult autistic women raised not knowing about our autism, I spent a lot of time studying other girls and women around me. I’d practice their sentences and attempt to sound like them. Society expects women to be friendly and have a pleasant voice. To compensate and avoid misunderstandings, I consciously overdo the emotion in my voice. But it feels weird and unnatural. And cheesy. It’s sooooo awkward to me.

Now, I have a checklist in my head as I open gifts. I tell myself to smile and then say, “I LOVE my GIFT!” And follow it with one reason I love the gift – just to emphasize that I love it. As I hear myself say it, it sounds so cheesy and over-the-top. I worry that over-exaggerating the emotion in my voice can be taken as sarcasm or a backhanded insult.

It takes effort and concentration. And I still don’t always get it right. My voice can rise and fall in unusual ways, emphasizing syllables that can confuse others. Autistics can identify tone in other people’s voices but not in our voices as we are speaking. (Sometimes I have to record meetings at work so I can refer back to information presented during the call. I hate listening to myself in recordings because I can pick up the unusual and over-exaggerated sounds in my voice.)

Although facial expressions don’t come naturally to me, I find they are a little more predictable and use them to help emphasize my verbal message and cover up my paralanguage mistakes. (But that’s an article for another day.)

As an autistic, I specialize in hyper-focusing. Once I’m deep into my project, I cannot quickly switch focus. It takes a good minute to do that. If someone interrupts me while I’m hyper-focused and asks a question and I don’t take to reorient my mind, I’ll respond without effort to exaggerate my tone. It’s direct and flat – and apparently, sounding rude or argumentative.

My tone of voice is the most challenging skill to mask. And, quite possibly, the biggest reason I can’t seem to keep most of my friends.

Looking back on my suddenly lost friendships, I wish they’d asked about my intention. There is nothing wrong with asking for clarity. “Hey. I was a little upset by what you just said. Did you mean it to come across as rudely as it sounded to me?”

If you have a coworker or friend who is autistic, please keep this in mind: we don’t know what our voices are doing or not doing. Please give us the benefit of the doubt and listen to our words. We usually say what we mean.

Seeking to understand goes both ways. Too often, autistics are expected to pick up the total weight of adapting to a non-autistic communication style. But it’s a two-way street. 

4 thoughts on “What’s Tone Got to Do with It?

  1. YES. I once heard the obnoxious statistic that communication is something like only 20% what you say and 80% how you say it/body language/etc. We’re screwed from the start!

    This totally explains why Christmas gift-opening was so draining for me in my family…the forced “OMG I LOVE IT!” followed by some detail. Now I spend Christmases alone or with one other person and it’s much better. I’d much rather open a gift alone and write a thank-you card!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wow. If that statistic is correct, we ARE screwed! Sometimes it does feel like a lost cause for autistics. We can educate and bring awareness but will people ever really be able to get past their natural way of communicating with us? Maybe after getting to know us individually but it’s tough to get to that point.

      Liked by 2 people

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